Internet citizenship

The telescreen received and transmitted simultaneously. Any sound that Winston made, above the level of a very low whisper, would be picked up by it; moreover, so long as he remained within the field of vision which the metal plaque commanded, he could be seen as well as heard.

George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-four

Real time 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.

Text 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 Yabber Chat ( I haven't been there myself, so let me know what it is like.


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 news agency, 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.

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.

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 everyday life yet. The video is small and very jerky, while sometimes the audio is not too clear.

Early in 1998, 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 via the telephone system.