In the beginning, the most popular way for groups to communicate was simply “in person”. But with the advent of technology, even as early as two millennia ago, man has devised new ways for groups to communicate without actually being together in the same room.
IRC (Internet Relay Chat)
Back when the internet was young and 28.8 baud modems were all the rage, Internet Relay Chat was the way for web-heads to communicate online. VOIP was still the internet equivalent of HAM radio (“I spoke with someone in Australia today!”), and ICQ was still a few years out. Created by Jarkko “WiZ” Oikarinen in late August of 1988, Oikarinen’s design was inspired by Jeff Kell’s Bitnet Relay, which had been designed as a way for researchers to chat on Bitnet mostly over mainframe servers. IRC’s slash commands were inspired by Bitnet Relay and they persist to this day in many other chat mediums. IRC’s leap into the public eye came when it was used by the citizens of Kuwait to contact the outside world during the Iraqi invasion of the early 90’s. While many today now utilize more modern means for internet person to person communication, when it comes to text based group chat, IRC is still king.
Instant messaging had its start in the 1970’s when it was developed to allow two uni
x users to chat if they were both logged into the same server. The technology would then evolve to function on closed networks and then finally the internet. The first instant messaging program to enter the public eye was the “On-Line Messages” feature of “Quantum Link” for Commodore computers in the late 80’s. In 1991 “Quantum Link” would change its name to “America Online”. Despite this, however, it would be a different company that would beat AOL to the modern (graphic user interface) IM market. An Israeli program known as ICQ would hit the market in 1996, followed by AOL Instant Messenger in 1997. Since then a number of other heavy hitters have joined the fray. Yahoo and Microsoft hold a heavy share of the market, and Google has recently come out with its own instant messaging service known as GTalk. Recently, these companies have begun to incorporate IRC chat room type functionality into their IM clients for group conversations. Unlike IRC though, these conversations are restricted to the user’s buddy list. This alone could be what keeps IRC as the leader in the chat room venue.
Laugh all you want, but when the electromagnetic pulse of the apocalypse hits wiping out all electronics, you’ll be glade you had a way to you’re your neighboring walled-in villages of the oncoming uber-mutant invasion. Hey, it could happen. As a technology, smoke signals were created by both the Chinese and Native Americans. The technique involved using a blanket to cover a fire then quickly removing the blanket to produce a large puff of smoke. Smoke signal codes were never standardized as a drawback of the technique was one’s enemies could see the smoke signals as well. Because of this, codes were agreed upon before hand by the individual senders and receivers. In China, smoke signals were used along the Great Wall to communicate between towers. Calls for reinforcements and warnings of enemy movement were vital for the wall to serve its purpose. Although modern technology has rendered the smoke signal all but obsolete, with recent events such as Hurricane Katrina still in mind, it’s easy to imagine a modern instance where smoke signals could be used for groups to communicate a call for help.
The origin of conference calls can viably be seen as rooted in party line technology used in the first half of the twentieth century. Instead of each home having a private line, groups of houses would share a single line. The unavoidable perk/drawback of this was the ability for these neighbors to speak to each other simply by picking up their phone and chatting on their shared line. Technology in this case would go full circle as phones would move on to individual private lines, then turn around to once again add a feature to let multiple parties once again speak together in one communal phone conversation. Initially, the easiest way to do this was for a home to possess two phone lines, and a phone that would allow linking a call on both of these lines together. Today, the equipment is now mostly handled by the phone company and conference calling has become a feature of the phone service itself. For conference calls involving a multitude of people though, a conference calling service must be used, either through your phone company or a third party vendor. Such calls can involve the party line type functionality in which all participants can speak with each other, or a layout where only the host may speak, and the others only listen.
Group voice communication is a veritable requirement for any gamer who plays multiplayer online games. Ventrilo and Team Speak (competing programs) are a cross between VOIP, party line functionality, and IRC. In essence it is IRC that uses voice communication instead of text. With these services, a host server is established, which users can then log into using a client. Once logged into the server, the user may a join a chat channel and speak to the group of users within that channel as if it were a party line. The service is primarily used by gamers for gaining an efficiency advantage in their competitive games. If one team needs to type text to communicate, while the other team merely needs to speak, the advantage becomes obvious. This advantage has become such a commonplace necessity that “World of Warcraft “, the world’s best-selling MMORPG, has recently integrated this functionality into the game itself. While still primarily the realm of gamers, it is only a matter of time though before programs like these enter the public spotlight, as IRC did in the early 90’s.
CB (Citizens Band Radio)
For truckers, CB radios have been the chat room of the interstate for over 40 years. Invented by Alfred J. Gross, who also invented walkie-talkies, pagers, and cordless phones, CB radios first appeared in the late forties after World War II. What gave CB radios the edge was low price and ease of use offered by its hardware. For the first time, one didn’t need to be a specialist to chat with people over the radio. Similar to cutting edge technologies today, governing bodies at first tried to establish laws to regulate the new medium, but with users widely ignoring these regulations, most of these laws were eventually dropped. As with communication over the internet, a genre of slang has formed for CB radio use. Terms such as “bear” for police officers and derivatives of FCC recommended “10 codes” such as 10-4 are still used today. As can be expected though, CB radio’s popularity has waned in recent years obviously due to newer technologies such as mobile phones and the internet itself. Looking at the full story of CB radios however, it’s easy to consider that group communication over the internet is nothing more than just a little bit of history repeating.
On December 3rd 1992, the very first commercial text message ever was sent in Great Britain from a personal computer to a phone on the Vodaphone network. Soon after, in 1993, the very first phone to phone text message was sent by a engineering student at Nokia in Finland. Today in Europe, 85% of all mobile phone customers utilize text messaging. In the United States that number is 40% but quickly growing. While the ability to send a short message of text from one user to another can be seen as a great convenience, it is in group communication that text messaging absolutely shines. Text messaging has been used to mobilize everything from urban militias, to instant protest mobs. Some executives in Hollywood have even blamed text messaging for supposed “box office slumps”, since audience members can now spread word before the movie has even finished as to whether or not the movie is worth seeing. On the positive side, text messaging has been utilized in rescue efforts, and for virtual “town hall meetings” when members of a community have found themselves scattered by a natural disaster. With usage steadily on the rise, one can only imagine what the world’s most popular use of mobile group communication will be able to accomplish in the future. Government elections are a definite possibility.
While inventions such as the wheel, metal alloy, and the harnessing of fire are often mentioned as mile markers in our technology, it’s interesting to note that all along this time man has strived to improve his capability for group communication. If the technology continues on its current course, virtual telepathy may be the ultimate goal. Perhaps though, the greatest breakthrough has already happened: the ability to now be part of a limitless group while, at the same time, still maintaining our individual solidarity.