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Features - Internet Communications Tools

By Diana Botluk, Published on September 14, 1998

Diana Botluk is an online legal information professional who lectures, teaches and writes about finding law-related information in an online environment. She is the author of The Legal List: Research on the Internet, and a columnist for Internet Law Researcher newsletter, with a column called Finding Information on the World Wide Web. She teaches basic, advanced and online legal research at the University of Maryland, and Internet classes at CAPCON Library Network. She has lectured at many professional conferences, is actively involved in the Law Librarians Society of D.C. and the American Association of Law Libraries. She is a reference librarian at Catholic University Law School, where she earned her J.D. in 1984.

(Archived 10/15/98)


Law librarians search the Internet for information, attorneys advertise with law firms web pages, and we all use e-mail to communicate. Are we taking full advantage of this powerful resource? The Internet, after all, was designed as a communication tool, and a powerful one it is, if only you know the right places to look.

Advertising with a web page or communicating by e-mail is just the tip of  the iceberg. The Internet offers us means of communication that ten years ago we might never even have imagined. I can go into my office in the morning and turn on my computer. Instantly, I check on a list of friends and see which of them are online, and which are late for work. If someone on my list isn't there, I can send a message that she will see the moment she signs onto her computer. If another friend is there, I can instantly request a chat, or synchronous two-way conversation between he and myself.

Another friend on my list has been waiting for a digital file. It might be a word processed document, or a digital image, or some sort of program. I can send the file at the click of my mouse, immediately transferring the file, in whatever format, from my computer to hers.

These capabilities were there all along, but the past couple of years have seen incredible developments in the software used to employ this type of communication. No longer is FTP a mysterious, difficult concept. And keeping track of a friend online is as easy as pie. I'd like to share with you some of the ways I use the Internet to communicate, or receive communication from others. Believe me when I tell you that what I'm about to describe is only scratching the surface in the communication capabilities we have at our fingertips. But when you see some of the exciting communication tools I'm using, maybe you can go out and discover some more for yourself. And maybe you'll use them to get back to me. :)

E-Mail

Our most basic encounter with Internet communication has been e-mail. There was a time, not too many years ago, when almost everyone's first experience with the Internet came through an e-mail box. E-mail is simple, and we all know how it works. You write a message and send it to someone's e-mail address. It shows up in their e-mail box, they open the message, read it, and choose whether or not to respond.

But when we started talking about sending attached files, or checking our own e-mail from remote locations, life suddenly got more complicated. The e-mail system our friend was using might not be compatible with our own. So we could read the basic message, but if the friend attached a file, often you might as well forget it. We had to worry about cryptic things like MIME and UUDECODE and all those other wonderful terms that caused us to call the friend and say "can you fax it to me instead?"

Checking e-mail when traveling was also often a challenge. Some of us, myself included, didn't have the kind of e-mail that let you walk into a remote computer lab and sign in. Well, now all that's changed! There are many places on the web that are offering web based e-mail. Which means you can walk into any computer lab, anywhere in the world, and as long as it has a web browser and an Internet connection, you can check your e-mail. You can read attached files almost, but not always flawlessly. And if you're willing to accept a little advertising on your e-mail page, these e-mail accounts are absolutely free!

There are many web sites offering free e-mail. Microsoft gives us Hotmail.  Major search engines and directories like Excite and Yahoo! also provide free e-mail accounts. Findlaw even gives us a free law related e-mail account called JusticeMail. Shhh! If you don't use it for law related purposes, I won't tell anyone.

What can you do with free e-mail accounts besides send individual messages? Why, join listserv lists, of course! Imagine having a basic e-mail account at work for individual work related messages, and another e-mail account where all your listserv messages go. It sure would be easy to sift through your e-mail messages and keep your in-box clean. So now that you have free e-mail at your disposal, which lists should you join? We all know about Lyonette Louis-Jacques' wonderful Law Lists , but there are other, general lists of listserv lists out there that cover all topics and open up many more possibilities. Try TILE.NET (tile.net), Liszt or Catalist.

Chat

Let's go beyond e-mail though. There are much more exciting means of communicating online than basic e-mail. Take chatting. Now, I know what you're thinking. Amorous college students flirting in chat rooms in the middle of the night instead of going out and making real friends. And when I think about IRC, or Internet Relay Chat, and the chat channels that have been set up over the years, that's exactly what comes to my mind. So forget IRC. Even though the technology is interesting, there may not be much there in terms of power use of the Internet by serious professionals. But there are systems set up where we can chat with our colleagues, and we often don'' even need any special software to do it.

There is an (almost) perfect example at the AALL web site. There is a chat room there designed to discuss issues important to law librarians, and I don't even need to download IRC software to use it. All I need is an up-to-date web browser. And the chat will run automatically through the web browser. What could be more perfect? Well, it would be nice to have someone else to chat with, and the chat room is often empty. But know that it's there, waiting for us to take advantage of it.

To be honest, though, when I chat online with friends and colleagues, I don't often use an established chat room. My chats are mostly private, one-on-one with people I already know. I use a remarkable piece of software, called ICQ, that is probably the most exciting thing I've found on the Internet since I've started to use it.

In the past year ICQ has taken the country by storm. I can't go anywhere without hearing people talk about two topics. One is Bill and Monica, but I'll leave that one alone. The other is ICQ. One word describes ICQ more than any other: POWER. ICQ is an incredible Internet communication program that lets you page, message, chat, e-mail and FTP your friends and colleagues from one convenient place. And best of all, it's absolutely free!

Here's how it works. First, you have to download the software from Mirabilis. Install it on your computer, and register for an ICQ number. After you've done that, you add your friends to your personal ICQ contact list. You can do this if you know their ICQ number, or you can search through the members database by e-mail address or name. Your contact list is contained in a small window that pops up in a corner of your screen. The list reveals who is online and who is not, for the most part. If a friend is not online, and you'd like to leave a message, you can do a couple of different things. You can send an e-mail directly through ICQ if you and your friends have registered your e-mail addresses with the system. Or, perhaps more powerfully, you can send an ICQ message. The message is sent through the ICQ server and left for your friend. The next time your friend signs on, she will see the message waiting for her, and be able to read it ad respond to it instantly.

If your friend is online, you can contact her immediately by sending a message directly to her through ICQ, or by initiating a chat session. The difference between sending an instant message and starting a chat is that messages are sent one at a time, while two (or more) ICQ users can chat at the same time. So, although messages are instant when both the sender and receiver are online at once, the ICQ users take their turns sending messages back and forth.

Chatting is different. If you chat with a friend, a chat window pops up on your screen. You are both there at the same time participating in the chat. The screen is split so that you can see what you're typing as well as what your friend is typing. At another press of a button, you can send a file of any sort from your computer directly to your friend's computer, or simply send the url address of a web page that you think is interesting. As you're browsing the web, if you come across a page you want to share, simply click on your friend's name and choose the option to send the url. It is instantaneously sent, whether or not your friend is online.

FTP

FTP, or file transfer protocol, is built into ICQ in such a way that you can instantly send a file to an online friend. There are other windows based FTP programs available on the web, for example, CuteFTP. CuteFTP makes it simple to transfer files from one computer to another. Having a good FTP program is a necessity for those who wish to display their own web pages. Individual web pages are generally created on your own personal computer. The, when they're ready, the files are transferred to another computer which acts as your web server. This is the computer to which others will connect to view your page. If you're interested in creating your own web page, you may want to check into one of the many places that offer free web space for personal pages, such as GeoCities or Tripod.

Messaging and Paging

There are also other programs on the web that offer messaging and paging capabilities, although they don't have as much functionality as ICQ. For example, the free version of AOL Instant Messenger that's available to everyone, even those who are not AOL subscribers, allows instant messages that are made to resemble chatting. It's not true chatting, because you take turns sending the messages, but the screen is set up so that you can follow the ongoing conversation. Thus, it's close. This software can be downloaded from AOL's web site. Yahoo! Pager offers a similar system, as does Infoseek.

So, if you can see when your friends are online, that means they can see you too, right? That doesn't leave much room for privacy. Of course, you can always simply turn off the paging program, but with ICQ you don't have to. ICQ has thought of everything. There are many settings available for your status, or the way you appear on your friends' contact lists. You can set your status as busy and unavailable, or you can even set is as invisible. That way you can see everyone else, but they can't see you. You can even choose a different status setting for each of the different people on your contact list, remaining invisible to some, while available to others.

When I think of Internet communication, other forms of interaction come to mind, as well. We can use our computers to receive news broadcasts or hear radio shows through RealAudio and RealVideo software. We can buy anything, from groceries to plane tickets or books online. Enjoy the communication power you have at your fingertips! I'll see you on the web!