BCN Conferencing FAQ

An common question for BCN is "How can we do more interactive stuff on the Internet"? This kind of "Stuff" involves loosly defined terms like "conferencing", "chat", "buddy lists", etc. Here are BCN's approaches to these questions. Here is our take on "Appropriate Technology for Interaction on the Internet"

This is a work-in-progress that has not had much input yet from the BCN community. My hope is that it evolves into a page that we can point people to when they ask these sorts of questions. -Neal.

Another related page is

In general BCN strives to use open protocols and Open Source software since they usually best meet the long-term needs of the non-profit community in particular. When the administrative overhead of a service is high or outside BCN's expertise, BCN may prefer to defer to other service proviers.

Unfortunately, the users of commercial services are running into more and more problems with privacy and advertising policies, and mergers often change a friendly, responsive service into a new less responsive service which breaks old promises, old functionality, etc. Then you're stuck with the difficult task of moving to a new service - so pick very carefully!

Group messaging

This category of solutions addresses "asynchronous" discussions. It has a long history on the Internet, dating back to 1974. There are several categories of modern tools for this purpose. For long-term groups, either email lists or netnews newsgroups are the most appropriate choices. Client support for email and netnews is built into common software, and Open Source servers are available. But the overhead of running the servers can be high and takes time away from other more critical services that BCN provides. Fortunately, netnews servers are a normal part of any ISP and the administration of netnews is very democratic, so we'll concentrate on email lists here.


"Chat" applies to real-time conversations. These are often much less productive than asynchronous discussions, but can foster a strong sense of community. A number of attempts to use HTML to do chat rooms have been tried, but HTML is not well suited to this application.

Open protocols with Open Source implementations include

Buddy Lists

Services like the AOL Instant Messenger (AIM, now bundled with Netscape) provide ways for people to keep track of when their friends and colleagues are reachable on the Internet. They are then able to send "instant messages" to each other.

There are difficult technical and legal problems relating to privacy, security, interoperability and scalability. The IETF is working on a standard which should help a lot: Instant Messaging and Presence Protocol (impp)

A conference on these ideas was held in the summer of 1998: WISEN.

Neal McBurnett
Last modified: Wed Mar 7 11:46:36 MST 2001