The Computer as Writing Assistant

Newsgroups, Discussion Groups, and MOOs

The internet can liberate you, the solitary writer at work in the library carrel or at the kitchen table, and put you in touch with a global community of people with similar interests. Ultimately, the hard work of writing will come back to rest with you, at the kitchen table, but with high-speed computers and high-speed modem hookups the pursuit of information and ideas has taken on new dimensions. Recently, a student's question asked online to an e-mail discussion group about the symphonies of Camille Saint-Saëns, received over a dozen responses — one from an astronomer in Toronto, one from an avid listener in New Zealand, one from a Harvard musicologist in Boston. Time zones are more limiting than geography with the internet, and even time melts away with people staying up all night in their chat rooms and reading their newsgroups.

A newsgroup is like an online bulletin board. When you have a question or an observation you want to make, you simply write it and post it to the newsgroup. Anyone who wants to subscribe to the newsgroup can then read your note and respond to it — either to the group collectively or to you personally, if you prefer that. There are thousands of newsgroups for people of virtually all interests and they are great fun.

Some cautions: (1) It is a good idea to read the postings of a newsgroup for a week or more before posting an inquiry. Although the great majority of people who frequent a newsgroup are helpful and neighborly, there are some who get upset when a question is asked that is inappropriate for that group. Don't ask a question that you should have found an answer to in a dictionary or encyclopedia, and don't ask a question thinking that people are going to help you do your homework. (2) Occasionally, you will come across a rip-roaring argument in these groups. They're called "flame wars," and they can get nasty. Don't get involved. If someone "flames" you, ignore the message. In a short time, cooler heads will prevail and happier moods will return. (3) It's a good idea not to get too personal with people you meet through a newsgroup. It's possible to create a persona in cyberspace that has nothing to do with reality. People do meet on the web and make fast, real, life-long friends, so it is not something to take lightly, but be at least as careful in your virtual life as you are in real life.

An e-mail discussion group is similar to a newsgroup except that you subscribe to the group and postings are mailed to your e-mail account on a regular or constant basis. If you don't attend to your e-mail account regularly, you probably should avoid e-mail discussion groups. The traffic they generate can be overwhelming.

Usually, the first message you receive when you subscribe to an e-mail listserve is a notice telling you how to unsubscribe from the group. Keep this message in a safe place because getting off these groups can become urgent when you discover four hundred messages in your e-mail box and you can't figure out how to get off the mailing list. Again, read the postings for a week or so before you jump into the waters yourself. "Newbies" are welcome, but you don't want to look silly or stupid, either.

The best way to discover the joys and frustrations of newsgroups and e-mail listserves is to join one or two. Although it is not necessary to use the World Wide Web for either, there are services on the Web that allow for easy subscription and manipulation of messages. For newsgroups, visit, and for e-mail groups, visit Deja News. Both services can be personalized and both are free. You'll have to experiment with each service before you can take full advantage of their features, but the process should be fun.

Be careful about using information that you find through newsgroups and listserves in a formal, academic paper. Your resources must have scholarly integrity, and the information you get on the internet this way is always suspect. Still, these resources can offer ideas that help you explore and discover ideas in more trusted places and that is always helpful. See the Guide for Writing Research Papers and click on "Electronic, Online Resources" for assistance in documenting information that you discover through newsgroups and e-mail discussion groups.

Unlike newsgroups and discussion groups, MOOs are synchronous. (A MUD is a "Multi-User Domain"; a MOO is a MUD, Object Oriented. But don't worry about the definition.) In the groups, you can submit a query at noon and perhaps no one will even look at it until six o'clock and maybe no one will bother to respond until the following morning. Depending on the level of traffic in a group, you might not get any feedback on your question for a few days, and maybe you never will. Newsgroups, then, are asynchronous, not dependent on time. When you enter a MOO, on the other hand, you may discover that no one is there just then, which means there is no one to talk to. If someone is "there," however, you can engage in conversation with one person or several people, "in real time." Depending on the population of this particular MOO, you might end up talking with people from all over the globe. Some universities are creating learning spaces within the MOO where students from other institutions (including high schools) can talk about their papers with graduate students at the university.

Once you get used to navigating in a MOO, you can learn the commands to create physical attributes for the "character" you inhabit in this piece of cyberspace and you can create a "room" which your character can decorate to his or her heart's content. It isn't hard to take up a happy residence in a MOO, and it gets easier all the time. Until recently, MOOs have been rich in imagination but rather sparse in graphic embellishment. With faster modems and faster computers, however, some MOOs are beginning to use graphics and icons the same way they're used on the World Wide Web.

MOOs are great fun, but they are also extremely useful as online environments for discussion and learning. Classroom teachers are discovering that students who normally don't participate in discussion lose their inhibitions and engage in the life of the MOO classroom with great enthusiasm.

Although there are many places online where you can learn about MOOs, we recommend "More About MOOs," from MOOLANO, the MOO at the University of California, Berkeley. There are connections from that web-page to several academic and social MOOs as well as hyperlinks to papers on the academic uses of MOOs.

We're leaving out of this discussion the major component of the internet, the World Wide Web, which has rapidly become a major resource of information. We recommend that you read the introductory material for our Academic Resources on the World Wide Web, in particular those hyperlinked documents that discuss judging the scholarly integrity of web-sites. Remember that you are entirely responsible for giving proper credit to any resource from which you borrow ideas or language. Check the Guide to Writing Research Papers for proper format. And remember this above all: the internet is no substitute for a real library and the professional librarians who work there!

"Computer as Writing Assistant

Principles of Composition

Guide to Grammar and Writing