There are a number of different alternatives available if you have a group of people where you want the members of the group to be able to hold group discussions online. Which of the alternatives is the best for your particular group depends in part on the nature of the group and in part on whether you also have web hosting and what options that hosting provides.
Here I am going to discuss three different alternatives that are significantly different from one another. Any other alternatives will be somewhat similar to one or two of the options discussed.
The first option is to set up an email group on a service such as Yahoo Groups. With such a group each email sent to the group is available for all of the other members of the group to read. Each member of the group chooses whether to receive individual emails, a regular digenst email that contains either a set number of emails or all the emails sent for the day, or can go online and read the emails on the group itself.
Email groups such as this rely on the members giving their emails an appropriate subject line so that those members not interested in certain subjects can press the delete key to skip over the communications they are not interested in. These groups also have the disadvantage that because they are being provided free by a third party that the emails may also contain ads and other things not under the control of the group members.
The big advantages of such a group (or equivalent groups on services provided by Microsoft or Google) are the other features of the service such as a file upload/download area and photo galleries that may mean that the group gets everything it requires from the service itself without requiring web hosting of their own.
The second option worth considering if you do have web hosting is to install a similar email sharing service that runs via your own site. One open source script called Mailman provides very similar email group facilities to that of Yahoo with group members able to get individual or digest emails or to simply read the online archive.
Having this on your own hosting means that you can integrate the service more with whatever else you have on your web site. Also because you are hosting it yourself you have complete control over what appears in the emails.
The disadvantages of this approach compared to using an external service such as Yahoo include such things as your having to pay for the web hosting (although this cost will be relatively minor and for many groups that already have a web site it is something they already pay for). This script also doesn't provide the other features such as file upload and photo gallery and so you'd need to install additional scripts to provide that additional functionality. Perhaps the biggest disadvantage to this option is that many hosting providers place fairly low limits on the number of emails that can be sent and so such a hosting account would not be able to handle a large group where a lot of the members wish to receive individual emails.
The third option that some groups consider is that instead of sending emails that they handle everything online using a forum instead. Forum scripts generally include file upload and image display functionality so that a forum would be able to substitute for both the emails and the file and photo services all at once. There are significant differences between the various forum scripts though. While phpBB and vBulletin may look the same on the front end.they are very different behind the scenes for those who are actually moderating the forum. The better control that vBulletin provides is well worth the price that you have to pay for it as compared to free forum software that is much harder to moderate effectively.
Perhaps the biggest disadvantages of using forum software instead of emails are firstly that everyone needs to go to the online forum in order to see what has been added rather than just getting the information in their in box. Also a forum only really allows the content to be subdivided in one way. Since most subjects can be subdivided in at least three or so different ways, the subdivision into different topics may make it harder rather than easier to find those posts that are of interest.
So which of these alternatives should you choose? Well it depends on the type of group that you haveand the sorts of discussions that you expect. Some topics are better suited to one of these approaches than they are to the others. It is well worth considering which way is most appropriate at the very start though since once you have established your group to work in a particular way, any decision to change to a different alternative will be a big step that is certain to upset a number of the group members and could result in your losing a significant fraction of your group.
This article written by Stephen Chapman, Felgall Pty Ltd.