In our capitalistic society, it seemed inevitable that commercial services would happen in the realm of computer mediated communications. Services such as Prodigy, America Online, and CompuServe hope to cash in on the market, even more so today with all the hoopla and media hype of the "Information Superhighway". These on-line services make their money by providing colorful, easy to use, network access to a wide array of services that would allow even the most computer-inept person to gather information and communicate with others via computer "bulletin boards" or chat features. Of course, you get all this and ads, ads, ads, too. Prodigy, the online service that can proudly boast two million subscribers (and growing) is probably at the top of the list in the quest for dollars in the online game. Everytime a person is logged on to the Prodigy network a least one fourth of the screen is advertisements for cars, music clubs, computer software, and so on. In contrast, the mother of all on-line services, the Internet, is a place where one can obtain worldwide access/information and communication without the commerciality that seems to be infiltrated everywhere else in life--television, magazines, billboards- even some guy on the street corner passing out pizza coupons. People over the Net pride themselves over the fact that no one controls them. They are the academics, researchers, computer-science/engineers, government workers, and college students who log on the Net solely for debate, recreation, school, work and not to be sold something. Can there be differences in the types of conversations between people over these two different services? What can be said about their contrasting interfaces?
I, myself have been a Prodigy subscriber for the past year now and an new Internet user for only the past 2 months. It is interesting to me to find the differences between the two computer networks in operation and in the conversations between users. More so because I have found that I have gained more knowledge from the Internet in the relatively short time I have been using it. In this paper, I shall focus primarily on the communication along the networks through comparing and contrasting Prodigy's bulletin boards and the equivalent newsgroups on the Internet. First, I will describe briefly my observations on the interfaces and design (and lack of) between the two networks. Second, I will compare the technical format of the bulletin boards and newsgroups. Next, by sharing my own experiences reading and communicating on both Prodigy and the Internet, I hope to describe what differing forms of content in messages and postings say about the people who use the respective services. Finally, I hope to conclude by examining the virtual community aspect of both on-line networks.
The Internet. There really is no design or interface to it. Basically when a user first logs on, he/she sees a prompt. Where is a person to go? How can one find what's out there? The average person, one of the many technically inept beings that makes up most of the population, needs to be told what choices are available and what direction to go. They need the easy use of the mouse which they use to point and click on to wherever they want to go. The first screen you get when you're logged on to Prodigy is comparable to something like reading the front page of USA Today. They have the headlines of the top three or four stories, a handy colorful graph or pie chart (which USA Today seemed to make famous), and its content index, ten in all, in rainbow colored boxes listed on the right (This is true for each content heading screen also). And who can miss the vivid ad below the screen? Compared to Prodigy, the Internet is just plain bland. The Internet is like the PBS of computer communications while servers like Prodigy try to flash around like MTV
Prodigy has about forty different bulletin boards each containing up to thirty topics. It was easy to find them because they are all listed under the bulletin board box in the Communications subject screen and when you click there you are presented with a few choices. You could either search bulletin boards by subject A-Z or topic A-Z, and you can always use the "jump" command where you can type in the specific keyword to go somewhere a lot faster. The boards themselves seem to be constantly updated for easier use about every two to three months. Just a week ago, a message was on my screen informing me of the new bulletin board setup that was automatically being download in just six minutes (uncharged time)! Naturally, I was excited because now I could read and search messages faster. When the new screen appeared, I noticed the new colored borders and boxes where I can easily go back to the menu to search other messages by just clicking on them. Its ease lies in the fact that you can change the date to as current as the present day and hour for new messages or you can set the date back as far as about a month for older ones. As you read messages, a a small row of buttons line the bottom where you can click to read responses to the message, reply to the message, reply by e-mail to the message, move to the next subject, and the other options button. I have to admit, its format is a lot easier to use now and probably will attract me to use Prodigy's bulletin boards more often.
Contrastly, on the Internet it was very difficult to find newsgroups to subscribe to. I scanned WIRED magazine for ideas and also decided to ask other classmates what newsgroups they subscribed to. A few days later I found a way to trn special topics (i.e. trn -q college would list all newsgroups with the word "college in them). When I did get into the newsgroup, I found it overwhelming because there were so many postings. For example, when I entered the alt.college.soc newsgroup there were over one thousand messages. It took longer to filter through the whole list to see what the topics were. I had never really read other newsgroups except the ones for my classes so it was really surprising to see so many responses to just one question/posting. There were no boxes to click to, I had to know the right command buttons in order to get to the thread list, to read, and to post. The good part of the format of newsgroups was that I could read from the header of the message, where the person was from, what school they went to or where they worked. It made me better able to know what kind of perspective the person was giving by just the fact of his/her geographic location.
Newsgroups had much better content and variety in their messages. I found that they were much longer and more articulate than the average three or four sentenced Prodigy message. There can be different reasons for this. For one, the Prodigy bulletin board screen seems to deter people from writing more than one screenful, which is less than two thirds a computer monitor screen. Secondly, perhaps it is the fact that Prodigy users are allotted only two hours of bulletin board use, after which they are charged $3.60 an hour. Also, the unique newsgroup only feature of forwarding messages from other newsgroups brought in different perspectives from "outsiders".
In one case, I found it quite interesting in the alt.tv.seinfeld (my favorite TV show) that people really examined the issues that the show addressed. Maybe they were too deep, like one man writing about the fact that Jerry Seinfeld eating the black/white cookie was a great representation of racial harmony in the country. He went on detailing how Seinfeld took particular bites and what they meant! It was quite amusing to me to see people take such a literary interpretation over a TV sitcom, especially the TV sitcom "Seinfeld" who praises itself on the fact that it is a show about the "art of nothingness". There is much less interpretation over the Prodigy TV BB-Seinfeld topic. Probably due to the fact that many of the conversations of "Seinfeld" over Prodigy are by thirteen year-old teenagers and over the Net, they were mostly working professionals and college students.
I did find age discrepancy a problem over at Prodigy. In many of the entertainment/social bulletin boards, they seemed to be a haven for young teens to chat and pick up one another (Even worse at America Online). The college topic is misplaced in the Teen BB and conversations there become mixed with high schoolers, even junior high kids, trying to mix in with the college crowd. It is therefore no surprise that certain issues (i.e. campus politics, dorms, date rapes ) that are raised can be trivialized or misunderstood by younger respondents. (Rumor has it the topic may finally be moved to another board-possibly education?) On the other hand, I liked the alt.college.soc newsgroup so much better because it was a forum where only college students gathered and discussed their university/career goals/college life/etc. without being interrupted by a sixteen year-old asking about SAT test-taking tips.
The newsgroup that seemed the most unique is the alt.wired newsgroup which combines good humor, computer know-how, and politics all in the name of one special magazine. I found that there were lots of interesting discussions going on about articles I had read in the magazine and it was informative to get other people's perspective, opinions, and background knowledge on the pieces. Interestingly, more people tended to criticize its subscription service and its move towards commercialization. There is nothing comparable of this newsgroup to any other on Prodigy. They do have a Internet BB, but the conversations are limited to just the technical or general questions and not ones of the WIRED nature.
Another plus for newsgroups is the fact that there are more people willing and able to respond to questions. I remember doing research for a Mass Communications paper last semester and used Prodigy to post a message on the TV BB--TV News topic in the hopes of getting lots of different feedback. In three weeks, I only had three responses, two of them were from the same person. It just conveys the impression that over the Internet with its millions of users and their highly professional/academic background that responses would just pour in, at least more than three anyway.
Nonetheless, Prodigy does appear to create more of a community atmosphere than the Internet. There is a certain intimacy over Prodigy users that I find different than on the newsgroups. Particularly in the fact that because the service of Prodigy is so easy to use, you tend to find people who aren't technologically inclined who use the service more so as a social tool to make friends and converse. I remember a free New Year's BB in January which had for one of the first time, people of all ages coming together talking about their life and different experiences. I found to my surprise a lot of responses from senior citizens thanking Prodigy for making their lonely lives more meaningful. Most of them were widows/widowers, who had lost hope in the real world and then found enjoyment in conversations on-line in the Seniors BB talking about their similar situations. The rare thing was that it became this experience where people of all ages were celebrating the New Year by reminiscing, joking, crying, and laughing. It really got emotional. It seemed like everyone around the country was getting to really know each other. This is probably due to the fact that the number of people that frequently visit bulletin boards on Prodigy is relatively small in comparison to newsgroups, that there is a closer sense of community and friendship on Prodigy. I know that in the Seinfeld board there is a club where everyone can pick a character or funny word from the show and that would be their signature name. So when they post their various messages to the board they always sign as their character "Jerry" or "Kramer", etc. People addressed responses to each other as friends more frequently, or have met each other or sent pictures of themselves to their virtual friends. Prodigy just seems more intimate and closely knit.
In conclusion, I must say that my observations of the Internet newsgroups have unfortunately reflected the fact that my knowledge is limited. I can only say that with continual participation and usage of Internet newsgroups, I will probably find numerously more intriguing aspects of virtual communities among them because I am presently so new to most of the groups. I do however, stand in favor over the content of newsgroup messages for their information over those of Prodigy. They are frequently more articulate and quite frankly contain some of the most humorous, brilliant, opinionated material I've ever read. Yes, Prodigy may be commercial and lacking in depth using both of these networks, I have found the best of both worlds.