Sunday, April 24, 2011

Online Discussion Groups - A Total Waste of Time?

Online discussion groups, like this Buddist group shown above, can be real time-bandits, if you let them.  They also can be chock full of misinformation and bad data.

From the earliest days of the Internet, discussion groups flourished.  At first, these were called "newsgroups" and were accessed using an ASCII-type interface, instead of a website.  Most were un-moderated and un-monitored, and very quickly an Internet etiquette developed.

If arguments developed online, people could get into "Flame wars" - exchanges of nasty arguments.  Others would try to start such arguments or post phoney questions, and these were quickly labeled "Trolls".

The worst breach of etiquette was SPAM - a term derived from a Monty Python bit (most of the Internet slang from those days was nerd-talk).  Once people started Spamming newsgroups (inserting advertisements for fake Rolex watches or online porn sites) the newsgroups went away - drowning in a sea of SPAM.

They still exist, of course, but few people go on them anymore, since they are clogged with SPAM.  Online websites that host newsgroups started to flourish, and many popular sites have discussion groups - everything from eBay to Vonage, to Woot!, to Snopes, to, well, whatever.  And there are hobby discussion groups and professional discussion groups on everything from Patents, to electrical wiring, to questions of law, to sewing, to cars, to collecting porcelain figurines.  If there is a specialty, chances are there are multiple website discussion groups that focus on it.

The problem with these discussion groups is that they quickly devolve into an online "hangout" for "regulars" who are, well, pathetically lonely people who have no real friends.  Like the pedophiles who lurk in chat groups (Lurking being another bit of discussion group lingo) these folks have no real life offline. Instead, they spend hours online, often patrolling these various discussion groups, oftentimes just to shout down any newcomer, start a flame war, or just chat back and forth with their friends.

So a discussion group about Hummel Figurines quickly becomes a twitter-like chat group between a few online virtual "friends" who exchange short messages, cute "sig blocks" and other non-Hummel related stuff.  And if you go on there to ask about your Mother's collection that you just inherited, chances are you will be slammed and insulted and shouted down.

Which is no big deal, as the people shouting you down are basically cowards and computer nerds. 

But it illustrates that these types of groups can be real time-wasters and often not a source of good information - although they might steer you in a direction.

For example, with computer problems, searching on the symptoms or error message often leads to a discussion group where people are talking about a related problem.  I recently had this problem with my hard drive.

I found a discussion group, and the majority of people reporting the same symptoms seemed to think it was in the hard drive (which turned out to be the correct answer).  But many others would quite vigorously "shout down" others and say it was something else.  There were as many false leads as true ones, and you have to sort of play "Internet Detective" to figure out what is really going on.

And that is the problem with group-think or the Wiki as the Hawaiians like to call it.  Group experiences can be valid, or the can be totally wrong.  The folks in Jonestown, Guyana, for example, all bought into the group-think and literally drank the Kool-Aide.

Another problem is, of course, that the evil people in the world have figured out that these discussion groups are often a source of consumer referrals, and as a result have started shilling on these boards.

One way to do this is to set up a fake "consumer evaluation" board that has people saying wonderful things about odious websites and they might even put in a couple of "negative" reviews, just to make it look legitimate - but make the negative reviews look ridiculous.

Another way is to just shill on existing discussion group sites to create a buzz for your product.  Young kids like to go on car sites to talk about "mods" for their cars, and not surprisingly, the car accessory makers go on the same sites to talk up their products - but not in advertisements, but in seemingly innocent messages on a board.  "Oh, I just bought an XYZ cold air intake and it is da bomb!"

This all may seem innocent enough, but it illustrates how the Internet has taken television to the next level, to some extent - and how you should be aware and wary of this.  As an interactive media, there are far more opportunities to market products to you.  In addition to advertisements (the oldest form of persuasion, and least persuasive) there are product placements, viral videos, shill postings, and untold other ways of getting a product onto your radar.

Facebook has taken this to a whole new level - getting people to "like" chain restaurants, major corporations, or products.  It is utter genius (evil genius, but genius nevertheless) to get people to turn themselves into advertisements for the products!

The other thing that is genius (again, evil) is that Facebook took the part of discussion groups that a lot of people seem to like - the chatty part with virtual online "friends" where you basically exchange banalities, code-words, buzzwords, or whatever, in short messages, just to validate each others existence - and made the centerpiece of Facebook.

Both Facebook and Twitter are discussion groups, but without any fixed topic.  Or should I say, they are both discussion groups where the topic is nothing.  And that panders to the type of person who goes onto the genealogy discussion group not to talk genealogy, but to say "hey, Rose, glad to see you back, where have you been?"  That may be interesting to some, but it ain't a discussion of genealogy.

And of course, there is demographic data harvesting, which is the big deal - finding out what you like or don't like, based on what you search for, what you type, what sites you visit - and then selling you things based on those likes.

And yes, while I digress yet again, the point is, a seemingly innocent "newsgroup" or discussion group can be utterly fake, spammed, or shilled, to the point where the veracity of information is always suspect.  Even Wikipedia (or should I say, especially Wikipedia) is prone to this form of self-serving type of subtle advertising under-the-radar.  And yes, they have discussion groups as well.

I find myself visiting discussion groups less and less these days.  It certainly isn't worth it to contribute "content" to a site that gets paid advertisements.  What is in it for me?  Moreover, it is not worth it to make a contribution, only to get a one sentence reply from someone with a "handle" name (like on the old CB Radio) like "CoMpUtEr gUy" basically calling you names.  What's the point?

I spend more time on my blog here, I guess, which is another time-waster.  But I like to write, and writing, like any other skill, gets better the more you do it.  And I think my writing skills have improved by writing more.  Or at least I like to think so.   And unlike a discussion group, there are no ads on this blog (or there shouldn't be, as I have not monetized it) and moreover, I don't have to deal with moronic, insulting comments.  They just get deleted.

And I guess the other problem with discussion groups is that there are so many of them, that to visit even a few of them with regularity consumes an inordinate amount of your time.  For any given topic, chances are, there are a half-dozen to a dozen discussion groups out there - which one do you go to?  Which one has the best information?  Which one is a waste of time?

The conclusion I am reaching is, well, all of them are.