Tips & Tools For Communicating On-Line

(This column first appeared in the November/December 1997 issue of Dive Report)

In the last issue of Dive Report, I discussed some of the ways that dive-related businesses can use e-mail, newsgroups and e-mail discussion groups to market themselves to their best advantage. In this column, I’ll pick up that thread and fill you in on some of the software tools that you’ll need to get and send e-mail and subscribe to newsgroups.

Electronic Mail Delivery
On-line services such as CompuServe and America On-Line include e-mail capabilities with their front-end software. If you don’t subscribe to such as service, let me recommend a few software packages that you can use to send and receive e-mail. My personal favorite is Eudora Pro, which is part of the most popular e-mail software family in the world (the other member being Eudora Lite), and is available on both the PC and the Mac. Eudora is a standalone e-mail package that lets you organize your e-mail into folders, work on your e-mail off-line, and queue your messages to be sent whenever you log onto the Internet. The Lite version is available free of charge from the Eudora Web site; the Pro version (which offers a bunch of additional power-user features) is well under $100 from most software and computer stores.

Netscape Navigator, available on PC, Mac, and even UNIX systems, combines a Web browser with e-mail and newsgroup capability all in a single, powerful package. You can get Netscape Navigator Version 3.0 at almost any store that sells software, and it frequently comes bundled with some good introductory books about the Internet as well as a user manual.

If you have Windows 95, you can use Microsoft Mail and Microsoft Exchange, which come free with Windows 95 (see the Help feature in Windows 95 for more details on setting these programs up).

Forming New Habits
Once you start using e-mail, you have to be good about checking for new messages regularly and replying to them in a timely fashion. If you’re not, there’s not much sense in having e-mail. It’s also important to keep in mind that an e-mail address is like a phone number. If you want to send someone e-mail, you need his or her e-mail address. Make sure to add an e-mail address contact field to your customer databases and start collecting e-mail addresses.

Why go through this administrative change? There is no such thing as a global address book for e-mail addresses, because no central agency issues e-mail addresses. Any Internet service provider (ISP) or controller of a domain name can issue them at will. So, keep track of the e-mail addresses of people you do business with.

In terms of sending e-mail, you should be aware that unsolicited mass e-mailings (i.e. to lots of people with whom you’ve had no prior contact) are frowned upon, and have become known on the Internet as “spamming”. Yes, some people on the Net sell mailing lists with millions of e-mail addresses to be used for spamming, but it’s still not a good thing, and may even cause your ISP to kick you off the Net.

Netiquette (etiquette on the Net) requires that you only send mass e-mails to people who have, in one way or another, given you permission to do so, perhaps by supplying an e-mail address on a postcard or survey or registration. This, of course, adds further significance to collecting e-mail addresses from people you do business with, and printing your own e-mail address on every piece of material that you give or send out, including ads, business cards, brochures and letterhead.

Reading The Newsgroups
In order to participate in a newsgroup, you need a piece of software called a “news reader”. One comes free with the latest version of Windows 95 and Microsoft’s Internet Explorer (another Web browser), and there’s one also built into Netscape Navigator (making it the most useful, multi-purpose piece of Internet software around for both the Mac and the PC). I’ve also been happy with a product call Agent, from Forte Inc., which costs a little ($40 or so), but offers really nice add-on functions, like message filtering.

If you’re using a proprietary service with its own access software, such as CompuServe or America On-Line, then those services include news reader capability in their access software or via their on-line services, so a separate piece of news reader software is not required.

The specific steps to subscribe to a newsgroup vary greatly among the various news reader software packages. The general approach seems to be to configure your newsgroup software to talk to your access provider’s news server (a system which stores a local copy of the newsgroups), then to direct the news reader software to update its list of available groups. This will usually take a few minutes, as this information needs to be downloaded (brought into your computer) from the news server. Note that you may not get all of the 40,000-plus newsgroups, because your access provider has chosen not to offer some groups (some access providers will filter out groups that some might find offensive, for example). Once the list of available newsgroups is loaded, you can search or scroll through the list until you find a newsgroup you’re interested in.

Once you select a newsgroup, you’ll usually have the option of just browsing the last 50 or so headers (basically, the “subject” lines of the messages), or subscribing to the newsgroup and getting all the active headers. The next step would be to select those headers you’re interested in (for example, any header or subject line that mentions Bonaire), and having the newsgroup software retrieve the message bodies for you so you can see what the message is about.

When you send messages to a newsgroup, make sure to include your contact information in your electronic signature at the end of each message. Most news readers and e-mail programs allow you to set at least one signature which automatically gets attached to messages you send.

One cool thing about newsgroup software is that it normally tracks message “threads”–lists of messages that share the same subject line because people have been replying to these messages. So, if a person posts a message asking about the annual Boston Sea Rovers show in Boston, and three people reply with information, the news software will present all four messages (the original and the replies) as part of a single message thread. To see what a news reader and message thread look like, see Figure 1.

Forte Agent

Forte Agent

Figure 1. This figure shows a view of the Agent news reader. The list of names in the upper left box is a sample of the nearly 25,000 newsgroups that the author currently has listed in his news reader, with rec.scuba highlighted. The upper right box shows some of the current messages (headers only) that are available in the rec.scuba newsgroup, including a thread of eight messages dealing with decompression training. The bottom box is offering to let me retrieve the message body for the first message about decompression training.

With a Wink and a Smile
The problem with e-mail and newsgroup messages is that you can’t use text highlights like italics, bold, and underlines, as you might with a word processor. While this may seem whimsical at first, it’s a vital part of helping prove to your audience that you have a personality, along with a sense of humor. After all, if you respond to on-line messages like a cold fish, you’re probably one in person. If your messages reflect a little bit of humor or other emotion, you’ve automatically built up an empathic bond with your audience (assuming your sense of humor isn’t too warped).

In order to add emotion and depth to plain text messages, some crafty “Netizens” came up with a series of character combinations that help emphasize emotion and intent to put the statement in perspective (very important if you’ve stated something that someone might take seriously, but that you meant to be tongue in cheek). The following chart shows a small sample of such character combinations, known as “emoticons”. (You usually have to look at them sideways.) A much larger list can be found on the Web at

Emoticon Meaning
 :-)  :)  :->  :>
Smiling, happy faces; showing happiness, or for comments not
intended to be taken seriously
 :-(  :(  :-<  :<
Sad, disappointed faces
 ;-)  ;)  ;->  ;>
Winking happy faces; for comments said tongue-in-cheek
 :-p  |-p
aces with tongues stuck out at you
 8-)  8)  B-)  B)
Smiling faces from someone who wears glasses or sunglasses, or
has a wide-eyed look
A facial expression spelled out, for example: <grin> or
<g>; <yawn>; <smile>; <wink>

In the next issue of Dive Report, I’ll finally delve into the mysteries of the Web, including an explanation of why Web addresses look so weird. Until then, happy Net diving, and be careful not to drown in the sea of information overload!  :-)

Product (Company) Web Address
Agent (Forte Inc.)
Eudora (Qualcomm)
Microsoft Internet Explorer (Microsoft)
Netscape Navigator (Netscape)
Web site URLs for companies mentioned in
this article.