Jarkko Oikarinen and Doug Hirsch love to talk about chat. Oikarinen, 30, a PhD candidate at the University of Oulu in Finland, created the first Internet Relay Chat software back in 1988. Hirsch, 27, is a senior producer with Yahoo!, in Santa Clara, California, where he runs Yahoo! Chat. His job: to bring real-time conversation to the masses. We asked these two chat pioneers for straight talk about talking online.
1.Trust, then talk.
When you meet someone face-to-face, your first instinct is to figure out how the two of you might connect. In other words, you establish trust. The same goes for online chat. If you've scheduled a chat for a specific time, distribute bios in advance. "I once guided an electronics consultant through a job using chat and email," says Oikarinen. "I didn't know him personally, but I trusted him."
2. Small is beautiful.
Chat works best with groups of five or fewer. Add more people, and you open the way for side conversations and distractions - for noise rather than signal. One way to get scale without confusion, says Oikarinen, is to allow lots of people to listen in but to limit how many can type: "The important thing is to restrict the number of active participants. If people listen in, they won't add to the noise, and they may offer valuable comments later."
3. Focus, focus, focus.
It's easy to be overwhelmed by the cacophony of chatting voices. So identify interesting people and then move to one-to-one chat or email. And spend time in targeted chat environments. "If you walk into a room titled 'NASDAQ Small Cap Stocks,' you know what people will be talking about," Hirsch says.
4. Don't believe everything you read.
Credibility is not a problem with conversations inside companies. But as you venture outside, you can't believe everything you read. "Chat's a great medium," Hirsch says, "but it's anonymous. People aren't always who they say they are."
5. Timing is everything.
Online conversations will never be as natural as a face-to-face talk. So wait for people to finish before typing your response. And beware the lag factor, which can make real-time conversations seem disjointed. Always be clear when you're addressing a specific person, so the whole group doesn't jump in with an answer. And expect delays. "Sometimes chat conversations can be very slow," Oikarinen warns. "So you might want to use chat while doing other work."
Coordinates: Jarkko Oikarinen, www.tol.oulu.fi/~jto; Doug Hirsch, firstname.lastname@example.org
A version of this article appeared in the June/July 1998 issue of Fast Company magazine.