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FAQs: Collective Knowledge Gathering

By Howard Rheingold

The Usenet is an unruly swarm of ongoing public discussions that blast along around the clock among thousands of people in over a hundred countries, via worldwide computer networks. For some enthusiasts, reading and writing Usenet "postings" is a way of life. Usenet can be a home away from home, a substitute for having a life, a source of profound support, a goldmine of timely information, and/or a colossal waste of time. Usenet can be a useful reference tool in practically any field, but only if you know how to find useful knowledge buried in a sea of trivia.

Usenet discussions, known as "newsgroups," encompass thousands of different topics. The group conversation, in the form of messages and replies, travels from computer to computer. People who want to participate in a discussion send their contributions from their desktops to others around the world via a publicly-readable form of electronic mail known as a posting. A posting is like electronic mail message that goes to every subscriber of the newsgroup, instead of going to one person's e-mailbox. Because e-mail moves around the world very quickly, it is possible for conversations among people in many different countries to move along on a daily or even hourly basis. Some newsgroups are read by tens of thousands of people.

The raw variety of conversational options is mind-boggling. If you raise tropical fish, you have several serious aquaria newsgroups to choose from. Ornithologists and immunologists, Zionists and revisionists, pornographers and poets, all have their venues. If you want to hurl insults and diatribes, and have insults and diatribes hurled at you, there's alt.flame. You can get useful health-care information in the right newsgroups, follow the latest developments in scientific research, and if you know where to look you can carry on smutty public correspondences about scores of explicit fetishes.

In newsgroups where serious if informal discourse takes place among experts, a useful kind of knowledge resource has evolved, known as "the FAQ" -- the list of frequently-asked questions and answers. Knowing where to find the FAQs is like having a living encyclopedia of expertise always available. You can find FAQs on arabic, astronomy, aviation, beer, buddha, dogs, dreams, drugs, electrical wiring, esperanto, feminism, folklore, fusion, gambling, gardening, golf...all the way to weather, weddings, Xanadu, and zyXEL modems.

FAQs evolved because the regulars in Usenet discussions tired of answering the same questions about the newsgroup's central topic every time a new user tuned in. If you want to gain acceptance among the experts online, read the FAQs for that newsgroup before posting your first question. FAQs are often maintained by one person, but the detailed answers are always a group production. Inaccuracies in FAQs are quick to be corrected: Usenet veterans joke that the best way to gather accurate information on a topic is to post some INaccurate information, then wait for the experts to correct you.

Collective knowledge-gathering is possible because plugging desktop computers into telecommunications networks creates a new communication medium. Computer bulletin board systems and networks make it possible for people to connect with each other on the basis of shared interests. These shared interests, manifested in endless online conversations about pedigreed poodles, technology policy, and soap operas, are like a constant stream of raw information. The refined knowledge accumulates like a distillate in certain places. You simply have to know where to find the FAQs.

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Copyright 1995, Howard Rheingold