Business Communications
Communications on the Internet

Is there anybody out there?

My name is Jonathan O'Donnell. I work for the Faculty of Art, Design and Communication at RMIT and my job is to help academics like Lynne to put their courses on the Internet.

This is the first of two lectures on the Internet. This one is about using the Internet for communication. Next week I will talk about publishing on the Internet.

I would just like to take this opportunity to thank Lynne for inviting me to talk to you and to thank you all for coming.


Transport of the mails, transport of the human voice, transport of flickering pictures-in this century as in others our highest accomplishments still have the single aim of bringing men together.

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry (1900-1944), Wind, Sand, and Stars, ch. 3 (published in Terre des Hommes, 1939).

"The single aim of bringing people together..." That's pretty important. And it is my touchstone for what is good technology and what is bad technology. Good technology brings people together.

Electronic mail

Electronic mail (e-mail), by this measure, is a pretty good technology. If you want to master the Internet, learn e-mail. Forget Java and Flash and building a killer Web site - e-mail is the most important thing on the Internet.

Why? Because e-mail is the single most popular use of the Internet, bar none. In the jargon of the trade, it is the 'killer app'. It is far more popular than the World Wide Web (Web).

Almost everybody who is on the Internet uses electronic mail. There are a few people who only use the Internet to look at the Web, but they are well and truly outnumbered by people who use e-mail and never look at the Web at all.

Why is e-mail so popular?

It reinforces people's existing relationships with other people. One of the most common uses of electronic mail is to set up meetings. "Lets have lunch" is a pretty common e-mail message.

It allows people to talk to other people around the world, cheaply and easily. My partner, Neroli, is the Web master for RMIT International. Every day, she gets mail from all sorts of places: Venezuela, Jordan, Russia, Europe, all over the place. Every time it happens, it gives her a buzz. We have a friend who is working in the States at the moment. He is talking to us via e-mail about his upcoming wedding. It makes us feel like we are still part of his life.

It is convenient: it works like an answering machine, but in text. And it is as easy to reply to a message as it is to read one.

Good e-mail

Here are some hints for good e-mail practice, especially if you are going to be using it in business:

Discussions on the Internet

Beyond simply speaking to one other person, e-mail is one of the ways that you can use the Internet to join different electronic communities. You can join a mailing list.

Asynchronous communications

Mailing lists

Mailing lists are simple. You contribute a message. It automatically goes to everyone on the list. Any replies also go to all the people on the list. All the messages get saved so that you can go back to them over time if you want to.

You may choose to contribute often, or not at all. You probably don't know everyone on the list. Over time, you will 'meet' the people that contribute regularly: that is, you will get to know them. These people, by the tenor and texture of their messages, will determine the mood and accepted behaviour of the group.

Lists can be tremendously useful and interesting places. 'Link', for example, is a mailing list which discusses Internet policy in Australia. Most of the people contributing are experts in one field or another. Often, the stories that appear in Tuesdays Computer section in the Age are things that have been discussed in detail on Link over the previous week. For me, in my job, that is great!

How I use e-mail

Here is how I use electronic mail in my work. It automatically starts up when I turn my computer on, which I do as soon as I get to work. I put in my password and the mail that has arrived overnight appears on my screen.

It is automatically sorted by filters that I have set up. Basically, these filters separate mail into three groups: mail from individuals, mail from mailing lists and mail from my boss. My boss, who sits in the next room, probably sends me more mail than any other person that I know.

These filters roughly correspond to the importance that I place on the mail: mail from my boss is a priority and mail from other people is very important. Mail from mailing lists can be ignored - I will get to it when I can.

Mail from my boss usually comes in the form of copies of mail that she has received from other people and that she has sent to other people. When she forwards something to me, she often asks me to reply. She is using the message as a trigger to delegate work. When she copies mail to me as she sends it to somebody else, she is keeping me informed of what stage our latest project is at.

Mail from other people can be anything from a set of minutes for a meeting to a lunch date with a friend. Often, it has been sent to me along with 5 to 10 other people, all at once.

My mailing lists

The sort of lists that I read will give you some idea of the broad range that are available:

Some of these lists, like 'link', would have 20-50 messages a day. I don't read them all. Other, like 'inventive-teaching', I feel like I am talking to myself.

Mailing lists can be used to cover broad topics or very narrow topics. They might be world wide (like the history one), or they might be just for an organisation that you belong to.

Discussion groups

Mailing lists are one of the ways that groups of people can talk to one another on-line. Other examples include Usenet discussion groups, Web based discussions, real time chat (IRC), muds, and video and audio conferencing.

Usenet discussion groups are similar to mailing lists. However, for some reason, many Usenet discussion groups tend to have a rough and tumble atmosphere about them. 'Flaming' (attacking people in a vitriolic manner) is much more common in discussion groups.

This is one of two major difference between mailing lists and discussion groups. The other important difference is that you read mailing lists with all your other e-mail. Usually, you need to use a special program to read discussion groups. This means that less people read discussion groups.

Like mailing lists, the sense of community in any one particular group is developed by the regular participants of that group. By their behaviour, they demonstrate what is acceptable behaviour in the group and what is unacceptable.

Anyone can join these groups - there is no fee. Anyone can post anything that they want. This is both the beauty and the tragedy of the system.

I have no idea how many groups like this there are on the Internet, but it would be well over 10,000. They focus on areas as diverse as the biology of tropical fish to the latest gossip from Xena. They even discuss such mundane topics as business communications.

Some of these groups might have 100 or more new topics appear every day. Others might only have one or two new topics appear in a month.

Web based discussions

Some Web pages that you go to also have discussion groups attached to them. With some notable exceptions (see, these discussion groups are a failure. Usually, you find that hardly anyone has contributed to them.

This is mainly because you have to visit the Web page to participate in the discussion. Most people won't do that. It is too much effort for too little reward.

Sometimes, though, Web based discussion systems do generate enough steam to be interesting and useful. If you are interested in photography, I suggest that you visit and look at the question and answer discussion pages there. It is a very clever system, which takes into account how people really work on the Internet. And it works.

Synchronous communications

All the communication methods that I have talked about so far are asynchronous. That is, they are not dependent on time. You might send me an e-mail and I might be on holidays. I may not read your e-mail for two weeks. Then, I might reply. We did not have to both be using the computer at the same time.

But what if you do want to talk to someone at the same time, like you do on the telephone? There are several systems that you could use, including chat, muds, audio or video conferencing, or an Internet phone service.

Real time chat (IRC)

Chatting on the Internet works like this: I type a message and it appears on your computer, and vice versa. We can type to one another at the same time, and have a conversation.

Inter Relay Chat (IRC) is a world wide chat system that allows many people to talk to one another at the same time. Anything that anyone types appears on the screen of all the other people contributing to that group. At first, it is confusing. But, like any cross-cultural communication, as you learn the rules, it gets easier.

Inter Relay Chat has been around for a long time, in Internet years. It is very popular, and has a culture all of its own.

Web based chat

Web based chat systems try to emulate Inter Relay Chat. Unfortunately, for the most part, they fail. Partly, this is because the Web is slow, compared to a text based system like IRC. But mostly, it is because the tenor of the conversation isn't very interesting. If you want to see what a Web based chat system is like, try Or, save yourself the time and just try to chat yourself up in the mirror for a while. It'll be about as interesting.


One of the most undervalued examples of electronic community is a 'multi-user dungeon' or 'multi-user dimension' (mud). A mud is, at its most basic level, a chat system with room descriptions tacked on.

So, you might enter a newsagency, for example.

"Running down the middle of the shop is a double sided rack of magazines and newspapers. Here at the front, Vogue rubs shoulders with New Idea and House and Garden. Further on, you can see that specialist magazines like Australian Bride and Holistic Well-being are arranged by topic. The rack stretch for as far as your eye can see. Imaginatively, all the women's magazines appear on the left and all the men's magazines appear on the right.

At the front of the shop a cashier waits patiently to sell you a scratchie, a stamp or just trade some gossip."

The difference between chat and a mud is that you have objects and places in a mud. So, you could "Buy magazine from cashier", for example. Then you might "Read magazine", at which point, you would be using an object in the mud. You could also probably "Give magazine" to someone, perhaps pointing out a good article. Or, if you didn't like it, you could "Burn magazine", perhaps.

The ability to program the space in a mud makes them ideal learning environments, and great fun. Unfortunately, most people consider that they are too much work to set up and run.

Video and audio conferencing

Video and audio conferencing on the Internet is fun, but it isn't the sort of thing that you would use in a business setting. With a microphone and a cheap video camera, you can hear and see the person that you are talking to. If you want see how this works and you have Windows 95, NT or 98, then you can use a program called NetMeeting, which usually comes free with your system.

Most of the synchronous Internet communication methods are useful in specific situations. Video and audio conferencing is a good example of that. While it does allow you to do things that you couldn't do before, it is not something that fits into your everyday life yet. The video is small and very jerky, while sometimes the audio is not too clear.

Early this year, we linked up people from Washington, Boston, Singapore, Brisbane, Sydney, Melbourne and Hobart. We could hear Singapore, but they couldn't hear anyone else. Hobart had such bad sound that they withdrew. After that, the rest of us discussed a particular topic for about three hours. We could never have afforded that using a conference call.

However, having 2 out of 7 groups fail to get their message across would be disastrous in a business setting. So most companies that want video-conferencing spend thousands of dollars to use systems that work flawlessly.

Internet phone

Internet phone is used to mean two different things:

The second meaning is the one that I am interested in here. It is the Internet, but the Internet hidden. You pick up your normal telephone, dial a special code, dial the overseas or long distance number that you want, and have a normal telephone call. When your bill arrives, it is much cheaper. This is technology that you can understand.

It is cheaper because the message is being moved from the expensive telephone system to the cheap Internet system while it is carried overseas.

What else can you do?

Cheap long distance communication is one of the things that people use to try to sell the Internet. But it does much more than that.

Communicating on the Internet allows you reach people in ways that you just couldn't do otherwise. I work for a volunteer Internet group called Virtual Moreland. One day, someone wanted to find a particular person in America. He knew this person's name, that they worked in the alternative energy industry and that he once lived in a city in California. For two hours, we searched the Internet for some trace of this bloke, with no luck.

So, having exhausted our own resources, we talked to a group of people. We asked an alternative energy discussion group if anyone knew this man. Within 24 hours, we had a reply that told us his current business, his address and his contact details. That is the way that the Internet really works.

Communities of choice

You can meet people who are interested in the things that you are passionate about. Another group who come to Virtual Moreland are originally from El Salvador. Because of the troubles in their country, their friends and relatives are spread all across the world. So they are slowly forming El-Salvadorian communities on the Internet. All in Spanish, all working together to find other people from El-Salvador and draw them into the group.

Drawing on the knowledge of experts - FAQs.

Over time, these Internet communities build up a body of shared knowledge. For example, there are a group of people on the Internet who are particularly interested in urban myths - tall tales that sound plausible, but generally aren't. Between them, the people in this group probably know more about urban myths than anyone else in the world. And they get sick of answering the same questions over and over. So they have written a Frequently Asked Questions document about urban myths. It gives generally agreed upon answers to all the questions that keep popping up in the group. It is the distilled wisdom of the group. You can access this wisdom, just by reading it. And there are thousands of FAQs on all sorts of topics from pet care to electronic engineering. Yours, for free, on the Internet.

What will they think of next?

Collaborative work practices

Compared to other communication systems, the Internet is in its infancy. The tools that we use today are still primitive, compared to what will appear over the next five years.

One of the big areas of development will probably be in the area of collaborative work practices. This is where several people can work on a problem all at once. For business, this is a really exciting idea.

Imagine, for example, that you are planning your political strategy for the next election. You have people all over the country, with all sorts of skills, trying to contribute.

You all get on-line and start talking and typing at once. The system tracks who is saying what to whom and puts all the typed ideas into a document. Then, as the graphic artist in Sydney is doodling in the corner of the document, someone else in Canberra can be adding a spreadsheet showing how many supporters you have in each state.

Meanwhile the people in Melbourne and Perth have withdrawn to a private area for a short time to straighten out some policy issues. They present this to the group, and it is incorporated into the document.

Finally, someone in Adelaide is turning the material into a Web site while the graphic designer is using the same material to make a printed brochure.

Will this sort of thing be in place by the next election? Certainly. Will people be using it? Maybe, depending on whether it improves communication or just makes things more muddled.