Harley Hahn's
Internet Advisor


Chapter 8...

Talking on the Net

Why do so many of us have computers, and why do we spend so much time using the Internet?

I don't know that we can ever answer these questions entirely, but I do know that all the time and effort we spend on the Internet has more to do with our nature than with making money and selling advertising. Human beings need to connect to one another, and that is why we have built so many tools to communicate using the Net.

In previous chapters, we have discussed electronic mail, Web sites, Usenet discussion groups and mailing lists. All of these are important, but they do not allow you to carry on a real conversation. In this chapter, I will explain how to use the Internet to talk to other people. People all over the world are already talking on the Net, and in a short time, you will be one of them.

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The Basic Ideas

The term REAL-TIME refers to a process in which you sense and respond to something as it is happening. For example, talking on the telephone is a real-time experience, because you hear the other person's words as he says them. On the other hand, sending email is not real-time communication, because you do not see the messages as they are typed. Instead, you have to wait until a message is delivered before you can read it.

On the Internet, the word TALK refers to all types of real-time communication. For instance, let's say you and a friend are having a conversation by using a program that allows you to type messages back and forth. Even though you are typing (and not speaking), we say that you are talking. We often refer to this type of talking as CHATTING.

Most of the talking on the Internet is done by typing. However, there are other ways: you can talk by voice (as you do on a telephone), and you can also use real-time video (like people in the future). We will discuss all of these facilities — chatting, voice and video — in this chapter.

Talking on the Internet can be a lot different than talking in regular life. For example, it is common to talk with people on the Net whom you have never met face to face and probably never will. In addition, it is perfectly acceptable to start a conversation with someone you don't know. As a matter of fact, most people use anonymous nicknames, and much of the time, there is no way to know who you are talking to.

This makes for an interesting type of communication in which your mind communicates directly with another person's mind, with no voice, physical cues or other knowledge to distract you. As you might imagine, this type of talking has its own nuances and considerations (which we will discuss later in the chapter).

When you talk in person or over the telephone, you hear the other person's voice instantly. On the Net, however, there is sometimes a delay. As you type back and forth, it may take a few moments for the messages to be transmitted. Similarly, when you are talking via voice, there may be a short delay between the time you say something and when the other person hears it. This delay is referred to as LAG.

When the lag is small — as is often the case — the conversation flows smoothly and easily. If the lag becomes significant, however, it can make the conversation disjointed. Still, a bit of lag now and then is a normal phenomenon, and after a while, you will find yourself adjusting to subtle changes without even noticing. Indeed, some people are so used to the lag that they routinely carry on several conversations at the same time, using the brief waiting periods to jump from one conversation to another.

To access a talk facility, you use a program called a TALK CLIENT. There are many different talk facilities available on the Internet for free. The particular client you use depends on which talk facility you want to access.

When you use the Web to talk, your browser can act as your talk client. Most of the non-Web talk facilities use a proprietary design which requires you to use a specific talk client. A few talk facilities allow you a choice of clients. In particular, this is the case for IRC, muds and most voice systems (all of which I will discuss later in the chapter).

In broad terms, there are two kinds of talk facilities.

The first kind uses a TALK SERVER as a central way station. When you use such a system, everything you type first goes to the server. The server then sends the information to all the other people taking part in the conversation.

The second kind of system uses a direct connection. Your talk client connects to the other person's talk client, and as you type, your words are sent from your computer to the other person's computer without going through a central server.

Each of these systems has advantages. With a central server, it is possible to support a large number of people and a large number of simultaneous conversations. An example of this is IRC (Internet Relay Chat). When you connect to an IRC server, you will usually find hundreds of different conversations involving thousands of people from all over the world. Such systems are great places to hang out, because there is always someone to talk to.

Direct connections do not offer the same type of access. Since you are connected to, at most, a few people, you do not get the feeling of being in an international gathering place. However, you do have more privacy and control over your environment. Moreover, since your messages do not go through a central server, there is usually less lag, which makes it easier to carry on a more focused conversation.

Some talk clients will ask you to register before you can use the client. To register, you will have to give your name and mail address. My advice is to protect your privacy. Do not use your real name. Using a nickname is not only common, but perfectly acceptable. For advice on how to protect your mail address, see Chapter 6.

— hint —

On the Internet, people care about your ideas and what you have to say. Who you are and where you live are less important.

When you register with a particular talk facility, the information you specify is sent to a central server that acts as a public repository of names and addresses. The job of this server is to act as a directory for all the people who use the system. This is true even for systems that use direct connections, because you may still need a way to look up someone's name and address.

As you will see, the Internet offers a wide variety of ways to talk to other people. Throughout this chapter, I will discuss the various types of systems, and give you the information you need to get started. You can then experiment with the different talk facilities and see which ones you like best.

To start, let's talk about the simplest type of talk facility, Instant Messaging.

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Instant Messaging

The most popular talk facility on the Internet is INSTANT MESSAGING or IM. Instant messaging allows you to have a private conversation with another person, or with several people.

The term IM is often used as a verb. For example, "Clarisse told me that she tried to IM you last night, but you weren't available."

There are a number of different IM systems, all of which are free. The most popular systems are:

  • AOL Instant Messenger or AIM
  • MSN Messenger (Microsoft)
  • ICQ
  • Yahoo Messenger

AIM and ICQ are both owned by AOL, although they are completely different systems. The name ICQ, by the way, is a pun. It means "I seek you."

To use an IM system, you need to download and install the appropriate IM client program for that system. For example, to use MSN Messenger, you need the MSN Messenger client. To use ICQ, you need the ICQ client. All of these clients are available for free. I have put the Web addresses for each system at the end of this section. If you need help with downloading, see Chapter 9.

If you are an AOL user, the AOL Instant Messenger program is included with your AOL software. If you are not an AOL user, you can download the AIM client free, which will allow you to talk to other AIM users.

Each IM system has its own central IM server. MSN has its own server, AIM has its own server, ICQ has its own server, and so on. The server keeps track of all the people who are registered with the system and which ones are currently online.

How does this work? Each time your IM client starts up, it contacts its server and tells it that you are online. This ensures that, whenever your computer is on and you are connected to the Net, your IM server knows that you are available to talk.

To help you keep track of other people, your personal IM client maintains a list of names of everyone you talk with. During the times you are connected to the Net, your IM client stays in contact with the server. This allows your client to show you, at any time, which people on your list are online and which ones are not available.

All of this makes it simple and easy to talk with someone. Just select a name from your personal list, and if the person is available, your IM client will immediately establish a connection. (This is why it is called instant messaging.) Figure 8-1 shows an example of an IM conversation.

Figure 8-1: An instant messaging conversation

Each IM system has a different term for your personal list of names. The most common terms are shown in Figure 8-2.

Figure 8-2: Instant Messaging systems: lists of names

IM System Your Personal List of Names
AOL Instant MessengerBuddy List
MSN MessengerContact List
ICQContact List
Yahoo MessengerFriend List

When you IM with people, your conversations are completely private. No one can eavesdrop unless you invite them into the conversation.

You can also have privacy in other ways. For example, you can block specific people from contacting you. This is handy if someone is bothering you. In addition, some IM systems allow you to be "invisible". This means that you are connected to the system, but not visible to anyone.

All IM systems let you talk with people whose names you have added to your list. Some systems also have organized chat groups devoted to different interests. You can join and leave such conversations whenever you want. This allows you to talk to people all over the world, about all kinds of things.

The various IM clients are sophisticated programs, which offer a variety of different services. Although each program has its own features, here are some of the most common ones:

  • Talking: Send and receive messages.
  • File transfer: Send files from your computer to another person's computer. You may find it easier to transfer a file this way than to attach it to a mail message.
  • Voice chat: Talk to another person by voice. (This requires a microphone.)
  • Phone calls: Make phone calls from your computer to a telephone. (Also requires a microphone.)
  • Paging: Send a message to someone's cell phone or pager
  • Web browsing: Allows one person to control another person's browser. This is handy when you want to show someone specific Web sites while you talk.

Here are a list of Web sites where you can get the client programs for various IM systems. In order to use any of these systems, you will need to register. If you are concerned about your privacy, do not use your real name or mail address. Either use fake information or a disposable, Web-based email address. (For a discussion on how to keep your mail address private and how to set up a free Web-based email account, see Chapter 5.)

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Chat Rooms

A CHAT ROOM is a talk facility that works over the Web. Each chat room supports one multiperson conversation. There are many Web sites that offer public chat rooms.

When you visit such a Web site, think of yourself as being at a party in a large house with many different rooms. In each room there are a number of people talking. You can move from room to room. As you do, you can participate in the various conversations or just listen.

Some chat rooms are set up for general conversation. Others are devoted to particular topics or particular groups of people. For example, you might find a chat room where people talk about a popular television show, or a chat room just for teenagers.

Using a chat room is easy, because you do not need to install a special client program. All you need is a browser. There are two different ways in which this might work.

First, the chat room Web site may send your browser a Java applet to act as your talk client. (See Chapter 12 for a discussion of Java.) If so, your browser will run the applet automatically. You can see such a program in Figure 8-3.

Figure 8-3: A chat room using a Java talk client

The other possibility is that you will use your browser as a talk client. You can see this in Figure 8-4. When you use a browser as a talk client, you are displaying regular Web pages that do not change. Thus, you must reload the Web page in order to see any new messages. For convenience, most chat rooms tell your browser to reload the Web page automatically at regular intervals.

Figure 8-4: A chat room using a browser as a talk client

— hint —

There are several ways to manually reload a Web page:

Within Internet Explorer...

  • Click the Refresh button
  • Press Ctrl-R
  • Press the F5 key

A chat room works by having a central server that acts as a way station. Everything you type is sent to the server, which then relays the information to the various client programs. Thus, all messages must pass through a server; they do not go directly from one person to another.

Chat rooms are popular because they are readily available and do not require special software. If you have a browser running, you are ready to join a chat room. However, much of the conversation in chat rooms is transient and superficial. This is not the place for deep conversation or meaningful relationships.

Most chat rooms use only plain text. A few chat rooms enable you to display a picture along with your messages. This allows you to choose an image that illustrates your personality and makes it easy for people to recognize you. Other Web sites offer chat rooms with a specific visual environment. For example, while you are talking, it may look as if you are in a cave, or a forest, or a palace.

A few chat rooms are even more elaborate: they create imaginary 3D environments that you visit as you talk. You can move around from one place to another, and talk to the people you encounter. Some of these environments are simple, while others are very complex. Within a 3d chat room, each person is represented by an AVATAR: a small picture or figure that moves and talks on your behalf. You control the appearance and actions of your avatar, which allows you to exhibit some of your own personality.

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Abbreviations Used While Talking

When you first start to talk on the Net, it is easy to feel a bit confused. If you are visiting a chat room or an IRC channel (discussed later in the chapter) where a number of people are talking at the same time, it may take a while to learn how to make sense out of what is happening. However, it won't be long before you start to feel the rhythm, and everything falls into place.

People who talk on the Net use a lot of abbreviations. This is because talking involves typing, and typing is slow compared to regular conversation. To help you get started, Figure 8-5 shows the most important abbreviations used while talking on the Net. You will find a more extensive list in Appendix C.

Figure 8-5: Abbreviations used while talking on the Net

Abbreviation Meaning
:-)smiley
;-)winking smiley
<G>grin (same as a smiley)
AFAIKas far as I know
AFAIRas far as I remember
ADDYaddress
AFKaway from keyboard
A/S/Lwhat is your age, sex, and location?
BBLbe back later
BFboyfriend
BRBbe right back
BTWby the way
CUL8Rsee you later
CYAsee ya (good-bye)
F2Fface to face (in person)
FYIfor your information
GFgirlfriend
ICI see
IMHOin my humble opinion
J/Kjust kidding
L8R(see you) later
LDRlong distance relationship
LOLlaughing out loud
OICoh, I see
PUTERcomputer
PAWparents are watching
PDApublic display of affection
RLreal life
ROFLrolling on the floor laughing
SOsignificant other
TTYLtalk to you later

For the most part, the abbreviations are straightforward. However, there is one I want to discuss for a moment: the smiley. A SMILEY is a tiny representation of a smiling face:

:-)

(To see the smiling face, tilt your head sideways to the left.)

From time to time, you will find yourself typing something you mean as a joke, but which could be taken as being offensive. When this happens, you use a smiley to tell the other person not to be offended. The smiley means "just kidding".

For example, say you are talking about UFOs, and someone is describing how he was kidnapped the other night by a bunch of aliens dressed as Supreme Court justices. You might say:

I do find that hard to believe, but the next time
I see the Tooth Fairy, I'll ask her what she thinks :-)

Sometimes, you will see <G> or <g> ("grin") used instead of a smiley.

I do find that hard to believe, but the next time
I see the Tooth Fairy, I'll ask her what she thinks <g>

— hint —

When you talk on the Net, typing in all caps (all capital letters) means you are shouting, for example:

I WON THE LOTTERY!

Unless you really mean to shout, do not type in all caps. It is considered rude.

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Voice Chatting and Video Chatting

Most people talk on the Internet by typing messages back and forth. This is the case with instant messaging and chat rooms, as well as with IRC and muds (which we will talk about later in the chapter). However, it is also possible to use VOICE CHAT to communicate over the Net using voice. To use voice chat, you must have the appropriate equipment on your computer: either a microphone and speakers, or a headset with a built-in microphone.

The biggest advantage of using a voice chat system is the cost. There is no special fee for talking to people over the Internet, no matter how far away they may be, so you can talk as long as you want for free.

One particular type of voice chat is an INTERNET PHONE SYSTEM. Such systems are integrated with the telephone system in a way that allows you to use your computer to call someone's telephone directly. When the other person answers, you talk to him using your microphone and speakers (or headset) on your computer, and he uses his phone.

So why doesn't everyone use the Internet for talking instead of the telephone system, at least for long distance? There are several reasons.

First, the regular telephone system is reliable and offers a high quality connection. With voice chat or an Internet phone system, you can't always connect perfectly whenever you want and the quality of the connection can vary significantly, even from minute to minute. Most of the time the connection is adequate, but there is sometimes a noticeable lag or an echo, which can quickly take the fun out of talking.

Second, the regular telephone system is extremely convenient. When you want to talk with someone, you pick up a phone and make the call. You can call from any telephone you want, including a portable phone or a cell phone. With an Internet phone system, you can only make a call if you are at your computer. Moreover, if you want to use regular voice chat, the other person will also have to be at his computer, running the same voice program as you.

Finally, although voice chatting is free, Internet phone systems cost money to use. Since Internet phone companies need to be competitive, they will typically charge a bit less than the regular phone system. However, the regular phone system is more reliable, easier to use, and offers better quality.

My feeling is that, when you need to make a phone call, you are better off using the regular telephone system, especially if you live in a country like the United States, where long distance rates are low. However, there is one situation in which it makes sense to use voice chat or an Internet phone system.

If you have a need to make many expensive long distance calls to the same number, you can save a lot of money by talking over the Net. For example, if you live in the U.S., an Internet phone system is an ideal way to spend several hours a night talking to your boyfriend in Australia. Or, if you work at a company in New York and you need to talk to your branch office in Paris for an hour every day, you might be willing to put up with the lower quality connection in order to save money.

Some voice chat systems have video capabilities as well as voice. To receive video, you do not need special hardware. The video client program will display images for you on your monitor. To send video, however, you need a WEBCAM, a video camera that is designed to connect to your computer.

Video over the Internet can be fun to play with, but you should realize that it is not the high resolution, full motion video you see on your television. Although you see images, they are updated intermittently, not continuously.

To tell you the truth, although the idea of free video conferencing over the Net sounds cool, it's really not that big a deal, unless you have some friends that you like to talk with regularly.

— hint —

One of the big advantages to talking to someone without video, is that you do not have to look at each other while you are having a conversation.

Most voice/video chat programs offer other features besides the basic connection. While you are talking, you may be able to:

  • Type messages back and forth (instant messaging)
  • Play sounds on the other person's computer
  • Transfer files
  • Control the other person's browser
  • Collaborate by drawing within a shared window (called a WHITEBOARD)
  • Control a program running on the other person's computer. This is called APPLICATION SHARING.

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IRC: Internet Relay Chat

IRC (Internet Relay Chat) is the largest of the multiuser Internet talk systems. The first version of IRC was created in 1988 by a Finnish programmer named Jarkko Oikarinen. Since then, IRC has grown enormously.

To use IRC, you must first download and install an IRC CLIENT on your computer. Once you have an IRC client, you use it to connect to one of the IRC NETWORKS. You can then talk to anyone else who is connected to the same network. IRC is so popular that, no matter when you connect, there will be many people for you to talk with.

There are more than 50 different IRC networks, each one using its own group of IRC SERVERS. The larger networks have dozens of servers around the world; the smaller networks have only a few servers. To use a particular IRC network, all you need to do is tell your IRC client to connect to any server on the network. Once you are connected, you have access to the entire network.

What's in a Name?

EFnet
Undernet
DALnet
IRCnet


Through the years, many IRC networks have been formed with varying degrees of success. Today, there are more than 50 different networks, the largest of which are EFnet, Undernet, DALnet and IRCnet.

IRC was started in 1988. By 1990, the original network had grown to encompass a number of servers around the world. The people in charge had intense philosophical disagreements over the design of the network. As a result, one group of people and the server they ran were banished from the network. The server was a computer named eris.berkeley.edu. This group formed their own network, but eventually it died out. In the meantime, what was left of the original network became known as the "Eris-free Network" or EFnet. Since then, EFnet has grown enormously, and to this day, it is still the largest of the IRC networks.

By 1993, EFnet was becoming large and cumbersome, and another group of people decided to start an alternative network, which they named Undernet. The name was chosen as a whimsical description of an "underground network", hidden from the main network.

In 1995, another group of EFnet people created a network called DALnet as an alternative to EFnet and Undernet . The name comes from one of the members of this group, Sven Nielsen. Sven's nickname was "Dalvenjah FoxFire".

In 1996, the last of the large IRC networks, IRCnet, was started by yet another group of people who broke away from EFnet.

IRC is a mature, complex system, and there is a lot for you to learn. To get you started, I will explain the basic terminology, and show you where to get the software and the information you need. Once you have read this section, you can start by downloading and installing your own IRC client. You will then be able to connect to a server and start talking.

Each IRC network has a number of CHANNELS, each of which supports a different conversation. Once you have connected to an IRC server, you can JOIN one of the channels. This allows you to participate in that particular conversation. When you are tired of that conversation, you can LEAVE the channel.

All networks have a variety of channels; a large network may have thousands. Channels are dynamic: anyone can create a channel at any time. Once the last person leaves, the channel is automatically deleted. Some channels have an automated program, called a "bot", that stays on the channel permanently to keep it open. (We will talk about bots later in the chapter.)

When someone creates a channel, he specifies a name for it. He can also specify an optional short description called a TOPIC. The purpose of the topic is to let people know what the channel is being used for. Some channels are created to discuss a specific subject, while others are used for more general conversation. As you use IRC, you can join and leave channels whenever you want, and you can be in more than one at the same time.

Channel names start with the # (number sign) character. Here are some examples:

#hottub
#beginner
#help
#IRCaddicts
#Wasteland

When you type a channel name, you can use either upper- or lowercase letters. Although some names are created with uppercase letters, it is easier to use all lowercase when you type.

The person who creates a channel becomes the CHANNEL OPERATOR or OP. The op has special control over that particular channel. He or she decides whether the channel will be open to the public, or whether it will be private (in which case, people may join by invitation only or by entering a password). If someone in the channel is a troublemaker, the op can kick him off the channel or even ban him permanently. The op can share power by allowing someone else to also become an op (for that channel).

People on IRC do not use their real names. Instead, each person uses a NICKNAME or NICK. You can use any nick you want (and you can change it whenever you want), as long as no one else on the network is already using the same name.

Most IRC clients put each channel in a separate window to help you keep the various conversations separate. You can then follow the conversation just by looking at the window. Every time anyone sends a message, it will be broadcast to everyone who has joined that channel. As you watch a channel, you will see messages appear near the bottom of the window and scroll up. At the very bottom of the window, there is an area that you use to type your own messages. When you do, they will be sent to the server which will broadcast them to everyone in the channel.

Figure 8-6 shows a typical IRC session. Within this session, I am participating in three different channels, each of which has its own conversation in its own window. In addition, there is a fourth window (on the bottom right) that shows various status messages.

Figure 8-6: A typical IRC session

As you watch the window for a particular channel, you will see two types of messages in the window. First, you will see the regular messages that people type back and forth. These messages will have the form:

<nickname> message

For example, here are two messages sent by a person who is using the nickname carrie:

<carrie> It takes a lot of energy to be so cute...
<carrie> But I manage :-)

Aside from conversation, you will also see system messages, generated by the IRC server. These messages give you information about the channel itself. For instance, every time someone joins or leaves a channel, you will see such a system message. All system messages start with the characters ***. For example:

*** carrie (amish@cascade.net) has joined #hottub

In a busy channel, the messages will fly by quickly and you may be confused. Don't worry. Once you get used to IRC, your mind will notice what it needs to notice and will ignore everything else. In no time at all, you will be able to keep track of several different channels, while carrying on several conversations at the same time.

To control your IRC session, you use IRC commands. All of the commands start with a / (slash) character, in order to distinguish them from regular messages. For example, the command to join a channel is /join followed by the name of the channel. Thus, to join the #hottub channel, you would type:

/join #hottub

To leave a channel, you use the /leave command:

/leave #hottub

For reference, I have listed the most important IRC commands in the following table.

Figure 8-7: Important IRC commands

Command Description
/dcc chat nicknameStart or accept a direct talk connection
/dcc chat nicknameStart or accept a direct talk connection
/dcc send nickname filesSend files to the specified person
/helpDisplay help information
/help commandDisplay help about the specified command
/join #channelJoin the specified channel
/leave #channelLeave the specified channel (same as /part)
/listDisplay a list of all channels
/list #channelDisplay information about the specified channel
/list -max nDisplay channels that have no more than n people
/list -min nDisplay channels that have at least n people
/me actionShow the specified action to current channel
/mode #channel +piMake the specified channel completely private
/msg nicknames textSend a private message to specified people
/nick nicknameChange your nickname to specified name
/part #channelLeave the specified channel (same as /leave)
/ping nicknameTime to send test message to person and back
/query nicknamesOpen private window to talk to specified people
/quitDisconnect from the server
/who *Show information about people in current channel
/who nicknameShow information about the specified person
/whois nicknameShow all information about the specified person

In order to get used to IRC, take some time to experiment with the various commands. As you do, don't forget to type a / character at the beginning of each command. Otherwise, your command will be interpreted as a message, and it will be broadcast to everyone in the channel. Consider this example.

The command to send a private message is:

/msg nickname message

To send a private message to the person using the nick carrie, you would type:

/msg carrie Did you get the secret letter I sent you?

What happens if you inadvertently leave out the / character?

msg carrie Did you get the secret letter I sent you?

The IRC server will interpret what you typed as a regular message and show it to everyone in the channel.

Want to have some fun? Try this. Join a crowded channel, and after waiting a few minutes, enter the following commands:

msg hotlips I would love to meet you in person
msg hotlips Don't forget the whipped cream

(Be sure you do not type a / character at the beginning of the command.)

Aside from channels, IRC also supports a facility called DCC (which stands for "Direct Client to Client connection"). DCC allows you to establish a direct connection with another person. Once you establish such a connection, you can talk in private, as well as transfer files back and forth. The basic DCC commands are listed in Figure 8-7 above. DCC is useful to know, so when you get a chance, see if you can find someone to help you practice the commands.

— hint —

For security reasons, never accept a program or a script via DCC to run on your computer. It is not uncommon for people to offer programs that can cause harm to your system. One of my friends, who shall remain nameless (Martin Rivers), once got into trouble in just that way.

He was talking to someone via DCC, and the person offered him a batch file (a type of script). Martin accepted the file and ran it. The batch file then proceeded to delete some important Windows files from his computer. As a result, Martin had to reformat his hard disk, which caused him to lose all his files.

The next idea I want to mention is that of a BOT. A bot is a program that performs actions automatically in a specific IRC channel. (The name stands for "robot".) A bot can be programmed to respond to different types of input, to generate output, and to carry out various tasks. For example, a bot can be used to keep a channel open permanently, even when there are no people in it. Although bots can be helpful, many people have used them to cause trouble and abuse the system. For this reason, some IRC networks ban bots altogether. Other networks allow them, but impose restrictions to make sure that the bots are not disruptive.

To finish this section, I would like to leave you with some resources to help you get started. First, you need to download and install an IRC client. The clients I have suggested here are particularly good ones. If you need more help, you can either look at the help system within your client program or check with the help resources on the Web. Once you have an IRC client, connect to a server and join a channel. If you need more information, check with some of the resources listed below.

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Muds

Real life is fine when it's time to balance your checkbook or go to the dentist, but once in awhile we can all use a break. When the time comes to escape reality, there are many imaginary environments on the Net where you can go to explore, have adventures, meet people, or indulge in good, old-fashioned make-believe.

A MUD is an elaborate, text-based imaginary environment. Although muds are used for talking, they offer a lot more: you can have adventures, explore exotic places, and solve puzzles. You can also take part in group events, such as going on a quest or attending a wedding.

Muds are fantasy role-playing environments in which each person becomes a character. For example, you might be a magician, a druid, a thief, a warrior, a pirate or an assassin. As you use the mud, your character interacts with other characters and with the mud itself. You move around from place to place, and as you do, things happen. For instance, you may be exploring a cave and happen upon an evil magician who tries to kill you. Or you may encounter a young warrior who asks you to join her on a quest to save a city from a hungry dragon.

Participating in a mud is a long-term experience. Every mud has regular users who form a large, extended family. Once you join a mud (which is free), you can create your own character and use it every time you visit that mud. It is common for people to return to a mud over and over, for months or even years. Each time you return, you will meet some of the same people, and over time, you will develop long-term friendships.

Muds provide a rich experience, because they offer a detailed environment that changes as you move from one place to another. Since muds are text- based, there are no pictures, only words to describe what you see. However, words are more compelling than pictures, and the imaginary world of a mud will, over time, become as real to you as the setting of a novel.

Each mud has a geography that is created by the people who administer the mud. Every mud is different, with its own villages and towns, and with a large number of rooms to explore. Figure 8-8 shows a typical description of a setting within a mud.

Figure 8-8: An imaginary setting within a mud

You are in the Heart's Haven Square.

This is the central gathering place for people
traveling in and out of the city. Heart's Haven
is a coastal city, with the ocean located to
the southeast. To the northeast, the city rises
up a gentle-sloping hillside, and to the
northwest you see a massive rock face. In any
direction you look, you can see interesting
shops and beautiful places to wander. You feel
very welcome here. A tall, black obelisk
decorates the center of the town square. The
bustle and commotion of a thriving town surround
you.

There are four obvious exits:
east, north, south and west.

What's in a Name?

mud


The first mud dates back to a role-playing program developed in 1978 by Richard Bartle and Roy Trubshaw. At the time, they used the acronym MUD to stand for "Multi-User Dungeons" (as in Dungeons and Dragons). Later, people started to use "Multi- User Dimension", but eventually the name "mud" became a full-fledged word on its own (which is why I write it in lowercase letters).

The word "mud" can also be used as a verb. For example, "I have to finish my homework, so I can go mud" or "Monica fell asleep during the President's speech, because she was tired from mudding all night."

Broadly speaking, there are two types of muds: social muds and adventure muds.

Social muds are used primarily for chatting and socializing. They do have an imaginary geography, and people do adopt character roles, but mostly, these muds are for talking. Unlike chat rooms and IRC, muds provide an enduring social setting. People tend to stay longer, return more often, and take time to learn how things work. Once you start to spend time on a mud, you will make friends who will become an important part of your life. In fact, it is common for people on muds to have friendships that last for years.

— hint —

You will see social muds referred to by a variety of names: TinyMUDs, MUSHs, MUCKs, MUSEs and MOOs.

The distinction between the various subcategories is not important. Just remember that all muds of these types are for talking.

Adventure muds have two purposes. They are for talking and for role-playing adventures. The examples I described above, including the one in Figure 8-8, are taken from adventure muds. Every adventure mud has a complex environment based on a particular theme. For example, there are adventure muds based on medieval fantasy, gothic horror, science fiction settings, and futuristic techno- cultures. I myself sponsor an adventure mud named Zynna. To give you an idea of what these muds are like, here is a brief description of Zynna.

Zynna was planned and developed by a group of people who have years of mudding experience. These people have created a rich and engaging environment based on a medieval fantasy theme. Like all adventure muds, you can spend time talking with other people, but there are also a great many places to explore. Zynna has five continents, one of which is an archipelago. There are coastlines, mountains, forests, streams, caves, cliffs (which you can climb), castles, beaches, docks (where you can catch fish to eat), parks, an underground cavern, a maze, roads, and cities that have restaurants, pubs, hospitals, armories and various types of shops. Within Zynna, there are a lot of activities to keep you busy, either alone or in the company of other people, so there is always something to do.

— hint —

Muds are magical places. There is nothing else like them, on or off the Net.

So how do you access a mud? Muds use a client/server system, so to start, you must download and install a mud client. Once your client is up and running, you can have it connect to any mud you want.

In order to connect to a mud, you need to know two pieces of information. First, you need to know the address of the mud. This is a regular Internet address that identifies the host (that is, the computer) on which the mud resides. For example, the host for Zynna is zynna.com.

The second thing you need to know is the PORT NUMBER used by the mud. Port numbers work as follows.

Because Internet computers can provide a variety of services, a client must be able to tell a server exactly what type of service is being requested. To do this, the client uses a port number. All Internet client/server systems use port numbers, but in most cases, you don't have to worry about them, because your client takes care of the details automatically. For example, the basic Internet services, such as mail and Usenet and the Web, all use standard port numbers. When you access one of these services, your client automatically sends the appropriate port number to the server.

Muds, however, do not use standard port numbers. For this reason, in order to access a mud, you must specify a port number as well as an address. In general, people who design muds choose port numbers that are easy to remember. For example, the port number for Zynna is 4000.

In case you were wondering about other port numbers, Figure 8-9 shows some of the standard numbers used on the Internet. Most of the time, you don't really need to know any of this, so don't worry if you don't recognize some of the technical terms. Your client programs know what to do.

Figure 8-9: Standard port numbers used on the Internet

Service Port Number
DNS53
FTP20, 21
IRC194
Mail25 (SMTP), 110 (POP), 143 (IMAP)
Telnet23
Usenet119 (NNTP)
Web80 (HTTP), 443 (HTTPS ), 8080 (HTTP, sometimes)

To start mudding, begin by downloading and installing a mud client on your computer. Then take a few minutes and read some of the basic information to make sure you get started properly. To help you, I have put an introduction to muds on my Web site. The address is:

http://www.harley.com/muds/

When you need more information, you can take a look at the FAQs (frequently asked question lists) and tutorials listed below. Once you are ready to start mudding, check out the lists of muds for one that looks intriguing. (Your mud client will also come with its own list of muds.) Most muds have their own FAQ, which you should read if you are a newcomer.

If you would like to visit the Zynna mud, you can connect by using the following information:

Zynna Mud
host = zynna.com
port = 4000

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Expectations and Reality

Isn't it amazing that you can sit in front of your computer and, just by clicking your mouse and typing on your keyboard, talk to people all over the world?

Talking on the Net is a pleasant way to pass the time, but it can be much more. The Internet is a part of our mainstream culture, and meeting people on the Net is considered a normal, legitimate way to make friends. Many people use the Net every day to meet with their friends and to develop relationships. Some relationships are brief; others last for months and years. Some relationships are casual; others are deeply passionate and enduring.

You may hear someone talk about the Internet as if it were different from "real life", but for a great many people, the Net is part of real life. The friends they have on the Net are just as real as their job, their home and their family.

And why not? When you talk on the Net, you are communicating directly with other people's minds. By bypassing the limitations of appearance and physical presence, you learn to judge people by their ideas and by how they express themselves. All this makes for a culture in which what you are matters a whole lot more than who you are. However, the Internet is different from other parts of life. To be successful, you need to develop new skills and new ways of looking at other people.

To start, you need to be persistent. When you begin to talk on the Net, it is easy to feel confused and overwhelmed. As you watch the conversation in a chat room or an IRC channel or a mud, you will see people coming and going. Moreover, the messages move fast, and it can be hard to understand what is happening.

Don't worry. All the people who look as if they are so confident were, at one time, beginners just like you. Human beings are flexible and adaptable, and it won't be long before you know what you are doing and you will feel right at home. Whatever happens, don't allow yourself to be intimidated by other people. Not everyone on the Net is polite, and a few people take particular delight in being mean to newcomers. All they are doing is demonstrating their own insecurities, so don't let such people hurt your feelings.

To help you get off to a good start, I have two suggestions. First, recognize that the Internet talk facilities have been around for some time and have all developed their own cultures. (This is especially true of IRC and the muds.) Your first steps should be to learn how things are done, just as you would if you moved to a foreign country.

At the beginning, it is a good idea to listen more than you talk. Do your best to learn the new words and to understand the behaviors that are expected of you. Each type of talk facility has a rhythm of its own, which you will absorb. After all, there are many thousands of people using the Internet to talk right now, and most of them aren't nearly as smart as you.

My second suggestion is to put some effort into improving your typing. The better you type, the faster you will communicate, and the more likely people will respond to what you have to say. Remember, people judge you by what they see, and on the Net, all they can see is your words. In my experience, the easiest way to learn to type quickly is to spend lots of time talking on the Net.

— hint —

When your mind wants to say something, your fingers will figure out what to do.

As a rule, people who talk on the Net use nicknames to remain anonymous. As a result, the Internet has developed a wonderful freedom of expression in which people are comfortable saying whatever they want. There are a lot of advantages to such an environment. After all, the Internet is the largest open forum in the world and people should feel free to express themselves however they want. As you talk on the Net, you are in an environment where people's ideas and personalities matter more than who they are or where they live.

For this reason, you must realize that many people are not who they seem to be. People can present themselves in any way they want: they can tell the truth, they can lie, and they can exaggerate. For example, it is common for people to misrepresent their age, their weight and even their sex. This does not mean that you always need to be distrustful and suspicious. Rather, you must learn to accept people based on their ideas. Do not depend on what anyone says about himself, unless you have a way to verify it independently.

If you are talking with someone and your intuition tells you that something is not right, be prudent and break off the conversation. Be polite, but don't worry about hurting someone else's feelings. There are plenty of other people to talk to.

Just as important, be sure to protect your own privacy. As a general rule, do not tell anyone your real name, your phone number or your street address. If you get to know someone well, you may want to give some personal information, but please make sure you really do know him or her well, and use your discretion.

— hint for parents —

Before you let your children talk on the Net, teach them that they must never give out any type of personal information without your permission.

If your children are young, you can find places for them where they will be talking with other children. To make sure you feel comfortable, you may want to watch as they talk.

Once you start to make friends, the time may come when you want to meet someone in person. Such meetings can work out well, and many satisfying relationships have started on the Internet. However, you should realize that it is possible to develop a deep bond with people, even to the point of intimacy, and still not really understand who they are.

On the Internet, people can present themselves in any way they want, and it is human nature for all of us to dwell on our strengths and downplay our weaknesses. When you talk to someone in person, you can see what he looks like, his body language, and his mannerisms. You can also see how he reacts to you, and how you feel being with him.

All this is missing when you talk over the Net. So, when you are going to meet somebody in person for the first time, do not take anything for granted. Arrange to meet the person in a public place and if possible, take a friend with you. The friend will be more than a chaperone. Although you may have talked to someone for hundreds of hours, meeting him or her in person is bound to generate a lot of pressure and some awkwardness. Having a friend with you will make the meeting more relaxed and a lot more comfortable.

If you participate in the "adult community" on the Net -- where people are primarily interested in sexual and fetish activities -- you must be especially careful when you arrange to meet someone in person. Here are three important suggestions.

First, do not engage in any sexual or fetish activity during the first meeting. Make the other person agree to this ahead of time, and don't let him or her change your mind.

Second, before you meet, you and the other person should exchange photocopies of your driver's licenses.

Third, make sure that at least one friend knows all the details: where you are going, the name of the person you are meeting, that person's description, what you plan to be doing, and so on. Tell the friend that you will call him or her several times: when you meet the new person, a few hours later, and when you arrive home. This is known as making a SAFE CALL. If you have a cell phone, you can also have your friend call you at prearranged items. If you do not make a safe call on time, your friend can do something to help you (such as calling the police or your mother).

The last point I want to make has to do with developing a sense of perspective. Talking on the Net is fun and making friends is certainly rewarding, but you must never forget that there is more to life than the Internet. Many people get so wrapped up with their Internet friends that they neglect other aspects of life. (I discuss these issues at length in my book "Internet Insecurity".)

Another common problem is that many people are drawn into unwholesome sexual/fetish activities. (There are a huge number of people engaged in such activities on the Internet, and a great many well- established communities.) This often happens to adventurous people, who think they are in full control of their lives, and who don't realize that their thinking is being changed, a tiny bit at a time.

I have seen some tragically sad things happen to otherwise smart, well-adjusted people. Unfortunately, when you get used to something a bit at a time, strange new activities can seem normal, and it is all too easy to lose your perspective. To use an old- fashioned idea, people do get corrupted.

It is important for your health and your sense of well-being to maintain a balance in your life. You are a human being, and you need fresh air, exercise, and healthy, face-to-face relationships that involve normal responsibilities and obligations. Moreover, common sense should tell you that, if you start participating in an area of life in which safe calls are necessary, you might want to rethink your priorities.

— hint —

Go outside: the Net will be there when you get back.

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Net Sex

Warning: The following section contains material for mature audiences only. Do not read it unless you are an adult, or unless
your parents are not in the room.

NET SEX refers to an activity in which two people type erotic messages back and forth in order to achieve a state of sexual arousal leading to physical resolution. The word CYBER is sometimes used as a verb to indicate participating in net sex. For example, "Janice had not been in the chat room more than 2 minutes before a stranger asked her if she wanted to cyber."

For the most part, net sex takes place between two consenting people in a private place within some type of talk facility. Frequently, the people having net sex are masturbating at the same time. There is nothing wrong with this; after all, it is a private activity. However, if you choose to engage in net sex, I do want you to understand what is probably happening at the other end. Net sex is safe in a physical way, because there is no actual contact. However, there are a few important considerations.

Net sex involves real feelings and real sensations. Within the anonymity of the Internet, it may be easy to forget your inhibitions, but you must remember that you are interacting with another person. People have feelings, so don't forget to be nice.

If you ever meet a net sex partner in person, do not have any expectations. Do not assume that, just because someone had net sex with you, he or she will want to have real sex. Nor should you assume that you have a deep relationship with someone just because you have had net sex. For many people, net sex is a way to experiment or to release sexual tension. Chances are, there is not much meaning beyond the obvious.

You should be aware that most talk programs have a way to save the transcript of a conversation. Although you may think your encounter is completely private, your partner may be recording everything. For this reason, some people will only have net sex with people they know well.

Finally, you must remember that the Internet is based on anonymity and voluntary standards of behavior. When you meet someone on the Internet, there is no way to know who they really are or if they are telling the truth, so please use discretion and judgment. (But don't forget to have fun.)

— hint —

Net sex requires you to use your imagination, and there is no doubt that experiences that fulfill your fantasies can be highly satisfying.

However, imagine your disappointment if you were to find out that the blonde, 21-year-old college girl who likes to be tied up and ravished is really a balding, 55-year-old accountant named Marvin from Fargo, North Dakota.

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