(This article was published in The Economic Times, March 11, 1999)
The world of telecommunications has come a long way since the days of
Alexander Graham Bell. With the whole world on the Internet today, it's
ciao to letters and ISD calls, welcome E-mail and web-phones.
Most of us are familiar with E-mail and for many of us it's part of
the daily routine. With instant conveyance of letters, messages, and the
omnipresent internet-humour, E-mail beats the Postal Department hollow.
Along with text, files and images can also be sent through E-mail as attachments.
The latest however in the communications line on the net, after video-conferencing (which still has a few glitches to overcome), is the Internet phone. Sites like Freetel, webphone, net2phone, VoxWare and a host of others offer shareware sample versions of Internet phoning. These systems transmit the data over the Internet networks in the form of digital voice data packets. The software converts your voice from analog to digital form, compresses it, and converts it back to analog on the other end.
Communication on the net, especially E-mail and chatting, has its own language and style. 'Dear sir' and 'this is to hereby inform you' are replaced by a much more 21st Century, personal approach in E-mail.
A human being, when speaking, conveys a large amount through gestures, expressions, and tones, which can't be expressed in writing. Which is why net-users have developed signs and symbols, popularly known as 'emoticons' like 'J' and 'L', to express a variety of emotions. And so, a new language is born, and a web-ettiquette which lays down standards such as 'writing in capitals is the equivalent of raising your voice'. Facial expressions, humour, anger, feelings, and body-language have to be replaced by signs and symbols.
The innumerable predicaments faced by people in a normal meeting are replaced by a much more relaxed form of communication undertaken from your familiar home or work enviroment. You don't have to rush through traffic to make a meeting on time, or choose the right tie, or frantically try to cover up that coffee stain on your shirt. Which is why a lot of people nowadays are opting to use the Net for any conferencing which doesn’t require a personal meeting. Without the tensions of following social norms, both business and entertainment become a pleasureable experience. Then there's the release factor. Being able to talk out your worries and problems, your feelings, or your frustrations makes things easier for a lot of people. And who better to talk to than people who don't know who you are, and don't care. 'Yahoo!Chat', for example, has an advice room for people who want to ask for or give advice. Chat rooms are coming up all over the place. Apart from the usual chat rooms hosted by sites like ‘Yahoo’ and ‘South-Park’ most of the clubs on the Net have chat rooms and a lot of the Hollywood movie sites do as well.
Clubs on the Net are another virtual improvisation of one of the oldest forms of entertainment in the real world. There’s the usual elitist clubs, the fan-clubs, a fair share of do-not-join-if-you-are-below-18 clubs and the regular free-for-alls based on common ground like hobbies, professions, ethnic background and the like where admission is usually easy but subject to the approval of the club founder. And starting a club is not any more difficult than getting an E-mail address, both of which would be a sight easier if you manage to stay logged on long enough to fill in the application form. I got ‘into the groove’ in November last year when I made a club for my school at 'http://clubs.yahoo.com/kvrules'.
Then there’s the next stage – instant messaging. Move over Motorola, ICQ is here. Net pagers like ICQ(www.mirabilis.com), AOL Instant Messenger(AIM) and Yahoo!Pager(pager.yahoo.com) are the hottest free downloads on the Net. They do a little more than just send and receive messages. Some give you added facilities like checking how many of your friends on your ‘buddy list’ are online and whether you’ve received new mail or not. And that’s not all! Yahoo!Pager, for example, can be configured to give you news updates on topics you’re interested in, view the scoreboards for all the games you’re favourite NBA team is playing this season, notify you of meetings and anniversaries you want to remember and even keep track of your stock portfolios (if you have any in the US!) by flashing signals when any of you’re stocks trip the limits you’ve prescribed. And no, I don’t get a commission for this.
Once you do enter the world of internet communication and instant messaging you realise that movies like ‘You’ve Got Mail’ and ‘The Net’ aren’t that far-fetched after all. Do I hear someone humming ‘...And the automatic earth, these are the days of miracle and wonder, this is the long distance call... don’t cry, baby, don’t cry’?