Thinking About Online Communications

Excerpts from the Essays in the Book "Thinking About Online Communications"

Between 1992 and 1995 I had fun writing a monthly column, "Thinking About Online Communications," for the GEnie information service. One of the purposes of this column was to explore and examine the nature of the online experience. In writing the column, I tried to come to a better understanding for myself about why online communications is such an important development in the history of human communications. I'm most fascinated with the human dimension of online communications and how the technology itself is transforming how human beings relate to one another.

Last month I decided to collect these essays together into an anthology. While searching for a publishing company to produce this book, I thought it might be beneficial to share excerpts from each of the essays in the book. These excerpts represent the core ideas developed in these essays.

Persons interested in reading further about the subject of "computer-mediated communications," can find many thoughtful writings at the home pages of the Journal of Computer-Mediated Communications.

Two books in this subject area that I have found to be especially interesting are: Electric Language: A Philosophical Study of Word Processing, and The Metaphysics of Virtual Reality. Both of these books are by Michael Heim. Another unusually perceptive book in this field is Shared Minds: The New Technologies of Collaboration, by Michael Schrage. And the book, Being Digital, by Nicholas Negroponte, has many interesting ideas.

I'm also a big fan of the Netculture section of The Mining Co. site.


- Phil Shapiro
Washington DC


*** We All Have a Role to Play in Constructing the Future

(From an essay discussing the economics of electronic mail and the ease with which this allows people to help one another.)

"What fascinates me about this the most, though, is that there is no per unit message fee. Usually the more you communicate, the more you pay. But now, the more you communicate, the more you benefit. Cost calculations don't even enter into the equation.

After all, communications is the very engine of social progress. Businesses grow via communications. Students learn via communications. Social fabric is formed via communications.

Small things add up to big things. Electronic mail helps in countless ways to facilitate the sharing of small things. Which, in itself, is a big thing. A big thing indeed."

*** Forging New Links Between the School and Home

(From an essay discussing how online communication strengthens the bonds between homes and schools.)

"Education, by its very nature, is a collaborative enterprise. Schools cannot succeed unless children have a supportive home environment. And families cannot raise their children without a supportive school environment....

Think back to the days of the one room school house. Everyone knew each other. The social fabric was tightly knit. People pulled together because the community's goals were well-defined and commonly understood.

Online communications serves to rebuild the sense of community that functions as the primary wellspring of education. With community comes hope, and with hope comes everything else."

*** Nurturing the Emotional Bond Between Writers and Readers

(From an essay describing how online communication is opening new channels of communication between book authors and readers.)

"The excitement of direct communications between writers and readers is something that results in great benefits to both. Writers, after all, derive emotional sustenance from the feedback they get from readers. The very purpose of writing becomes real and tangible when readers are able to respond to your books right in your own e-mail mailbox.

Online communications transforms the 'imagined audience' into a 'living, breathing audience.' By doing so, it nurtures the emotional bonds between writer and reader."

*** Sponsored Communications

(From an essay exploring how new information services can derive benefits by "sponsoring" the account of more experienced computer users.)

"Human beings are creative animals by nature. By giving people a measure of creative control over the way in which an information service is built, you can reward those persons by recognizing and celebrating their creative talents. The granting of that creative freedom, itself, can amount to a significant form of 'sponsored communication.'

The most interesting dynamic that occurs in such situations is that an information service can create value to new subscribers by giving perks to older subscribers. A conglomerate of older subscribers can offer technical support for the service that could never possibly be financially feasible otherwise. And in some instances, existing subscribers can help evangelize the information service in a fashion far beyond the dreams of the service's own marketing department....

Sponsored communication, where perks and incentives are offered to the most active members of an online community, costs an information service very little. Yet the beneficial effects of such incentive schemes extends out in many directions."

*** The Future of Online Before-Purchase Technical Support

(From an essay discussing how online communication can assist consumers in obtaining answers to their "before purchase" questions.)

"Our nation has always had a long and proud history of inventors and tinkerers. From Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson, to Henry Ford and Thomas Edison, to Orville and Wilbur Wright, to Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs - - - the creative spirit of Americans emerges anew in each and every generation....

The next generation of inventors are making their way through elementary school today. And they have just a ton of questions they'd like answered."

*** Some Thoughts on the Economics of Electronic Mail

(From an essay discussing the desirability of raising the price of postage stamps to promote the goal of getting more people online.)

"The low price of postage stamps continues to foster an economy based on shuffling papers and envelopes around the country. Each year billions of letters get stuffed into billions of envelopes that get mechanically hauled in aging postal service trucks to technologically undernourished sorting centers that channel the mail to overaged airplanes that fly crowded skies to understaffed airports, channeling the mail back to aging postal service trucks driven by underpaid postal carriers who are mandated to deliver the mail through inclement weather even when they're not feeling well.

It's not quite that bad. But it's close...

Streamlined communications means streamlined everything else. Slow-poke communications means slowpoke everything else...

One of the best ways of making this country more competitive in the international marketplace would be to raise the price of first class postage sufficiently high enough that individuals and businesses start taking electronic mail seriously."

*** Some Facts About the U.S. Postal Service

(From an essay arguing that the large sums of money currently being spent on modernizing the postal service could be better put to use in subsidizing inexpensive terminals for each person in the country.)

"A polite and friendly postal service employee informed me that the Postal Service delivered 171,219,994,000 pieces of mail in 1993.

Well, that looks like a large number, certainly, but what does it mean in more practical terms? In practical terms, the Postal Service delivers about 500 million pieces of mail per day.

If this doesn't seem like a large number, try this little experiment: Take a day off from work sometime and in your free time casually sort and deliver 500 million pieces of mail."

*** Some Thoughts on the Psychological Aspects of Electronic Mail

(From an essay exploring the psychological aspects of sending and receiving electronic mail.)

All communications has the power to lift the human spirit. But even more so when the human spirit is flagging. When you hear a friend has suffered an unexpected misfortune, your first inclination is to reach for the phone to offer soothing words of commiseration and reassurance.

Human beings are intensely social creatures. To a large extent we derive our emotional strength from our interactions with one another. Self-esteem is largely a by-product of how others have treated us."

*** Some Reasons for Bringing Family Members Online

(From an essay discussing the multiple benefit of bringing family members online.)

"Having found myself wishing that my extended family had been online during these trying times, I've taken it upon myself to become a more vocal advocate of online communications. Vocally advocacy need not be pushy advocacy, mind you. The most effective social advocacy has a strong grounding in tact - - - letting others draw their own conclusions in their own good time....

It's interesting to consider human nature in this case. Had all family members been communicating with one another via e-mail prior to the crisis, they would have had no problem using the technology to address the new situation. But with all the worry of a very ill family member, few persons would have the mental composure to learn to use a new communications technology....

Which all goes to say there are benefits to bringing family members online. These benefits go far beyond being able to 'stay in touch' or 'casually socialize.' When the going gets tough you can be there for one another, day and night, via online communication."

*** Developing Your Online Social Skills

(From an essay examining the nature of online social skills.)

"You can tell when a person has developed a facility at this skill. Their public message postings sound concise, well-thought out, sensitive to others' feelings, and inviting reply. Their private electronic mail messages have similar attributes.

Knowing what to say online is only half the battle though. Knowing how to say it is the real challenge....

Tact. Courtesy. Thoughtfulness. A reserved, controlled demeanor. These are all attributes of a refined mind -- both online and off line.

As you journey through the online world, take time to reflect upon the positive examples of online social skills you encounter. You will enrich yourself immeasurably as a result."

*** The Social Ramifications of Low-Cost High-Speed Modems

(From an essay discussing the widespread social impact of low-cost high-speed modems.)

"Every advance in communications technology brings with it a concomitant advance in human welfare. The easier and less expensive it becomes to communicate at long distance, the greater the benefit to society as a whole.

Likewise, when long distance modem communications is made less expensive, doctors in different parts of the country can more easily share the results of medical tests, medical records, and medical research. Society as a whole benefits substantially in this way.

In a sense, modem manufacturers are involved in producing a tool that brings benefits to people in all walks of life - - - regardless of whether they themselves personally make use of the new communications technology. A reverberation of benefits will be accruing to society as a whole as high-speed modems penetrate our homes and businesses."

*** Some Thoughts on the Nature of Human Fellowship

(From an essay exploring the nature of human fellowship as reflected in the experiences of an online discussion group on autism.)

"Who better to help answer your questions than parents [of special needs children] in a similar situation? They have been where you are now and have encountered what you are now encountering. If nothing else, they can lend a sympathetic ear and offer the type of general nurturing advice that we all need at times in our lives....

What online communications has to offer is fellowship. Fellowship is one of the most primal of human needs. Fellowship is the glue that holds society together. We engage in fellowship when we gather around to celebrate a birthday, to rejoice at a wedding, to mourn at a funeral. Fellowship is chatting with a fellow human being on the street corner.

That street corner has expanded in dimensions in recent years.....

Those of us who do have the capacity to experience fellowship ought to seize the chance to share ourselves with others. Whether via phone, via modem, or in person, seize those opportunities to be a human being amongst human beings. As social creatures, we become most human when we share our being with others."

*** Employment Interviewing Online

(From an essay describing how online communication may change the nature of employment interviews.)

"Instead of sitting down for a twenty minute chit-chat, prospective employers and employees can engage in a more involved, deeper, long lasting online dialogue.

Chances are that online communications will dramatically extend the time-span of the 'interviewing' process. Prospective employers might 'court' potential employees by asking them to send e-mail comments and feedback about goings-on in that particular industry....

Companies such as Microsoft or Apple might realistically ask interviewees to send five pieces of original fiction, five poems, five non-fiction articles, and five recent business letters....

Many advantages would result from this innovation in hiring practices. Employers would have a very good sense of the character and talents of the employees they're hiring. Employees, likewise, would have a better sense of the company they're going to work for.

The moral of all this? Brush up on your dating skills. You might need them in courting your next employer. And forget about polishing up your resume. More important to have several dozen writings samples on hand to send prospective employers.

In the coming Information Age, the written word will reign supreme. Those who can best mold raw ideas into sterling sentences will be precious to those who need their skills."

*** Online Editing: Polishing the Written Word

(From an essay describing the rise of fee-based online editing services.)

"When a person's livelihood depends on the clarity of his or her written expression, you can be sure that person will give thought to making use of online editing services....

Luckily for you, a fee-based online editing service may be soon only an e-mail message away. It will be interesting to see which of the national information services takes the lead in bringing such services online."

*** Online Editing, Part II: Peer Editing

[From an essay discussing the nature of "peer-based" online editing. (As opposed to "fee-based" online editing.) This quoted passage describes a situation where I passed along a suggested re-wording to a friend's business letter.]

"While the phrasing of the overall letter was generally warm, the lead sentence did not establish emotional contact with the reader of the letter. Reading the lead sentence on its own could leave a reader wondering about the purpose of the letter.... Rule number one of business letter writing: Never start a business letter with a flat, neutral sounding sentence. Unless, that is, you're hoping to elicit a flat, neutral response...

The beauty of online peer editing is that it takes very little effort to courtesy copy two or more persons to elicit feedback on one's rough draft. If two or more peer editors make similar suggestions for changes in the rough draft, their concurrent opinions carry far more weight than each of their individual suggestions.

When such concurrent suggestions from peer editors are independently offered to an author, the force of these suggestions carries all the weight of consensus opinion. Authors can then choose to act on the basis of this consensus opinion.

Or they can choose to disregard consensus opinion - - - at their peril.

In this Information Age, people with strong writing skills will have a marked professional advantage over those with less developed communication skills. And those persons with established peer editing networks of friends and colleagues will have a marked advantage over those without such networks."

*** Some Thoughts on Online Mentoring

(From an essay discussing how e-mail can facilitate 'online mentoring.')

"Just as exhilarating as it is for youngsters to be able to easily ask questions of professionals in a particular field, so too is the satisfaction that results when professionals are able to provide answers to young inquiring minds. The e-mail dialogue doesn't have to occur with a famous scientist or artist for the exchange to be meaningful....

When two minds communicate, the result can be magic. After all, the most fertile field for any mind to grow in is a field of other minds."

*** Thoughts on Creative Literary Collaborations

(From an essay discussing the possibilities for online literary collaborations, pointing out that the originator of an idea can now easily pass along that idea for someone else to nurture to full blossom.)

"Online communications has revolutionized the way writers write and editors edit. Editors can respond to proposed book or magazine articles within hours of receiving them. Authors can cross-fertilize ideas with other authors world wide. Complementary talents can produce synergized creations far greater than any individual could produce on their own....

Writers have never had it so good. Online communications opens up tantalizing possibilities for creative literary collaborations. It will be exciting to watch this current drama unfold. Best of all, each one of us can become playwrights and actors in this emerging play."

*** A Few Thoughts About Online Book Reviews

(From an essay comparing the advantages of online book reviews to hard copy book reviews, pointing out the "bottlenecked" disadvantage of hard copy book reviews.)

"As we walk through the portals of the information age, more and more books are being published on a variety of interesting topics..... Online information services can provide a key role in helping readers separate the wheat from the chaff....

Book Review Bottleneck Burdens Burgeoning Bibliophiles

It is ironic that at a time when bookstores seem to be prospering, when people are rediscovering reading and writing via online services, and when the need for information is great, that the publishing industry is held at bay by this tiny bottleneck known as the hardcopy book review. Online book reviews offer the best hope for liberating publishers, authors, and readers. The future of the written word looks promising, indeed."

*** Bringing Libraries Online

(From an essay comparing the desirability of bringing the contents of libraries online with the desirability of bringing the talents of librarians online.)

"A few months ago, public television broadcast an intriguing documentary about the Library of Congress. In that show, Steve Jobs made a brief appearance, talking starry-eyed about digitizing the entire Library of Congress -- making its contents available via high-speed modem lines to anyone and everyone in the nation....

The magic of information technology can make grandiose "Jobsian" schemes superficially appealing. We need to continuously ask ourselves whether such schemes advance the public interest in a way that merits grand-scale expenditures. Thoughtful people can tell you that great social advancements can take place with the imaginative use of existing information technologies. You don't have to be a reference librarian to know that."

*** Some Thoughts About Telecom Training Centers

(From an essay arguing that public libraries are the most logical site for having free online training classes.)

"Our society values learning enough that we spend 200 billion dollars each year on our public school system. Likewise, in the interest of promoting learning we subsidize a large and robust public library system....

Public libraries already have a mandate to promote the dissemination of knowledge and information. Calling upon our libraries to help train our nation in online skills makes even more sense when you consider the great overlap between basic telecommunications skills and basic research skills."

*** I Couldn't Bear to Tell Him

(From a first person essay examining the reasons why some people are reluctant to get online.)

"But I was chagrined to hear a minute later about the high costs of faxing chapters of the book back and forth between both Germany and California. Faxing? Chapters? Of the Book? Back and forth? To Germany? And California?

In the most gentle way possible I mentioned that he might be able to achieve cost savings if he and his colleagues used electronic mail rather than faxes....

To help soften the blow, I didn't mention that he could quite easily communicate online with Germany and California for free."

*** Tips for Getting Children Involved in Telecommunications

(From an essay giving pointers on getting children online.)

"Many schools and families these days are getting children involved in using modems to send and retrieve electronic mail. Just as a child can take great pride in getting his or her first library card, so too can children take great pride in getting their first password for a local bulletin board (BBS) or a national information service. In terms of becoming a participant in the Information Age, getting your first password is a life event as significant as learning to walk upright on two legs, getting a library card, or learning how to read out loud. Such landmark events should be marked with appropriate fanfare and celebration....

Still, a whole new facet of computers is opened up to children who are introduced to telecommunications. With appropriate supervision and coaxing their experience can be as exhilarating as a new reader walking home from the library with an armful of books. In those precious moments the world seems endlessly fascinating, socially welcoming, and intellectually beckoning."

*** A Library Users Perspective: Online Public Library Reference Services

(From an essay describing the nature of online public library reference services. Written from the perspective of an active user of these services.)

"The closest any human being can come to being omniscient is to earn a living as a reference librarian. Librarians make it their business to know where information can be found. They are the quintessential 'intelligent agent,' ready to offer expert guidance to information seekers young and old.

The end result is that an accumulation of knowledge takes place....

Online reference service allows for patrons to learn from each others' questions, and helps minimize the problem of having paid information professionals (reference librarians) answer the same question posed by many different patrons....

To live life to its fullest each one of us needs to ask the questions that address themselves to our minds. By providing a new and streamlined channel for the asking of reference questions, online reference services may well beckon the questions that have heretofore not felt bold enough to present themselves to our minds."

*** A New Relationship Between Human Beings and Text

(From an essay discussing how online communication serves to liberate text for use by anyone and everyone.)

"One aspect of the explosive growth of online communications is that it creates a new relationship between human beings and text. In ages past, text was something whose existence was always formal and highly controlled. Text lived exclusively in big city newspapers, big business magazines, fancy leather-bound books, and other musty dusty places....

*** Notching - When One Thing Leads to Another

(From an essay discussing how the phenomenon of "one thing leading to another" occurs often in online communication.)

"The social aspects of online communication is a most fascinating phenomenon. In the past few years I've tried to pay close attention to how people interact online. One of the most interesting phenomenons is something I've come to think of as 'notching.'

Just as in life, it's the nature of the online experience that one thing leads to another. The facility with which e-mail can be sent and received, though, makes it much more likely that gears start turning online..."

*** Online Communication and the Changing Nature of Friendship

(From an essay discussing how online communication is expanding the nature of human friendship.)

"The nature of the medium is such that it helps people connect with others of similar interest... The Internet allows you to zero in on just those people who share your own particular interests.

Online communication magnifies the benefits of friendship. The more people you know online, the more opportunities you will have to benefit from their specialized knowledge and expertise. If it's true that the more online contacts you have, the greater the overall benefits in your life, than it's just one extra step of logic to say that online communication tends to make people more sociable, more extroverted..."

*** Getting Clued In About Each Other

(From an essay discussing how personal home pages perform the immensely important function of letting people learn more about each other.)

"Truth is, most of us don't have a clue about each other. Even people who I consider to be my close friends continuously surprise me with interesting facets of their lives. If these friends had set up personal web pages telling about themselves, I might have come to know them sooner and in greater depth...

Why is it important for people to be clued in about each other? It's important because otherwise we could all pass through life without the slightest idea of what anybody else is doing. This would be a shame because of the enormous number of missed opportunities for people to connect with one another.

To be sure, human beings are multifaceted creatures. For instance, I happen to have strong interest in computers in education. But I'm also interested in video production, multiculturalism, philosophy, music, ethics, and special needs computing. One of my strongest interests is in technology access issues. I also try to follow developments in the arts, for art dignifies the soul.

So take time to learn who your fellow travelers are. Take time to tell them who you are. You may well be surprised at the opportunities that unfold as a result."

*** Making It Easier for Others to Help You

(From an essay describing how very useful it is for nonprofits and charities to get online.)

"A friend of mine is the director of a women's shelter here in Washington DC. Two months ago my friend asked me if I could help her find some computers she could set up for the women at the shelter....

How is it that being online makes it easier for others to help you? People who help charities and nonprofits often have quite busy lives themselves. Help-givers really appreciate being able to communicate online with others because e-mail communication allows them to offer more assistance to more people each day....

Help-givers are always thankful when people needing assistance reach them via e-mail. By getting online, people looking for assistance are helping themselves as well as helping their neighbors. The streamlining of communication that takes place via e-mail can free the help-giver to give extra assistance to others....

Being connected online puts nonprofits and charities in a much better position to raise their arms upward for assistance. Online communication narrows the distance between the help-giver's arm and the help-requestor's arm. Increasing the chance of these two arms grasping each other firmly is what all of us hope for, isn't it?

*** Ways of Promoting a Creative Mindset Using Email

(From an essay examing how email can be used as a tool for promoting the creative temperament, generalizing from my experiences corresponding via email with my nieces and nephew.)

The human mind is capable of astonishing creative feats, but only after it becomes aware of its own creative capabilities. In the world of cognitive psychology, more and more is being written about creativity as a skill that can be consciously developed and enhanced.

In the past few months I've become intrigued at how the creative mindset can be promoted via email exchanges with my elementary-aged nieces and nephew....

...All human beings have self-conceptions about their creative powers. These self-conceptions can easily be strengthened, enhanced, and stimulated. I've come to learn that email communications can be an ideal way of nurturing the budding creative spirit that lies within all of us.

I visit with my nieces and nephew in person two or three times each year. But we've tremendously enjoyed interacting with one another online in between those visits. For me, email has always been a tool that's perfectly suited for conveying a playful mindset.

The way we look at the world, and think of ourselves, is reflected in the kinds of things we say to one another. With a little forethought and creativity we can use email to say the kinds of things that can help budding creative spirits to think in a playful way about the world around them. Creativity skills can indeed be taught, and email might be one of the most powerful tools for doing so.

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