Dave Smith always depended on public bulletin boards at corner stores to get a feel for what was going on in his community. He'd peruse the posted notices for groups and activities that suited his interest in hiking and photography.

Dave Smith always depended on public bulletin boards at corner stores to get a feel for what was going on in his community. He'd peruse the posted notices for groups and activities that suited his interest in hiking and photography.

But on recent trips around town, the Medford resident couldn't find many bulletin boards sporting the information he was looking for.

Someone suggested he check the local paper, so he headed to www.mailtribune.com and typed his question about where to find a good community bulletin board into a forum there.

Other readers who had registered for the forum had advice on bulletin board locations, other online groups and hike listings in the paper and on the Mail Tribune's online calendar.

But Smith, 69, found that the forum was exactly what he was looking for — a way to connect with like-minded individuals and keep track of activities and events around town.

"The bulletin board was obsolete," he said. "This forum was what I wanted."

People increasingly are turning to the millions of Internet forums to communicate easily with people who share their interests.

The Mail Tribune launched its first forum in May 2006 to give readers a place to discuss local news and events online and now has two forums.

"It's such a rich addition to our culture," said Dennis Dunleavy, an assistant professor of communication at Southern Oregon University who has studied technology, communication and culture. "Fifteen years ago, we couldn't have even imagined being connected this way."

Mike Ely, a single dad in Gold Hill, has participated in forums about computer gaming, technology and education, and welcomed the chance to join the Mail Tribune's forum about topics in his community.

"It's been a valuable contribution to the valley," he said. "It's nice because it's local."

Ely likes forums because his busy life caring for his 5-year-old daughter and working full time can leave him little time to discuss his interests with others.

"Lots of single parents don't have the time and energy to go out to bars, so in a forum you get to meet intellectually first," he said.

"Forums create a space where you can say what you think," he continued. "I've met people I wouldn't have talked to otherwise and started discussions that wouldn't have happened."

SOU's Dunleavy notes that people instinctively seek information and connections with others and new technologies such as forums and social networks like MySpace simply extend those efforts.

"It's a very democratic form of communication," he said of the online environment.

However, the wide-open nature of online communication can bring it's own set of challenges, Dunleavy notes.

"It can create a space for unvetted rage and angst, just a place to vent," he said.

As people adopt new technology, they keep old human weaknesses — lying, scamming, bullying, disruptive attention-seeking — which are often ramped up in the face of perceived anonymity.

"That's a challenge and benefit of technology," Ely said. "I could be anonymous and spout off and no one would know."

Or maybe they would. Whole Foods CEO John Mackey's anonymous boasts about Whole Foods and attacks on rival Wild Oats Markets on financial Web sites have prompted investigations by his company's board and Securities and Exchange Commission, the Associated Press reported.

Whole Foods has made a bid to buy Wild Oats, but the Federal Trade Commission won an injunction temporarily blocking the deal on the grounds it would limit competition. Mackey's online alter ego came to light this month in documents filed Tuesday by the Federal Trade Commission. Legal experts contacted by The Associated Press said it is unclear whether the postings violated securities laws by trying to manipulate stock prices, but most experts agreed that the postings were an embarrassment for the company.

Numerous Mail Tribune forum members contacted for this article wanted to remain anonymous. They cited concerns about their employers or clients finding out about their online activity and safety worries related to people they had met online.

"You have to decide how much disclosure you are willing to make," Ely said.

In a locally focused forum like the Mail Tribune's, members have an opportunity to meet in person, and many have. The group organizes gatherings for all, including a barbecue last weekend and a pizza party earlier this year.

"I really feel like these people are my friends," said forum member Meagan Iverson, of Central Point, who joined the forum for its social aspect. "I feel like I know them and care about them."

Lisa McGowan, a Medford mother who is raising three special-needs children, has been a member of an online support group for six years and said her experiences on the Mail Tribune forum have been equally supportive.

McGowan heads to online forums for lighthearted social interaction such as sharing jokes and playing games. She credits online connections with helping her stop smoking and deal with her mother's recent death.

She also speaks up on issues close to her heart, particularly children, mental health and education.

"People listen to what I have to say about my kids and they learn more about some of the issues," McGowan said.

Dunleavy notes that the pure volume of information exchanged in forums and on other online social networks might be the biggest drawback. However, he believes people of all ages are learning to sort through it and evaluate its authenticity.

"Information seeking — that's what we do and you can find quality out there," he said. "There's a lot of trash talking, but there's also a lot of good."

Reach reporter Anita Burke at 776-4485, or e-mail aburke@mailtribune.com.