Emotional Tech Support Alcoholics Anonymous was started many years ago with one basic philosophy: The people in the best position to help alcoholics are other alcoholics.

This was a pretty radical concept in its day, one that some critics viewed as allowing a fox to guard the chicken coop. If that wasn't tricky enough, AA was also one of the first organizations to use group therapy, treating people in a group setting instead of one-on-one.

Over the years AA and group therapy have proven effective both therapeutically and -- just as important -- financially. While a single session with a therapist can cost a patient $75-100, a group session usually costs $35 or less per participant. Group therapy also has one other advantage over individual treatment: The patient gets to talk to other patients who have the same problem. Whereas a therapist may only be able to sympathize with a rape victim, having never been in a similar position, other rape victims can empathize with each other.

Group therapy, at its simplest, is just people talking to each other under the supervision of a therapist. People tell their stories and discuss their concerns, their fears, their anger and their desires, while receiving feedback from the group. This simple structure is what has made the concept of group therapy easily adaptable to the modern world of the Usenet. After all, what is the Usenet except an exceptionally large forum in which people express their concerns, fears, anger and desires while receiving feedback. Thus were born the alt.support.* discussion groups.

The Usenet support groups cover a wide range of personal, social and medical problems, from divorce to depression. Medical problems such as prostate cancer, multiple sclerosis and kidney failure are actively discussed not just by people suffering from these conditions, but also researchers studying or treating the same problems.

When BetaSeron (beta-interferon 1B) was approved for the treatment of multiple sclerosis, many MS patients turned to alt.support.multiple-sclerosis to learn the benefits and side-effects of taking the drug. Early adopters of the treatment explained the rather involved procedure for preparing and injecting the drug, receiving advice from diabetics about overcoming people's natural disinclination to be a pin cushion. With this kind of information available, MS patients on the 'net could make much more informed decisions about whether to try the drug -- an important decision, given the drug's $1000 a month price tag.

In the alt.support.disabled.sexuality group, people discuss a topic which most of the able-bodied public would like to ignore: the sexual needs of the physically disabled. This group meets a crucial need that would be extremely difficult to accommodate outside of cyberspace. Sex, all snickering aside, is a pretty embarrassing subject to discuss in a group setting. Add to this the difficulty of arranging a meeting of people whose mobility is greatly limited, and a general public to whom the disabled are sexless creatures, and you get a discussion group that could only exist on the Internet.

Victims of sexual abuse find advice, understanding and support from fellow survivors. Substance abusers may find strength and support in the tradition of real-life AA groups. Dieters find sympathy and wry humor from other folks faced with the endless daily battle with food and flagging self-esteem.

Though the alt.support groups are rich sources of information, and can be a great comfort to people participating in the discussions, they are not without problems. Unmoderated groups still have to deal with flames, trolls and spams like everybody else, and some of these people's tactics can take on a decidedly cruel edge. In the medical groups, arguments break out periodically over treatment options and medical advice. In the groups dealing with topics like depression, sexual abuse and alcoholism, the air can become thick with the judgmental remarks of self-styled psychologists. If it is possible to imagine, an even thicker hide and greater degree of skepticism may be called for to participate in these discussions than is normally needed on the 'net newsgroups. Ultimately, it all boils down to personal judgment. People have to decide who to trust, who to listen t, and who to ignore.

I spoke to more than 30 individuals from numerous support groups about their feelings on the medium. Why did they participate? How often? What did they like about the groups?

A very informal survey of the people I spoke with showed that the majority (about 60 percent) were females in their late 30s or early 40s. As to why people participate, the answer was almost always the same: it's easy and cheap.

Julie, a regular on the MS group, came straight to the point. "I can participate from home. I can choose when to participate. I don't have to get dressed or fight traffic. I can choose which participants I want to talk to, and which ones to avoid."

J.D., a moderator for the soc.support.loneliness group concurred, "It's accessible 24-hours-a-day, doesn't cost $60 an hour and you get what you pay for. Seriously, it's a lot like the AA and Narcotics Anonymous groups -- the benefit of one lonely person helping another is without parallel."

Most folks check in on their group once a day, some people several times a day. This is especially true of folks from alt.support.diet, who find that checking several times a day helps them avoid temptation and depression.

Another major plus for on- line support may lie in the built-in anonymity of the 'net. Nobody can see you, or really knows who you are unless you tell them.

"There is more honesty when people can be anonymous and not be held accountable for what they say," explains Jessica, who has been participating in her group for six months. This, of course, is also a disadvantage.

"There are a lot of cretins on the 'net", J.D. says. "(and these) folks forced myself and my associates to found a moderated newsgroup."

On the subject of whether the groups should be moderated, folks seem to be evenly divided. "Spammers exist in everyday life," comments Kevin, a regular on the AA group. "So it's no big deal." Jessica seems a bit more concerned. "I have never participated in a moderated group, [but] it does seem like having a moderator would get rid of some of the flames, sales pitches and off-topic posts.

Therein falls one of the major complaints about virtual support, one that echoes throughout the 'net. Namely, spammers and flammers.

"Nuts all over. You have to lose time reading, ėtil you notice they're nuts," notes Jacob from the MSnewsgroup.

Ironically, the other complaint is the lack of face-to-face contact.

"It just isn't the same as sitting with real people," explains Pam, another AA participant. "People still need contact."

"No hugs," agrees Jessica. "No getting together for coffee afterward."

Even if you pride yourself on being a well-adjusted individual who doesn't need any kind of help (which may show you have a high capacity for self-delusion), the alt.support.* hierarchy is a fascinating place to visit. Not for any of the grotesque, voyeuristic reasons routinely associated with daytime talk shows, but for the simple opportunity of gaining insight into human foibles and virtues. The silly arguments, tragic mistakes and poor judgment you read about are more than counterbalanced by insightful observation, noble sacrifices and sound advice.

On a Usenet too often filled with the self-centered rants of hucksters and hate-mongers, it's nice to find the voices of people quietly, yet determinedly looking out for each other. It is good to know that a helping hand is only keystrokes away.

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