Wednesday, August 18, 2004
It's back to school, and chances are you and your friends won't be enrolled in the same college, much less the same city. You'll be making new friends, of course, but as the old saying goes, you'll want to keep the old. This task, once daunting and time consuming (thousands upon thousands of dollars spent on stationary, a long-distance bill that'll take you more time to pay off than your student loans) is made relatively painless by the Internet. There are innumerable, completely free Web services out there designed to help you keep in touch. From weblogs to mailing groups and profile networks, here's a rundown of the best of the best.
In simplest terms, a weblog is an online journal that you can update at your convenience from any web browser. You can post whatever you want: text, pictures, links, anything, and you decide who sees it. It can serve a number of functions at once—a completely private, secure resting place for your most poetic, angst-ridden thoughts, a way to publish your life to the Internet, a way to send a memo out to whomever cares to read it, or a bulletin board for your friends' eyes only.
The secret to maintaining a successful weblog that fulfills the service you want is understanding the server's different privacy settings—whichever hot Web site you employ, you determine the privacy level of your entries, either by customizing your journal's settings or specifying your preference on an entry-to-entry basis. The terminology varies from site to site, but the basic nomenclature is as follows: public, private, friends-locked (friends-only), and customized or filtered, which allows you to make an entry visible to only certain friends and blocked from being viewed by others.
The only hitch is that in order to view your friends-only posts, your friends have to possess their own account with the same log provider. Let's hope you have a cooperative group willing to take the five seconds it takes to register. The best function of a weblog, without a doubt, is the "friends page," which allows you to view all of your friends most recent posts on a single page, without having to jump from URL to URL. Some of the most commonly used weblog providers are livejournal.com, xanga.com and blog.com, with livejournal taking the prize for most convenient and user-friendly.
Looking to send and receive mass-e-mails but groaning at the prospect of typing in all those e-mail addresses? Mailing groups are a quick and easy way to get the word out fast on your new haircut or cute boyfriend and can be customized just like a weblog. You can choose to have your friends' mailings sent to your e-mail account, or you can view them on the host site if you don't want to clog your e-mail account (a particularly useful option if you have a very active mailing group). Another neat function on your host site is the photo album—perfect for publicizing that new 'do and/or boyfriend or, once you load your graduation pictures, it can serve as a center of operations whenever you're in the mood for a nostalgia fest. Yahoo and MSN both offer similar quality mail group services.
Looking for a less writing-intensive way to stay in touch? Join an online profile network. Myspace and Friendster.com both offer a virtual sampling platter of all the other Internet keeping-in-touch cheeses. They offer you the unique opportunity to carve out your own little chunk of the Web. You can then link your chunk to your friends' respective chunks, forming a "network" of said chunks. Just put together a "profile page" with your picture and personal information, and your work is basically done. You can leave quick comments, notes, and testimonials on your friends' pages and receive them in turn. Other convenient functions include a free profile-to-profile e-mailing system and a bulletin board where you and your friends can leave notices about your life, similar to the mailing groups listed earlier. You can also set up a mini-weblog on your profile similar to a livejournal, blog or xanga. But be careful—the privacy controls of your entries to this mini-blog are also reduced in specificity, if they even exist, depending on the network you select.