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CYBERCULTURE | POSTCARD FROM CYBERSPACE / DANIEL AKST

Finding Folks of Like Mind on the Web

June 17, 1996|DANIEL AKST

Everybody has troubles. One of the nice things about the Internet is that there's invariably somebody else out there with troubles very much like your own. That means sympathy, suggestions and valuable experience are never far away, whatever difficulty you find yourself struggling with.

There are, of course, substantial resources on the World Wide Web dealing with almost every imaginable subject. But if you want to get help from others in the same boat as you, it's often worthwhile to turn to the two basic ways in which people of similar interests come together on the Internet: newsgroups and mailing lists.

For those still new to this game, a newsgroup is a sort of discussion forum, and has a name such as soc.culture.brazil or rec.pets.rabbits. It functions like a bulletin board; go there and you can see what other people are saying about a topic of interest.

In contrast to a newsgroup, a mailing list comes to you. Make a posting to the list and it goes as electronic mail to all the list's subscribers. Mailing lists, in fact, are often echoed as newsgroups, since many people are already inundated with e-mail.

To access newsgroups, users of commercial online services can use Usenet or Internet as a keyword, jump word or go word. Those with Internet accounts can use a "newsreading" program such as Free Agent, which can be relatively easily configured to access an Internet provider's news server. You can also use World Wide Web browsers such as Netscape Navigator for this purpose, but they must be configured as well. If you don't know how to do this, ask your Internet provider.

Usenet newsgroups (the official name for these conferences) offering support for various woes abound. For instance, searching the list of newsgroups for diabetes, I quickly found misc.health.diabetes and alt.support.diabetes.kids. All told, I counted 85 groups beginning alt.support, including alt.support.cancer, alt.support.cerebralpalsy, alt.support.depression, alt.support.mult-sclerosis, alt.support.obesity and alt.support.tall

I also found 10 alt.recovery groups, including alt.recovery.aa and alt.recovery.compulsive-eat. And there are at least 11 groups beginning soc.support, many of them dealing with various aspects of depression.

In these groups you'll find people struggling to help one another with real problems. In alt.support .crohns-colitis, for example, a newsgroup devoted to discussion of these intestinal disorders, one young man posted a brief account of his difficulties with steroids and eventual addiction to painkillers arising from life with Crohn's disease.

Another Crohn's sufferer urged him to consider alternatives, warning that she became so addicted to painkillers that she couldn't even trust herself to drive.

In alt.support.divorce, more than a dozen people responded to a request from someone so anxious over the end of her marriage that she couldn't sleep. Recommendations included relaxing music and other stress-reduction techniques. "Don't resist your feelings," one posting said. "Sometimes I'd just fight crying so hard I wouldn't know it was bugging me until I couldn't sleep. I'd fuss into the wee hours of the morning and sometimes I'd just have to get downright angry, which was almost always followed by the tears that were meant to come."

Given how serious some people's troubles are, it's remarkable what a sense of humor many of them keep--and how great it is to see this being shared online. In alt.support.headaches.migraine, for instance, one sufferer remembered a wicked definition: "My mother once told me that a migraine is when you feel like you're going to die and you're afraid you won't."

As for mailing lists, there are thousands upon thousands of these, and you can get most of them simply by sending e-mail to an administrative address (as opposed to the address of the list itself). The best way to find electronic mailing lists is to point your Web browser at http://www.liszt.com/ and search the 47,950 that were covered by Liszt the last time I looked.

I searched "cancer," for instance, and quickly found 13 mailing lists, including some focused on breast, esophageal and prostate cancers. Many of these turned out to be research-oriented or informational, but some, such as the Breast Cancer Online Support Group, were much more in the line of support.

Be creative in your searching. For example, I searched "alcoholism" and found only one mailing list, Jews in Recovery From Alcoholism and Drug Dependencies. By searching "alcohol," however, I found 14 lists, including the Adult Children of Alcoholics mailing list.

For all the usefulness of online support, it almost--but not quite--goes without saying that the advice and information offered by Internet users should not be accepted unthinkingly. In alt.cancer.support, for instance, I noticed that a posting about lack of appetite in a chemotherapy patient received an answer from someone with a Web site offering herbal therapies. Are these good ideas? Who knows?

The point is, information gleaned on the Internet should be treated like information from any other stranger. Consider the source. Do they stand to profit? Can you check on the claims being made?

Be sensible. Don't take a recommended drug without checking with your doctor. Don't embrace a course of treatment without thorough research and medical consultation. But by the same token, don't dismiss the resources that are available simply by consulting people in the same boat as you are, especially when the Internet makes it so easy.

One final point: Postings to Internet newsgroups and mailing lists are public. If you mention your former drug problem, for instance, it's easy for others to access that posting, long after it has expired from the newsgroup in which it was first made. So be careful.

Daniel Akst's first novel, "St. Burl's Obituary," was published this month. He can be reached via e-mail at dan.akst@latimes.com

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