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INTERACTIVE DISCUSSIONS

The types of communication that have been described so far are asynchronous—email, interest lists, and USENET newsgroups. The Internet also has interactive communication capabilities that allow one-on-one (just two people talking—typing—back and forth) or many-to-many (a bunch of people talking and listening) discussions. Since communication is happening in real time, you need an interactive connection to the Internet in order to use this feature. In other words, you can't participate in this type of communication if you're on an outernet network.

Interactive conversations aren't organized into email messages or postings; they are simply displayed on your terminal as they are received. Unless the communications program on your computer allows you to log your conversation, you won't have a permanent record of it.

Can We Talk?

One of the best-known interactive communication tools is talk, which allows you to set up a real-time dialogue with another person. Unlike electronic mail or news, both people must be present. Usually one person requests to talk to another person by using his email address. For example, if you wanted to chat with your friend Hal, who works with David Letterman, you would use the following command to set up a dialogue:

talk hal@sullivan-theater.cbs.com 

A message will be displayed on Hal's screen, telling him that you wish to talk to him and giving him instructions on how to reach you. If he does indeed want to talk to you, he'll issue the command talk your-email-address, and a two-way interactive discussion can ensue. The talk program helps you keep "who's typing what" straight by splitting your terminal screen in two. Whatever you type is shown in the top half, while the other person's response is shown in the lower half.

This type of communication is fun, and it can be a very useful tool. It can, however, be somewhat frustrating if you aren't a great typist, for there's a tendency to feel pressure to type as fast as you can—which, of course, introduces all sorts of interesting and creative errors. There's also the "who talks now" problem, for which you have to resort to some radio communication techniques. For example, when you're done typing, you can type o for "over," meaning that you'll wait for the other person to type in his response.

The talk capability, unfortunately, is not universally available. Some implementations on certain types of computers don't work very well, so you may run into compatibility problems. Also, some system administrators turn this capability off. You may have to just grin and accept the fact that you can't "talk" with everyone.

Everyone Join In!

The Internet has a many-to-many interactive discussion capability called Internet Relay Chat (IRC). This type of communication is similar to conference calls, where there are lots of people talking and listening at one time. Michael O'Brien—a.k.a. Mr. Protocol, the Miss Manners of the Internet—once said, "In general use, it resembles a bank of 900-number party chat lines." If you're a gregarious person who likes to stay up late at night typing in your thoughts and dreams to people from all over the world, this interactive capability will definitely appeal to you (participants claim it's very addicting). In spite of its "frivolous" appearance, IRC has proven to be a useful tool for business and education conferencing and information access, as evidenced by its ability to disseminate live reports quickly during major events, such as the Persian Gulf War, the failed Soviet coup of 1991, and natural disasters.

The newsgroups on IRC, however, are called "channels," and they are not permanently established—they are created and available only as long as people are participating in them. Anyone can create a channel and, having done so, is known as the "operator" of that channel. Operators have special privileges; they can deny access, as well as change the mode of the channel. For example, some channels are private and deny access to curious outsiders, some are moderated (all communication goes through the operator first), while others are public and open to anyone—it's all up to the operator. Two public channels that always seem to be populated are #Hottub (a virtual hot tub community) and #initgame (a game involving initials). Channel names are prefixed by "#" or "&" characters and are not guaranteed to be very descriptive; the original purpose for a discussion may last a few minutes before shifting into a whole different topic. Remember, when you join a channel, everything you type is shown for all channel participants to see. It is possible to converse privately with people by sending a message directly to their nicknames, identifiers that IRC users register.

How It Works. You use a client IRC program on your computer, which allows you to participate in various channels (you can communicate in more than one channel at a time). Your client controls your screen—status messages, commands, and your own messages are typed in the bottom two lines of the screen. The channel conversation goes on above those lines. Your client program communicates with an IRC server, which takes care of managing all the individual clients and distributing channel traffic between it and other servers. It is recommended that you use a server that's geographically close to you, but in most situations your server enables you to speak to people who are connected to other servers.

Access to IRC. Not everyone has access to IRC. To see if you do, first ask your Internet provider. If you get access through a Unix computer system, try typing irc and see what happens. The very first thing you should do after firing up IRC is read the help and intro files. (Start by typing /help intro). Keep in mind that all IRC commands are prefaced by a slash, "/". To get help, type /help. To get a list of channels, type /list.

For More Information. If you're interested in diving into the raging IRC waters, be sure to read all the IRC documentation you can find and to make liberal use of the IRC help command. There are IRC client programs for many systems, including PCs and Macs. (See the Appendix for pointers to IRC documentation and software.)

Seeing and Hearing Is Believing

In addition to interactive text-based talking, there are interactive audio and video applications being used on the Internet. Unfortunately, these are not available to the average user dialing in from home, but with advances in network connectivity and application development, this capability may extend to everyone before long.

The MBONE. The most powerful audio and video applications are being run on the Multicast Backbone, or MBONE, for short. The MBONE is a "virtual network" that supports the exchange of video and audio material. Right now, the type of people who are able to participate in MBONE audio and video conferences are "lucky ducks" with high-powered workstations (such as a Sun Microsystems or DEC workstation), high-speed connections, and quite a bit of technical prowess. This is not a general-public application, so more than likely you won't have immediate access to it—yet. Many of the participants are members of the Internet Engineering Task Force (the IETF mentioned in Chapter 2), who use it to meet online with members of various technical working groups.

The MBONE is being used to do all sorts of things. When President Clinton spoke at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in honor of its 200th anniversary, he was seen by more than just North Carolinians watching local TV and cable channels. The video and audio from this event was also transmitted live over the MBONE to Internet users all over the world. Dave Hayes, a budding Internet disc jockey who also happens to work for NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, broadcasts his own hundred-minute radio program called Ecclecticity over the Internet to MBONE participants. The program airs on Mondays and Fridays at 1:30 Pacific time, on the "Radio Free Vat" channel.

CU-SeeMe. Those who don't have access to the high-powered equipment and fast networks that are required for MBONE participation may be able to join another type of video conferencing. Cornell University is currently developing software for low-end workstations called CU-SeeMe. With just a Macintosh or PC, video capabilities (a video card and camera), and a moderately fast link (a direct link of at least 56kbps) to the Internet, you can tap into video "reflectors" and participate in interactive video conferences. CU-SeeMe is the enabling technology for the Global Schoolhouse, a project bringing together schoolchildren from all over the world to participate in joint learning activities. (For more information on both the MBONE and CU-SeeME, see the Appendix.)


The Live Connection

A particularly interesting use of the broadcast audio capability over the MBONE, according to Steve Casner, one of the MBONE developers, is a "lurkers" audio channel to which people from all over the world (an average of 50 at a time) are continuously plugged into. Most of the time this channel is silent, but every now and then someone will ask a question and anyone who is listening can pipe up with a response. Steve found this channel particularly useful one day when setting up some equipment by himself in an auditorium located in Washington, D.C. Since no one was around, he turned on the audio channel and asked if anyone could hear him. An answer immediately came back from someone in Australia.


NETIQUETTE, ETHICS, AND DIGITAL TRICKS OF THE TRADE

It's easy enough to use email and news, but there's an art to communicating effectively online. Here are some general guidelines and some advice, gentle reader, on how to behave.

Listen to Me!

If you want to make sure people "listen" to what you have to say, don't bore and confuse them with rambling messages or postings, which tend to be skipped in favor of shorter messages that concentrate on one subject. If you've got several widely different things to say, it's probably better to organize a bit and send a message on each topic separately. Some people get hundreds of messages a day, so you can't expect them to remember what was said in a previous message. Remember to include background or pertinent material that will help your audience understand the intent of your message.

Some advice on how your message or article should look: There's no hard-and-fast rule, but a good message size is a screen or two. Neatness does count, and spelling and correct grammar are important. Even though online conversations are informal, sloppy messages that are full of errors really stick out. Take advantage of the asynchronous nature of email and news, and spend some time making your message or posting readable. Limit each line length to 70 characters or less. If you're creating messages or postings using your word processor, make sure the document is converted to "text with line breaks," meaning that a carriage return is introduced at the end of each line. If you don't do that, your message is going to end up looking funny on the screen, and will be very difficult to read.

Try to avoid using acronyms. If you can't resist, here are some that are well known: FYI (for your information), IMHO (in my humble opinion), BTW (by the way), and RTFM (read the friendly manual).

Signing On and Off

There are accepted methods by which to begin and end messages. You almost never begin a message or posting with a salutation such as "Dear Sir." You do, however, initially address the person to whom you're writing ("Dave, I'm looking forward to your show"). Instead of signing off messages and postings with a "Sincerely," or "Love," many people end with their signature, which is a kind of digital identifier. Signatures should be short—preferably four lines or less—and should include information such as your full name, your organization, and how to reach you. You'll see all sorts of signatures—including very fancy ones, complete with pictures or cute quotes. Your signature may be included automatically by your newsreader or email program, so be careful that it doesn't appear twice. It's good to include a signature in case the addressing information in your message or article header is incorrect or not complete. This might be Paul Shafer's signature:

Paul Shaffer		shafer@sullivan-theater.cbs.com
Director of the CBS Orchestra          1-800-MRMUSIC
             "The David Letterman Show"


The Global Schoolhouse

Don't you wish you were a kid sometimes? The Internet is stretching its tentacles to the classroom, and children are finding that their playground is the whole world, not just the monkey bars and jungle gym in the field behind the school. One project, called The Global Schoolhouse, is not only promoting the Internet for education but also giving it eyes! Participating Global Schoolhouse classes are holding video conferences over the Internet using low-cost equipment and CU-SeeMe. The first pilot, in the spring of 1993, involved four classes in California, Virginia, Tennessee, and London. After reading Earth in the Balance by Al Gore, the children performed watershed pollution studies in their own cities. They used email to collaborate on results, and at the end of the project they held a video conference over the Internet to present their findings.


Beginning Behavior on Newsgroups and Email Lists

You want to be heard, but you don't want to be misunderstood. In addition to making your online communication readable, you need to be considerate of the folks on the other side. Here are a few tips on how to act when you begin participating in newsgroups and email lists on the Internet.

Remember that you're entering a world where there are a lot of experienced folks (including technical gurus and wizards) who have been around a long time. You should treat mailing lists and newsgroups as you do any other club you join for the first time. In other words, don't get on and start blabbing without checking out the territory first. Spend some time lurking to get a feel for the nature of the group and the types of discussions. This background will help you realize what topics have already been discussed in detail and beaten into the ground. It also gives you time to observe the experienced list veterans in action; imitating the experts is definitely recommended (but you don't have to think like they do). And while you're silently getting up to speed, there's bound to be some other "clueless newbie" who asks the very questions you're itching to send.

New users can't be expected to know everything about discussions that have gone on—sometimes for years. So the "in" thing is for the "regulars" on mailing lists and newsgroups to compile new-user questions and the answers to them in documents called Frequently Asked Questions, or FAQs. The purpose of these informative articles is to reduce the number of "noise" postings—common questions that everyone has seen a zillion times. Not every group or list has a FAQ, but the ones that do publish them regularly (usually once a month). There are now hundreds of FAQs available, on a variety of subjects, from junk mail to supermodels to crossword puzzles. These documents detail resources, facts, and opinions from people all over the world and can make very interesting reading. (See the Appendix for information on how to obtain some useful FAQs.)

Your Invisible Audience

Online communication is informal. It's much less intimidating to type your thoughts and fire them off to thousands of people than it is to stand up and say something, live, in front of the same group. But because you can't see all these people, it's easy to become careless, forgetting to include necessary background information or not thinking about your intended audience. It's also easy to think that because email doesn't use the formal conventions we're all used to in letters on paper or in face-to-face meetings, it is an unrestrained free-for-all. To deal with this, the Net has acquired its own conventions and etiquette.

One problem is that electronic conversations are missing body language and voice intonation, crucial components of effective communication. Take these elements away and people are forced to fill in the blanks when a typed online message doesn't come across quite right. For some reason, people become much more sensitive when they're online, and they tend to blow things entirely out of proportion—for example, taking a couple of sentences originally meant to be humorous or sarcastic entirely the wrong way. It's even worse if you've had a bad day and you've decided that "no one likes you" (we've all had those moments); you're much more susceptible to misunderstanding messages. Once that happens, everything can go downhill quickly. Instead of asking for clarification ("You were kidding, weren't you?") or just ignoring it, many people—forgetting that they're dealing with another human being on the other end—decide to defend themselves and tell the originator of the offending message exactly what they think of him or her. This outcome is what's known in the business as a flame. If both sides begin insulting each other, it's called a flame war (kind of like fighting fire with fire). These digital battles often erupt in "public" and can sometimes be very entertaining to the lurkers.

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


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