Magazine article Online

The Best Places to Live Online

Magazine article Online

The Best Places to Live Online

Article excerpt

The preceding article by Matthew J. Rapaport, describes many of the pros and cons of "living online" in a computer teleconferencing environment. This concept first captured searchers' collective imagination at ONLINE 89 in Chicago, where Steve Cisler of Apple Computer proposed the idea of a universal 1 searchers' bulletin board." Patent searchers already had their forum on DIALOG; some local online users groups were experimenting with bulletin boards hosted by one or more of their members; other information specialists were using consumer-oriented systems like CompuServe or GEnie to participate in support groups for particular computer hardware or software packages; some technically-oriented users hung out on BIX; academic, corporate and government librarians had access to USENET, BITNET, and the even more vast Internet of which those networks are a part. People were talking - some of them on several levels at once.

A single centralized conference for online searchers still has not emerged, but the last 18 months or so has seen a rise in the number of information professionals participating, whether sporadically or regularly, in one or more conferencing systems. At ONLINE/CD-ROM'90, Barbara Quint renewed the call for a searchers' bulletin board, suggesting that GEnie, which recently introduced an attractive flat-rate pricing scheme, might be the service of choice. GEnie is already host to at least one active, ongoing discussion of database sources and search techniques.

What actually goes on in computer conferences like these? For one thing, they're a lot more interactive than the term "bulletin board" might imply, and they're often more fun and freewheeling than the word "conference" would lead you to believe. In any given teleconference, you might find novice searchers asking about online sources and search techniques, experienced users debating the reliability of a particular database, or industry insiders exchanging gossip and job leads. Computer conferences have given me useful background information for writing and consulting assignments, and though overt commercial solicitation is frowned on in most conferencing systems, they have brought me new clients, too.

Some of the most interesting conversational 'threads" are metadiscussions about the medium itself: its potential for the direct and rapid exchange of ideas and information; online etiquette; how to circumvent the problems that arise in "narrow bandwidth" conversations compared with face-to-face ones; why one system "feels" so different from another.


How a computer conferencing system feels" - admittedly, a subjective criterion - is critical to attracting users, to keeping them there, and to encouraging them to participate rather than lurk" silently, reading but never responding. Though I've spent time in or seen demos of several teleconferences, most of my experience has been limited to two, CompuServe and The WELL. Each has its distinctive character. Information professionals are especially active in The WELL's Info conference and in two sections of the Work from Home forum on CompuServe. (One of these sections is public, and the other is reserved for members of the Association of Independent Information Professionals.) I check into both systems, often several times a day, but despite my regular participation, the time I spend on CompuServe feels like just what it is, reading and answering my mail, a duty I must do before it gets too far ahead of me. The WELL, on the other hand, is like hanging out at the water cooler, exchanging news, views, and banter with friends and colleagues, a more organic" process, if you will. This contrast holds true, despite the fact that I know, like, respect and have met, face-to-face, many of the people I interact with on CompuServe.

Why the difference? Much of it has to do with that sense of place. The WELL retains entire conversations, or topics, often for several years. …

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