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by Lloyd A. de Vries

Vol. 22 - Instant Gratification

We're in the midst of a communications revolution. It's called, broadly, the Internet.

Like most revolutions, there will be a few bodies lying around, perhaps some burned-out buildings, but eventually historians will look upon this era, I believe, as the watershed in personal electronic communications.

We've talked about how sites on the World Wide Web, e-mail, chats and discussion boards can aid stamp collectors, but not about "instant messaging." These are, usually, two-person chats: Real-time or "live" conversations over the Internet.

I'm only familiar with one of the two major systems, America Online Instant Messenger (referred to as "AIM") and I hadn't paid any attention to it until I changed my career from radio news to Internet news. When I took the new job, everyone in the huge open room used AIM rather than shouting across the room and disturbing the library-like atmosphere (so unlike a radio or TV newsroom!) so I started using it, too.

The other major system is the Microsoft system, MSN Messenger. (MSN is Microsoft Network, and by some strange coincidence, the software is installed on every computer system with Windows.)

We had an intercom buzzer system at work that I'd forgotten about until someone started playing with it the other day. AIM is so much more efficient: It can transport not just "messages" but even story texts and links to Web sites of interest. Plus, unlike the intercom, we can gossip about our co-workers and supervisors with no one the wiser!

For stamp collectors, who are often separated from philatelic friends by long distances, AIM can replace the telephone, and at much lower cost. I've been regularly discussing American Philatelic Society issues with another Director, in the Midwest, during breaks at work. I've answered philatelic questions from other collectors, and given directions to stamp shows.

In fact, as I'm writing this article, I'm discussing matters with a collector and stamp writer in South Carolina (a VSC member).

You don't have to be an America Online subscriber to use AIM. You can go to www.aim.com to download the software, and it's free. Use the My AIM/Edit Options/Edit Preferences area, and you can turn off most of the ads and other annoying features. I have a large "buddy" list, and I'd go nuts listening to all the doors creaking open and slamming shut as my friends, family and co-workers sign on and off, so I've turned off all sounds.

If you are an AOL subscriber, AIM is the Buddy List feature and your AIM name is your AOL screen name, or you can pick a new ID. However, even if you are an AOL subscriber, you can use AIM independently, without running AOL.

One annoying feature I haven't been able to turn off is that when I first receive a message from someone, it pops up on my screen and takes over whatever I was doing. I'll be writing something, and suddenly find myself typing in the AIM message window instead of the article or e-mail.

But I do know how to turn off another annoyance: Sometimes I just get so many interruptions from my online Buddies that I just shut down AIM. Ah, blessed silence!


I had been playing "telephone tag" — leaving voicemail messages but never otherwise connecting directly — with someone on the other side of the country for more than a week, trying to get some information for an article whose deadline was approaching much too soon. It was complicated not only by the fact that it's not a philatelic company and he probably had no idea who I am or what the publications for which I write are, but also the time zones.

About the same time, I fired off a list of six or seven questions for an article to a Postal Service spokesman, via e-mail. Having worked with this man before, I knew he'd have to take my questions to the appropriate people to get the answers anyway. (That's not a knock on him, I just know that system and the nature of my questions.)

Rather than require him to transcribe our telephone conversation, I saved him the trouble.

You'll see references to interviews like these in general as well as philatelic publications: "In a telephone interview..." or "Responding via e-mail...." Sometimes the nature of the interview isn't mentioned; given that press representatives are only supposed to deliver the official line, does it really matter that the spokesman recited it over the telephone from memory or it was written by someone higher up, then cut-and-pasted from one e-mail to another?

If you think it's inappropriate to conduct an interview about stamps and "snail mail" via electronic mail, is the use of a telephone (also electronic) more appropriate?

In fact, I finally suggested that the corporate spokesman and I exchange e-mail instead of continuing the game of tag, and it worked: I made my deadline.

Sure, I'd like to conduct these interviews using other means: In person, with a tape recorder, or, as a fall-back, live on the telephone with immediate answers. I've done thousands of both in my career as a journalist.

But, in an imperfect world, we don't always get what we want. I had a deadline coming up, limited resources and a "day job" that precluded my hopping a plane to find "the way to San Jose," and three other articles to write that week.

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