Online community-building services need to get creative...and fast!

Ahhh - sociology class.

Lazy summer days spent staring wistfully at the pretty girl in the corner, while a professor passionate about his subject tried to drill the intricacies of social communication into our weak and feeble minds.

And though his words never rang true at the time, it seems that man is a social animal. How else would you explain the sudden spurt in the number of online communities, which have been mushrooming like nobody's business over the past few months?

For those of you new to the concept of online communities, an explanation may be in order - an online community, as the name suggests, is a forum for like-minded individuals from all over the world to "meet" and communicate on topics of common interest, hold discussions, make announcements and conduct group events, via the Internet.

And unlike what we were taught in sociology class, this community is more virtual than physical - most of it's members have never met each other in real life, and probably never will.

Most online communities offer members a wide variety of features - online chat, a bulletin board, an email address, access to archived discussions, member statistics, online polls, bookmarks and so on. And creating an online community of your own has never been easier - most of the big online players offer users the ability to create their own virtual discussion forum in three easy steps:

Register with the service [free!].

Select the section most appropriate for your community, and state it's primary focus.

Create the community, and begin populating it by telling everyone you know [not to mention strangers you meet in the bus] about it.

And so, this week, we thought it would be appropriate to take a close and critical look at what the various online services have to offer. While most major portal sites do offer this feature, we've confined our review to the best of the best, the top of the pops, and the creme de la creme [we know, we know - you wouldn't have it any other way, would you?!]

Allons...

Deja.com http://www.deja.com

Deja.com - previous known as DejaNews - has long been the best way to search USENET newsgroups for Italian recipes, American nuclear secrets and Cindy Crawford pictures - not to mention everything in between ;-). And Deja Communities is, quite simply, the best service of its kind on the Web!

Now, a sweeping statement like that should usually be accompanied by some hard proof. So here's a list of just what makes a Deja Community so special:

Announcements: Make important announcements to community members

Discussion groups: Create a forum for members to post their views, or link to any of the other Deja forums.

Bookmarks: Create and maintain a list of bookmarks, accessible to all community members. Hell - community members can even add to it!

Notepad: For all those times when you just need to leave a quick note...

Whiteboards: Absolutely perfect for collaborative projects!

Online polls: Conduct an online survey, and display results in real-time.

Chat: Interactive, browser-based chat comes stock with each and every community.

Mailing list: Reach out to every member of your community with email.

Customized Web address: Every community gets an easy-to-remember URL of the form http://www.deja.com/~communityname.

Member and community statistics: Tells you everything you need to know about community members, moderators and founders.

We liked this service so much that we're using it for the LUST forum. If you'd like to see what all the fuss is about, drop by and check it out sometime!

YAHOO! CLUBS http://clubs.yahoo.com

Yet another Yahoo! service [is there anything these guys aren't into?], Yahoo! Clubs lets you set up an online community for your friends, family or business colleagues. And since this service is integrated with other Yahoo! services, you can access your email, calendar and address book from a single, unified interface.

Here's what they have to offer:

Message boards: Post and read messages and news online.

Photos: Yup - an opportunity for you to put your ugly mug online. Just don't scare all the pretty girls away ;-)

Mailing lists: Send email to all club members.

Web links: An easy-to-access bookmark list.

Address book and calendar: A common address book and calendar allows members to share personal information, schedules and email addresses. Think collaboration.

News: Customized news headlines and stock quotes.

Chat rooms: Browser-based chat for all club members.

And of course, you get an easy-to-remember Web address. Who could ask for more?

EXCITE COMMUNITIES http://www.excite.com/communities

The second portal on our list, Excite Communities are pretty good too. Community services are well-integrated with other portal services like email and chat, although we found Yahoo!'s integration to be a tad better.

Here's what Excite has to offer the community-builder:

Announcements: A community bulleting board to post important announcements.

Messages: Members can send each other personal messages from within the community.

Discussions: Forums for community members.

Calendar: An online scheduling tool to list appointments, holidays and other events.

Contact lists: Share personal information with other community members.

Photo albums and file sharing: Share photos and files with community members.

Member profiles: Find out more about community members, and invite people to join your community.

There are numerous other services out there offering similar features - however, we found the that the three listed above possessed the most features, and were the most user-friendly of the lot.

And before we go, we thought we'd point you to some of the communities we frequent on Deja.com. Try them out sometime - we promise you won't be disappointed.

deja.comm.lust - The Linux Users Survival Toolkit

deja.comm.lust.hitg - Forum for your views on all HITG products and services

dejanews.comm.theanswerguy - General discussion of hardware and software problems

dejanews.comm.mp3world - Discussion of MP3 technology and tracks

alt.comp.virus - Computer virus attacks

alt.os.linux - Linux lovers

linux.redhat.misc - Red Hat Linux specific issues

comp.lang.javascript - The JavaScript scripting language

comp.lang.perl - The Perl scripting language

dejanews.comm.3divisions - Computerized art

rec.arts.books - Books

There are a million more out there - all you need to do is look. And while you're occupied with that, we'll say goodbye. Till next time - stay healthy!

This article was first published on 30 Apr 1999.