Chapter 23 - Interacting with others

The Internet is a great way to keep in touch with those you know. It also can be a great place to meet new friends, provided that's what you want to do.

Many seniors - my mom for one - prefer to use the Internet only for e-mail and occasional Web surfing. Although AOL's Instant Message feature allows her to chat with people in real time, she doesn't really use it.

"I don't want to sit at the computer and chat," she says. "I prefer to talk to people face to face."

Other seniors, like Judy of Tampa, Fla., find great joy in using chat rooms and online bulletin boards to expand their circle of friends.

When Judy lost her husband some years ago, her online friends "comforted me and kept me going with an interest to bring me back from my despairs," she says. "To be able to talk to someone at 2 a.m. or 3 a.m. just to feel alive again helped me more than any therapy I could hire."

Even if you don't want to make friends with others online, you can use the Internet to participate in discussion with those with similar interests.

Newsgroups

If you have an uncommon hobby or interest that you believe few people share, the Usenet newsgroups might be your savior.

Usenet, which began in 1979, features more than 32,000 forums with such diverse names as alt.tv.brady-bunch and rec.gambling.blackjack. No matter how obscure your interest, you'll likely find a newsgroup on which people are discussing your favorite pastime daily.

"I am addicted to Usenet and the newsgroups," says Darryl. "There is such a wealth of interesting people to 'talk' with every day."

To access the newsgroups, you'll need to know your ISP's news server (typically it's news.something.net). You also might need a user name and password that may or may not be the same as your main logon. AOL users can access newsgroups by typing the keyword "newsgroups."

Outlook and Thunderbird have built-in news readers, so you won't need any additional software. After you update the master list of groups and find one of interest, you have to subscribe. (It's really not as much of a commitment as it sounds. It's free, and all it means is that you're marking this group on your own computer. No information is sent to the group.)

Once you're browsing a group, the software works similarly to e-mail, except every message sent goes to the group not to an individual user. You download new postings to view the latest messages.

If you intend on spending a lot of time on the newsgroups, you might want to consider Forte Inc.'s Agent software. It's much better than the free ones and it's only $29.

Bulletin boards

Before the Internet was brought to the masses, bulletin boards (or BBSs) were the places to go to participate in discussions and exchange files. You'd call into a local BBS to connect with others in your area.

Today, nearly all bulletin boards have migrated to the Web, and participating in an online forum is now as simple as going to a site and jumping in.

Once you find a site of interest with a bulletin board, you can browse and post messages right from your Web browser.

SeniorNet (www.seniornet.org) has a great collection of bulletin boards it calls SeniorNet RoundTable Discussions on topics ranging from genealogy to computers.

Bulletin boards are often organized like folders, with one folder representing a topic with lots of messages inside. The messages are organized in "threads," meaning responses to an original message will be grouped under the main message so discussions stay organized.

Mailing lists

Mailing lists offer another way to converse with a group sharing a similar interest.

For a searchable directory of more than 7,000 mailing lists, check out L-Soft's catalog of nearly 50,000 lists. To subscribe to a mailing list, you'll have to send an e-mail to a list's automated address with something like

subscribe listname Firstname Lastname

in the body.

For example, to subscribe to NetGuide, an AOL hosted Weekly Features/Events Update, send an e-mail to listserv@listserv.aol.com with the command "SUBSCRIBE NETGUIDE" in the body of the message.

You'll then receive a welcome message saying you're subscribed to the group. Save it! Print it! It contains information on how to subscribe that will be important if you decide to leave.

While some mailing lists have little traffic with maybe an e-mail a day, others could clog your inbox with as many as 100 a day. That might seem great at first, but it can be bothersome if you go away for the weekend and return to 300 e-mails to browse! If you're inundated with e-mails, check to see if the list you're interested in offers a digest version, in which you'll receive fewer e-mails at regular intervals containing multiple messages.

If you want to start your own free email group, try Yahoo! Groups (groups.yahoo.com).

Instant Messaging

If you want to talk with friends and family in "real time," computer speak for live conversation, messenger software is the way to go. There are three major players here:

  • ICQ: This is the originator of the genre. ICQ, created by a small Israeli company in 1996 but now owned by AOL, now boasts more than 50 million registered users. Once you download the free software from and sign up, you're given a unique 6- to 10-digit ID number. Its original use was for sending real-time typed messages, but you can now use voice chat, send files and play games on the service as well.
  • AOL Instant Messenger: This program, also called AIM, is popular because it allows those with ISP connections to converse with other AIM users, as well as the more than 20 million AOL subscribers. Most exchange typed messages, but the service can also be used to send photos, pictures and sounds and play games.
  • MSN Messenger: Microsoft's messaging software works similar to the others, offering both text and voice chat, the ability to send pictures and sounds and play games.
  • Google Talk: Google's messaging software offers text and voice chat and the ability to send files.

All of the above allow you to create a "buddy list" by typing in the IDs of your friends and family members. You'll be notified when they sign on and sign off.

The best way to decide on which of these to use is to find out what your friends and family are using.

Chat

Unlike messaging software, which offers real-time, one-to-one communication, chat rooms are virtual arenas that can be inhabited by two people or hundreds of users, all "talking" at the same time.

Each person takes on a nickname (similar to an old CB handle) that becomes his or her moniker in that room. Because you don't have to use your real name, there is a certain bit of anonymity here. When you type something, everyone in the room sees it. Most chat rooms also allow you to send private messages to attendees that can't be seen by everyone else.

The major online services offer chat rooms accessible only by their members. Sites such as Yahoo! offer Web-based chat rooms accessible by anyone with a Net connection. Yahoo! features a wide array of chat rooms with such titles as College Football, Model Builders, Wine Lovers, and Harry Potter.

Before Web-based chat became prevalent, those subscribing to ISPs used Internet Relay Chat (or IRC) to converse. IRC is still going strong, and you can download the free mIRC program to access IRC servers.

Some chat rooms are moderated, meaning one person is keeping the attendees on task. Most are unmoderated, which means you might have to weed through dozens with inappropriate content before you find one of use.

NEXT - Chapter 24 - Play it safe