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Chapter 3

COMMUNICATING WITH PEOPLE


A network neophyte,faced with a cryptic computer prompt, may find it hard to picture the Internet as a friendly, peopled place. But every day, hundreds of thousands of people are communicating through the Internet—conversing, collaborating, working, playing, and letting off steam. Friendships—even marriages—are made and broken on the Internet. Clubs are formed. Problems are solved. Books like this one are written. Jobs are found. Handicaps and disabilities make no difference. Through email and the other methods of online communication, people have become best friends without ever seeing or talking to each other. It is not uncommon for people to turn to the Net for answers; a question posted to online communities—mailing lists and conferences—can yield dozens of invaluable tales of experiences and testimonials within hours.

Online communication, perhaps the ultimate in democratic exchange of information, eliminates barriers. You can't make judgments about whom you're "talking" to based on appearance, or even on voice. People can be whomever they want to be. Shy people become bold. Children give their views to adults, and the adults listen. Accounting clerks communicate on the same level as CEOs.

On the Internet, people can communicate asynchronously and in real time. Translation? Asynchronous (Greek for "not at the same time") communication means that someone can type in a message and send it off, but the recipient doesn't have to be around to receive it. This type of communication has some real benefits. You can send messages whenever you want to, they reach their destination quickly, and the recipients can read and respond when they want to. Answering machines and voice mail are everyday examples of asynchronous communication. Real-time, interactive communication (such as the Internet Relay Chat facility described later in this chapter), in contrast, means that as someone is "talking"— that is, typing—you see it on your screen as it is typed. Real-time audio and video conferencing is starting to become more prevalent on the Internet too. Both types of communication, asynchronous and real-time, are covered in this chapter.

ALL (OR ALMOST ALL) ABOUT ELECTRONIC MAIL

Electronic mail is the most popular application on the Internet today. It's a very powerful tool that's simple to use and easy to understand. Using email can give you a real feeling for the energy and reach of the Net. It's hard to imagine any other form of communication that can be so intimate and yet so wide-reaching, so focused, or so expansive. You can communicate as easily with someone across twelve time zones as with someone in the same building. Your message can be limited to just one person, or it can reach hundreds of kindred souls.

Email is sometimes compared to fax, but there are some fundamental differences. A fax is a graphic image that is digitized and sent over regular telephone lines using modems. Electronic mail on the Internet is, for the most part, text that can be sent over a variety of network links—everything from dial-up to fiber-optic lines. It usually costs the same to send email to one person as it does to send it to a group of people, while it would cost more (in time and maybe paper) to send a fax to those same people, especially if they're a long-distance call away. Both are asynchronous forms of communication, eliminating "telephone tag"—that is, it's not required for the recipient to be present to receive either electronic mail or a fax. Interestingly enough, there are some projects on the Internet that combine the capabilities of both fax and email, and while interest is growing, the ubiquitous ability to fax over the Internet is not available just yet. Even so, these technologies will continue to collide, and someday you won't be able to tell the difference. One such project is a worldwide experiment in remote printing involving several countries. For example, a librarian using this experimental system in Canberra, Australia, could send a fax from his Internet-connected workstation to a remote printer (fax machine) in Riverside, California. (To obtain an article that explains this experiment, send email to tpc-faq@town.hall.org.)

Historically, Internet email has been text-based without some of the frills that many local-area, network-based email systems have. Text-based means that the message is only words—just like what you're reading right now—and can't include graphics, forms, and so on. Internet email is starting to branch out with some implementations, including the ability to query distributed directory databases (an online directory service for people's email addresses), encode/decode messages for privacy purposes (see the "Security Issues" section in Chapter 5), and send formats other than just text, such as graphic images, sounds, and different character sets (Asian language text, for example) using Multi-purpose Internet Mail Extensions, commonly referred to as MIME.

The reason you need something like MIME is that the current Internet email system cannot transfer a non-text file (such as a picture) without doing something special to it—there are funny characters in these files that can mess up their transfer. If you have a need to transfer non-text documents via email, be sure to inquire whether or not your provider's email application offers MIME support. If it does, you can "attach" sounds, word- processed files, or software, and send them off. The only catch is that the recipient of your message must have MIME capability to receive your attachments. And unfortunately, it's still not available everywhere.

There are other ways of sending software and graphics within a message if you don't have MIME support. Many email applications (some are mentioned below) support automatic conversion of non-text files into ASCII format; that way, those funny codes in the binary file are converted to something the mail system can handle (plain text) without burping. One such program that's sensitive to the Internet's email digestive system and can convert binary files to text is called BinHex, and it's available for both Macs and PCs. To you, BinHex files will look like a bunch of nonsense—random characters—on the screen (they begin with the line, "This file must be converted with BinHex . . ."). If you receive one of these in your email or through other means (and it's not automatically converted for you), you'll need the BinHex utility to transform the file to its original format, a binary file. (See the Appendix for information on obtaining BinHex.)


Normal Heroes Always Make a Detour

In 1990, after 15 years as editor, journalist, translator, and head of the Moscow News Computer Department, Anatoly Voronov started exchanging email with Dave Caulkins, an American setting up GlasNet in Russia. Their offices were three blocks apart, but their messages went through the Moscow Teleport host in San Francisco, which had a connection to the Internet. Voronov ascribed the roundabout routing to the famous principle expounded in the Russian movie classic Atbolit-66, "Normal'niye geroi vsegda idut v obkhod" (Normal heroes always make a detour).

GlasNet became fully operational in 1991, with Voronov on staff. This time the San Francisco connection went through PeaceNet, a "detour" that proved very helpful during the August coup d'état. "Our traffic grew tenfold," Voronov remembers. "We got hundreds of 'get-well messages' from all over the world. I remember a posting from a Chinese student in America, a participant in the Tiananmen Square events in Beijing, offering to share his personal experiences of how to beat tanks in the heart of the city."

People wondered why the KGB didn't cut our connection. I wonder too. I think they simply didn't know that we existed. And we had a trick: the UUCP connection was originated in San Francisco, because at that time a non-authorized person or organization could not call abroad from Moscow. And it was impossible even for KGB to cut the phone link of the whole of Moscow."


Sending Email

Email is really fast—it is sent and received in seconds, minutes at the most. Postal mail is often called snail mail in comparison. Sending email is easy, too. All you need is access to the Internet, an email program, and the email address of the person with whom you wish to communicate.

Access to the Internet. Chapter 2 discussed the differences between being directly connected to the Internet and being on an outernet network such as UUCP or BITNET, or a commercial service like America Online or CompuServe. If you have access on any of these networks, then you can exchange email on the Internet.

Email Programs. You'll need an email program that will run on your own microcomputer or on whatever computer you're using. Most large systems and public-access computers offer several email programs (sometimes called email readers or user agents). Some commercial Internet service providers will supply programs to load on your PC or Mac. A common characteristic of email programs is that they let you compose and send email, and then read and organize the email you receive. There are many different email programs; some of the more popular ones are listed below. Your choice of a program will depend on how you're accessing the Internet. If you aren't sure what's available, ask your system gurus for assistance.

Post Office Email Programs

If you're accessing the Internet using a PC or Macintosh, there are several different ways you can read and send email.One of the more popular applications uses the Post Office Protocol (POP). In a nutshell, the POP system allows your personal workstation to get its email from a big computer that serves as a post office, delivering the mail when you (or your computer) ask for it. This eliminates the need for your computer to be on all the time, constantly available to receive email. In order to use a POP-based email application, you need Internet access (via dial-up or full-time connectivity) and a POP mail account on a post office computer (ask your Internet provider). All of these applications provide intuitive editors. See the Appendix for information on obtaining POP service.

Email Addresses. The next big step on your agenda is to learn about email addresses. In order to send someone email, you need to know the person's address. An email address, like a postal mail address, contains all the necessary information needed to deliver a message to someone.Internet email addresses are, in fact, very simple. They consist of a local part and a host part. The username refers to the mailbox, login name, or userid of the recipient on that computer. For example, if your friend Dave logs in on his computer as letterman, then that's his username. The host part of the address should be recognizable to you—a series of words separated by dots, as discussed in the domain name section of Chapter 2. The local part and host part of an email address are separated by an "@" sign:

username@hostname

Suppose that you know that Dave's computer name is sullivan-theater.cbs.com. You could send email to him using this address: letterman@sullivan-theater.cbs.com. (This and the following David Letterman examples are fictitious.)

Sending It Off. Once you have an email program and know the recipient's email address, you're ready to send a message. Each email program is different, so if you're not familiar with yours, you may have to fumble around a bit or actually read the manual or online documentation. You will need to specify that you want to send a message, either by typing send, clicking a send button, or by performing some other wonderful computer incantation. The email program will prompt you for information, asking for the recipient's email address, the key piece of information the program needs to send the message to the recipient. It will also ask for the subject of your message—usually a summary, title, or brief description. The subject is optional, but you should get into the practice of including it. A good subject description makes the person to whom you're sending aware of the nature of your message, whether it's important or whimsical. The program may give you the option of sending a "carbon copy" (cc) message. If there's someone else you think would be interested in the message, here's a chance to include his or her address. (You can send carbon copies to more than one recipient.) If you have the disk space, it's a good idea to send a copy to yourself so you'll have a record of your outgoing messages. (Or your email program may automatically save outgoing messages for you.) There may come a day when you'll need to know exactly what you said to someone!

After you've answered all the email program prompts, you can compose your message, using your email program's editor, which may or may not be similar to the word processor with which you're familiar. It's important to make your message easy to read and understand; some hints for effective communication are discussed in detail in the "Netiquette" section of this chapter.


Trading Places: New Dimensions to Interlibrary Loans

Paula Garrett of Batavia, Illinois, and Katie Wilson of Sydney, Australia, in an effort to see how the other half lives, traded homes and jobs for six months. Both are librarians, so no career changes were involved. However, taking over someone else's work habits is indeed a learning experience. About the only thing the women didn't trade were salaries or mortgage payments!

The venture was a complete success because of the Internet and the Australia Academic and Research Network (AARNet), according to Katie. "Such exchanges can take place without the Internet, but not as successfully as ours! We found it made a huge difference to be able to keep up with our jobs and keep things flowing smoothly. Six months was not a very long time in which to learn the jobs, and they are senior with a lot of responsibility, so the constant email communication helped us hold it all together! Plus we used the Internet to plan the whole thing." There's no question that the Internet has helped end the cloistered image of librarians.


Anatomy of an Email Message

An email message has two basic parts, the "header" information and the body of the message. These pieces are separated by a blank line. In most cases, you'll be interested only in the body, or the actual text, of the message. The headers contain items such as "Date:", "cc:", "From:", and "Subject:". Sometimes there are seemingly arcane lines such as "Received:" and "Message-Id." These normally don't concern you, but they are necessary for the email programs and for debugging purposes. Following is a sample message:

From letterman@sullivan-theater.cbs.com Fri Feb 4 11:51:36
EST 1994 
Received: by sullivan-theater.cbs.com id AA06414 (5.65+/
IDA-1.3.5.for melman); Fri Feb 4 94 11:51:35 -0500 
From: David Letterman {letterman@sullivan-theater.cbs.com}
Message-Id: {9402041651.AA06414@sullivan-theater.cbs.com}
Subject: Tonight's Show 
To: melman@sullivan-theater.cbs.com 
Cc: letterman@sullivan-theater.cbs.com 
Date: Fri, 4 Feb 94 11:51:34 EST
Status: OR 
Larry "Bud",
For tonight's show, we'd like you to stand on your head and sing the theme song to The Jetsons. And this time, please try to be a good sport and don't scare the children.
Thanks,
Dave

In this made-up example, David Letterman has sent email to Larry Bud, asking him for a favor. Dave sent this message on Friday, February 4, at 11:51 in the morning, with the subject Tonight's Show. He cc'd himself (so he has a record of his correspondence with Larry "Bud"). Later on in the program—whoops, this chapter—we'll see how Larry "Bud" reacts to Dave's message. So stay tuned, we'll be right back!

Receiving and Keeping Up with the Mail

Receiving email requires less effort than sending it. Incoming messages are stored in your inbox. When you fire up your email program, it fetches your mail from an online mailbox (if there's anything in it), and then usually displays a one-line summary for each message in there. This summary will include information such as the message number, the date the message was sent, the sender, and the subject. You can select which message you want to read by typing the corresponding number, or by selecting it with your mouse.Here's an example of a message summary line:

1  Feb 4  David Letterman  (20)  Tonight's Show 

This is message number 1 in Larry "Bud's" email box. It was sent February 4 by David Letterman. In this example, the number in parentheses indicates the number of lines in the message (20), but it could refer to the number of characters too. And the last column is the subject of David's message, "Tonight's Show."

If you think you can't keep up with the junk mail that flows into your snail-mailbox each day, then just wait until you collect dozens of "keypals" and you're busily exchanging messages every day. Most everyone loves to get email—it will probably give you a tiny thrill to see the message, "You have new mail," when you check your electronic mailbox. But because it's so easy to send and receive email, you may find that you can't keep up with all the messages you receive! You should set up a good routine for sorting your mail, deleting trivial messages, and filing the rest by saving them in separate electronic folders sorted by people or topics. If you don't keep up with your email efficiently, your messages will stack up in the inbox as they proliferate, and your email program may slow to a crawl. Your email program may allow you to sort incoming messages by date, sender, subject, size, or in other ways, and these functions can help you dispense of messages quickly.

Backward Forward Copyright © 1994 by Tracy LaQuey and Editorial Inc.


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