RUOK? A Tutorial for Parents
August 19, 2004
By DAVID POGUE
DEAR Mom and Dad,
I made it to college! The MapQuest directions were mostly
right, nothing fell off the roof on the Interstate, and you
were both such troupers when I backed out of the driveway.
No tears, no mush - I'm proud of you.
Anyway, my roommates are really cool. Within an hour, we
had hooked up our TiVo's, connected our laptops to the
college's wireless network, and found outlets for our
digital cameras and cellphones.
But there's one little bit of business I wanted to clear
up. The last thing you shouted out as I pulled away was,
"Write lots of letters!"
Now, you guys have been pretty cool parents for 18 years,
but let's get one thing straight: Nobody writes letters
anymore. In fact, they pretty much don't even write
anymore. I may keep in touch with occasional cellphone
calls and e-mail messages like this one. But hey, it's not
1998 anymore. Mostly, people my age would rather IM, Skype
or text each other.
My roommates say you probably don't have any idea what
those things are, and I guess that's right; none of those
communications channels were around when you went off to
school. They're all Internet and cellphone developments. So
here's a little guide, a cheat sheet for communicating with
your college kid in the modern era.
First of all, let's talk about instant-messaging software,
or IM. The big three are AOL Instant Messenger (AIM), MSN
Messenger (from Microsoft) and Yahoo Instant Messenger. All
three programs are free (from www.aim.com,
messenger.msn.com, and messenger.yahoo.com, respectively;
you don't have to be an America Online member to use AIM).
They're all pretty much alike, too: when you want to chat
with me, you double-click my name in a list of your chat
buddies. If I'm online at the moment, my computer "rings"
to let me know that you want to talk. Then we type back and
forth in a tall, skinny window.
The beauty of IM-ing is that I can carry on chats with a
bunch of people at once, in different windows. Unlike
e-mail, it doesn't require me to wait around to get a
reply. And unlike telephones, chatting is free - and I
don't even have to take off my iPod earphones while I'm
All three programs are available for both Mac and Windows,
so it doesn't matter what kind of computer you're using.
(Some Mac fans prefer the better-looking AIM-compatible
iChat program from Apple.) On the other hand, all three
programs use mutually incompatible chat networks. If you're
on AIM, you can't chat with someone on MSN.
Someday, the companies say, they'll make their networks
interoperable; then again, they've been saying that for
years. Geeks like me can use a free program like Trillian
Basic (www.trillian.cc), which can communicate with all
three big networks - and several others - at once. As an
authorized mom and dad, you probably don't need to bother;
you'll probably find one network to be plenty (the one I
If I'm not at my computer when you need to reach me, you
can always text me. Yes, "text" is a verb these days: "He
texts, she texts, whatever the pretext."
Texting is shooting out very short typed messages from
cellphone to cellphone. It's really great in movies, in
class, in restaurants, at loud concerts and anywhere else
you can't really talk on the phone. It's probably like
passing notes was in your day, except that now you can pass
them to anyone on the planet and you're much less likely to
Most modern cellphones offer texting; it costs about 10
cents to send one message, although if you text as much as
I do, you'll sign up for a monthly plan (100 messages for
$2, for example). Basically, you press your phone's Menu
button, scroll down to Messages, and then pick New Message
(or something similar). The address is just my cellphone
The message has to be pretty short - 160 characters, max.
That's part of the fun. Partly because of that length
limitation, and partly because it's hard to type out words
on the phone's number keys, we use shorthand constantly.
BCNU means "Be seeing you," PCM means "please call me," L8R
is "later," 2MORO is "tomorrow," WAN2 is "want to," and so
on. Most of it you can figure out just by saying the
letters and numbers out loud, like these: NE1, RUOK, B4,
People use these codes in IM chats and even e-mail, too,
just to save time. (Oh, that reminds me: Now that I'm out
of the house for good, I can finally tell you what POS
means. It's "Parent over shoulder.")
Skype is another free chat program (from the creators of
the Kazaa file-swapping service). But this time, you don't
type; you talk and you listen, using your PC as a telephone
and the Internet as the phone company. (You can get the
software from skype.com; it's for Windows only. On Macs,
iChat can serve the same purpose, although iChat and Skype
can't call each other.)
With a headset and a high-speed Internet connection like a
cable modem or D.S.L., the quality is fantastic - much
better than a telephone - and it's free, free, free. Over
19 million people have downloaded Skype, which they're
using to make free phone calls all over the world. (Some of
the other IM programs have audio chat features, too, but
they feel grafted on. Skype was born for Internet calls.)
If you guys want to catch up on what's new with me, Skype
is a perfect way to do it without worrying about the phone
bill. The downside, of course, is that you and I both have
to be at our PC's to make the call.
A new service called Skype Out lets you make PC calls to
regular phone numbers, not other computers. It's cheap
(about two cents a minute within the United States), but
it's not free. Besides, having to go PC-to-PC is no biggie;
trust me, my dorm room isn't big enough for that to be an
inconvenience. Just text me when you want to Skype.
That's pretty much it for the communications channels we're
using daily here at school. But since I know you're going
to miss me, I'll let you in on one other technology you may
learn to love while I'm away.
What if there's something you just have to see to believe,
like a certain essay grade or a certain body piercing?
That's when you'll be glad you had me exactly 18 years
before the invention of Internet video chats.
Yes, I'm talking about video chatting, which is also free
if you have a high-speed Internet connection. You and I
each need a PC headset and a Web cam - a cheap, spherical,
plastic eyeball that plugs into the computer - and a copy
of the free SightSpeed software at www.sightspeed
.com. Then, whenever you want to see me face to face,
double-click my name in your buddy list. SightSpeed video
calling is free for 15 minutes a day, or one of us could
sign up for a monthly plan (like $5 per month, unlimited).
The video is far superior to the tiny, jerky, time-delayed
effect of the IM chat programs and programs like Windows
Messenger. It's not nearly as good as Apple's iChat, which
offers a still bigger, smoother, clearer picture and never
costs anything. But SightSpeed is available for Mac and
Windows, and permits video calls between them. (You can
also cross the Mac-Windows chasm by using iChat on the Mac,
and either AIM 5.5 or AOL 9 on the PC.)
So that's your lesson in how to keep in touch. If you have
any questions, IM or text me. Ms U, lov U, alw thinkN of U.