The My Mac Interview – Ilene Hoffman

This month I speak with Ilene Hoffman, better known as the premiere chat host of the Macintosh side of Talk City, which can be found at =MacSos. On February 27th, both Tim Robertson and I were guests on Ilene’s hour as part of a special series of chats with computer columnists and book authors. So, figuring that turnabout was fair play, Ilene is now in the hot seat, as it were…

My Mac: Ilene, welcome to My Mac Magazine. Unlike your chat room where you handle multitudes of people throwing questions at you and your guests, this time it will be just you and me.

To start off our conversation, can you fill us in on your background, your work experience and how you got started in your particular “line” of work?

Ilene: In 1984, I started using the Mac to generate monthly statistical forms while working as Grants Manager at an Area Agency on Aging monitoring and doling out federal and state funds. Though I tried earnestly to talk other State Planners and Grants personnel into using the Mac, the MA social service system at the time was generally computer illiterate and was stuck in mainframe hell. I did statewide training in computer use, but was not able to make a dent in their clouded PC world. (Do I dare mention that I was the only student in my Master’s program that minored in MIS applications in social services?) This segment of my social service administration career continued for three years when I slid back to my previous and more profitable career in social and market research. That lasted only a year.

Outrageous time requirements of my job and becoming a single mother
necessitated a quick dive into consulting in order to make sure my son knew there was such a thing as “mother.”

I provided market/ survey research consulting which expanded into
Macintosh-based training, desktop publishing, FileMaker database development, and trouble shooting systems and networks. I also volunteered for the Boston Computer Society, and soon moved into the volunteer position of Macintosh Rumors Message Board Manager on their Mac bulletin board system (BBS), plus wrote articles for “The Active Window.”

I soon stumbled upon live chat on America Online (AOL) and became a regular at the Mac Operating System chats. After a year, I became a chat host in that forum. This innocent move formed the basis of my career morph from the stress of fighting traffic and dealing face-to-face with my employers to my own version of virtual reality!

When eWorld opened in 1994 I dove in as a chat host. My first weekly
conference, Coffee with Ilene, is still running, now on Talk City, as #Cafeilene. This is a pseudo-intellectual discussion for the wayward on Sunday nights at 10:30 pm ET, which my regulars affectionately call, “chat with an attitude.” I also interview Mac industry guests on Monday and Tuesday at 10:00 pm ET in #MacSOS.

My consulting since 1994 has encompassed Web page design, FileMaker database development, book editing, manual creation, trouble shooting systems, writing articles and reviews, providing training and software assistance to schools, and working with chat services, hosting and doling out advice on building community. My articles have appeared in NetProfessional, MacWeek, NetGuide Live online, InfoWorld online, TidBITS, NADTP, BMUG Newsletter, eWorld, Talk City. These days most of my writing whirlpools down the ole’ email drain!

My Mac: What kind of Mac do you use at work and at home?

Ilene: Primary machine: 8500/180 Secondary machines: 840 AV, Mac IIci

My Mac: What kind of software and other hardware do you use at work?

Ilene: QuickKeys, FileMaker, Photoshop, BBEdit, Netscape, Ircle, Eudora, Dreamweaver, CyberStudio, Claris emailer, ClarisWorks, Word, Excel, MS Works, StuffIt, ATM, Conflict Catcher, FWB HardDisk Toolkit, Illustrator, Dimensions, VideoShop, Premiere, Norton, TechTool to name a few.

Plus I review products from Macromedia, MetaTools, Xaos, Star Nine,
Broderbund, CUC Software, Davidson, Knowledge Adventure, MacSoft,
MacPlay, FunnyBone Interactive, etc. etc.

My hardware is mostly Apple; a Umax scanner, APS drives, Epson and Apple printers, and an Iomega Zip.

My Mac: What’s a typical day for you and your Mac?

Ilene: I start by reading mail. I end by reading mail. In between anything can and does happen, and if I’m lucky, barring no emergency trips to the vet, I get some work done.

My Mac: Can you give our readers who aren’t familiar with the online chat
rooms and interview sessions an idea of what goes on?

Ilene: People don’t really understand what I do. In reality I’m a talk show host. But my show isn’t always interviewing one person with an audience contributing their questions for the last 15 minute. segment. I am facilitating discussion in rooms with 30 to 50 people looking to connect with someone else in the human race. Sometimes there is a specific topic; and sometimes the room has a general focus, but other times it’s random conversation.

I might make newcomers feel welcome or answer how-to questions in one room, then lead a discussion on the pros and cons of recycling in another room.

At first entrance into a chat room, it may look like a cocktail party where everyone is speaking at once, yet in most rooms there are small group conversations and/or large group conversations going on at the same time. The difference is, you can “hear” everyone at once. A bit daunting at first, but rarely terminal.

I always tell new users that they’ve just entered a speed reading course, and to watch for a little to get the hang of what’s going on before they jump in.

In my signature conference, Cafeilene, on Talk City, the whole room discusses one topic for 2 hours. It’s fascinating and a lot of fun.

My Mac: How do you prepare for an online chat or interview?

Ilene: If I’m hosting a topic conference I read up on the topic in books,
magazines or the web. I prepare “canned” text to show in the room which explains the topic and helps set the mood of the room. When I interview a guest, I usually talk to them over the phone, look at their web site (or product site if it is a company), and prepare some questions in advance which serve to give some background information to the room participants.

I usually ask basic questions or set up scenarios which get the users thinking about the topic which helps lead and focus the discussion. Preparation of the canned material usually takes 1 to 2 hours.

My Mac: Who was your best guest? And if you wish to tell us, your worst?

Ilene: I’ve interviewed some fascinating people. Richard Ford, Product Manager at Apple was one of my best guests because he was not only talkative,
but he engaged the audience, plus he stayed on for FIVE hours the first time I interviewed him and taught us all how to do video in IRCLE (a chat software).

Other guests the audience love are Don Crabb, Chris Breen, Andy Ihnatko, and Tom Geller. They all don’t mince words and really get to the heart of user questions.

Interestingly enough, you’ll notice all of these guests are writers (and they come to chat monthly). Writers are great guests because they can be very creative in live chat. Other company personnel are usually slightly timid at first, and type slower. They’re more cautious because the medium isn’t as comfortable for them.

I don’t think I’ve ever really had a bad guest.

My Mac: What do you look for in a guest interview?

Ilene: I don’t look for a thing. I just try and find people who I find interesting, have a cool product to tell us about, or are engaged in some interesting activities. I’ve even interviewed users in the room when a guest hasn’t shown up, and that has been successful too.

My Mac: What was your best and worst experience online?

Ilene: My best experience online goes way back to the beginning around 1987 I
think. I started using message boards on a local bulletin board service when I was first divorced and rather depressed. I became hooked because of this one user who always made me laugh, and feel great. I went back every night just to soak up his great view of life. That user is Andy Ihnatko.

My worst experience – hmmm…I have two. One is old, and revolves around
internal politics of a user group I belonged to, when an employee stole the password file and started leaving messages in mine and other’s names. He started some incredible fights in the message boards.

The other is recent. All of the services have experienced an influx of new users who act like they own whatever service they wander into. They don’t read any of the rules of the site they enter, and disrupt good conversations, and chase people who are following the rules of the road away. As a host, it’s very frustrating to deal with these folks – you try to teach them, but they don’t care, and I find that distressing.

My Mac: How do you find Mac users to be online during interviews?

Ilene: Mac users tend to be more sophisticated in chat in my opinion. I rarely have a problem, and they are most often very polite.

My Mac: How do you provide the control that’s needed during the chat hour?

Ilene: My guests say I run my conferences with an iron fist. 🙂

My forte is making people feel comfortable in an unknown technology, answering questions in an understandable way, and making people feel like they are not idiots.

If there are a lot of new folks in the room, I run “canned” text explaining how the chat will work. I try to have a cohost to run interference if a disruption occurs in the room. (Plus if I get knocked offline the cohost can step in.) We also use an AOL/Internet relay chat convention of asking users to type “?” if
they have a question and “!” if they have a comment (if a lot of users are in the room). Most of the services I’ve worked on have features which allow a host to prevent a user from talking if they get out of hand, and some services allow a host to ban a user from a room.

My Mac: What topics have you covered? What new territory would you like to

Ilene: I’ve interviewed international experts on hunger, women’s rights, and
politics, and national experts in job training, environmental topics, computers, psychological issues, some TV and movie personalities, authors, musicians, etc.

I think I’d like to interview famous personalities about their use of the Macintosh, I think it would be fun to talk to them about something besides their careers, yet of interest to “my” community.

My Mac: What would you consider to be the “ultimate” chat/interview? And
with whom?

Ilene: I really don’t know. I do know I would like to interview Vice President
Al Gore about his computer use and Pat Caddell (he was Carter’s pollster) about politics in America today. My Mac users would like me to interview Steve Jobs though.

I’m not a fan of auditorium rooms though. These are rooms where users cannot talk directly to the guest. All the questions are sorted through other staff before they go to the guest. The guest can only see what the staff types. It is the only way of controlling an interview with hundreds of users online, but I think it is less fun. So, I rarely bring in “big name” guests myself.

My Mac: Any new projects on the drawing boards? Books?

Ilene: As a consultant I’m always marketing for new projects. I’ve been doing
some web site design, and of course, I do training on the Internet. I try and write a software manual or tech edit a book each year. This year I’m hoping to write a book on chatting. Plus I’ve been asked to speak more often, which is fun, but I’m still charting that territory. I’m always open to new challenges – so feel free to send queries my way!

My Mac: What does the future hold for Ilene? What else would you like to do?

Ilene: I’d like to write more and maybe speak in public more. After my son gets into Harvard, I’ll take stock of things and decide where to go from there. Maybe I’ll get that dance therapy degree I’ve toyed with or go to law school — one never knows.

My Mac: A very special thank you to Ilene for taking the time to respond to this interview even though she was suffering from a pinched nerve in her neck and as a result had greatly restricted her typing activites due to the pain.

If you haven’t visited Chat City or Ilene online yet, take the time to do so. You will find it easy to do by following these instructions to get you there:

Talk City provides EZtalk, its own Java-compatible chat client, allowing chatters to go to a URL in their Java-ready web browser and begin chatting immediately.
EZtalk works well with Power Macintosh PCI machines, but not reliably with 680X0 Macs. Users with an appropriate browser (such as Netscape Navigator 3.0+ or MicrosoftInternet Explorer 3.0+) will find EZtalk at: or you can go directly to the link that hooks up with the room #MacSOS at:

You may also use IRC (Internet Relay Chat) clients to access Talk City. You can download Macintosh shareware chat clients at the following sites:

To use any Mac chat client you just type in the following information:
port: 6667

To join a room, just type: /join #roomname (replace #roomname with the name of the room you want to go to, such as: /join #MacSOS)

Look for ilene online at Ilene’s Machine:

If you are going to Macworld, don’t miss Ilene’s exclusive party and events list (Hess Macworld Events List)

Have fun!

Russ Walkowich

Websites mentioned:

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