Why Is the Internet Neat?


Unless you've just idly picked up this book based on its cool cover while waiting for your spouse to choose the right gift for Aunt Millie's birthday, you probably have some sense that you should be interested in the Internet. Given the Clinton administration's emphasis on a national data highway system, many a poor reporter has written or broadcast a story on this Internet thing.

Those stories almost always make those of us who live and breathe the Internet cringe because they almost always miss the point. The stories either crow about the technological achievement and vast worldwide coverage of the Internet (while failing to explain that it is definitely not a commercial service staffed by friendly nerds in white coats, and ignoring its human dimension), or they provide a gratuitous human interest story about how two people met on the Internet and got married eleven days later because typing to each other was such a moving experience. Sure, this stuff happens, but such gee-whiz stories never touch on the commonplace parts of the Internet: the discussion groups, information databases, and selfless volunteer work that keep the whole thing running. That's a shame, and I vow to avoid that slippery slope.

But I should be talking about why you should be interested in the Internet, instead of ragging on the mediocre descriptions from people who apparently aren't. Keep in mind that I may miss your favorite reason to use the Internet -- one woman's Brownian motion generator is another man's cup of tea. In addition, remember that technology is seldom used for its intended purpose. The Internet started as a method of linking defense researchers around the country, and has grown beyond that use in ways its creators never could have imagined.


Electronic Mail


For many people, electronic mail (or email) is the primary reason to get on the Internet; they simply want to be able to send mail to someone else on the Internet. Once you're on, though, you're likely to strike up many new friendships and end up with a long list of electronic correspondents. Email is an excellent way to stay in touch even with people whom you regularly talk to on the phone because it's quick and easy. Even though I talk to my parents often, I also send them email because it's more appropriate for quick notes. Email messages are even better than an answering machine for conveying simple information. At one point, for example, the local user group held steering committee meetings at my house. I could have called all the steering committee members before each meeting to remind them about it, but because all I wanted to say was, "Don't forget the meeting tomorrow night," contacting them was easiest via email.

Email sometimes gains the least likely converts. One friend of mine is best described as a telephobe -- he hates talking on the telephone and has only one at his house, out of necessity. He had been equally disparaging of computers and email until he was forced to try it, after which he became an instant email proponent. He discovered that with email, no longer did he have to play telephone tag with coworkers or try to arrange meetings to talk about simple topics. Email enabled him to work more flexible hours because he didn't care when his coworkers were present and their email was waiting whenever he wanted to read it.


Discussion Groups


A large number of people read and participate in the dozen-or-so discussion groups, also called newsgroups, about PCs and Windows, and far more people contribute to thousands of other non-technical discussions. Several years ago, when I went away on a bike trip, my computer died -- citing a simple error code. My wife couldn't contact me to tell me about it, but she posted a help message on one of the discussion groups. Within a few days she had received answers from experts around the world, all telling her that that code meant we had a bad memory card. (Luckily, the card turned out to be only badly seated.)

Similarly, when we were in the process of buying a car, I started reading appropriate messages on one of the discussion groups dedicated to talking about cars. The messages were of some help, but I wish I had known then that there was an entire discussion group devoted to Hondas, the make we were looking at most.


Software


For many Windows users, some of the most immediately useful and interesting things about the Internet are the file sites. File sites are computers on the Internet that are accessible to everyone (more or less) and store thousands of the latest and greatest freeware and shareware (where you pay the author if you use the program) programs for the PC. An equal or greater number of file sites exist for other platforms, including the Macintosh, Amiga, and the plethora of Unix workstations. Finding specific numbers is difficult, but I think it's safe to say that thousands of people download files every day from the most popular archive sites (just another name for file site).


Information at Your Electronic Fingertips


The popularity of email and newsgroups notwithstanding, the massive databases of information on the Internet impress some people the most. Recently, a friend came over to look at a movie of the Knowledge Navigator film clip. The Knowledge Navigator is ex-Apple CEO John Sculley's idea of what information access will be like in the future -- an anthropomorphic "talking head" that acts as an information agent, searching through massive databases of information on the user's command. The Knowledge Navigator film portrays a professor preparing for a class discussion about deforestation in the Amazon rain forest by looking at data retrieved by his electronic agent.

The film is fairly neat, but after watching it, I remembered that I also wanted to show my friend Wide Area Information Servers (WAIS). Using the WAIS software, we connected to WAIS and typed in our query, "Tell me about deforestation in the Amazon rainforest." After about 10 seconds, WAIS returned a list of 15 articles from various sources that dealt with just that topic, sorted by relevance. Talk about knocking someone's socks off -- my friend was staring, mouth open, tongue lolling, and completely barefoot, so to speak. Although WAIS doesn't have an infinite number of databases, it does have over 500 (including TidBITS), and more appear all the time. I list some of the more popular databases later in the book, and it's usually fairly easy to search for the databases themselves.

Although I have no numbers to back this up, I get the impression that the largest quantity of raw information is available via FTP (File Transfer Protocol). The freeware and shareware programs for Windows that I mentioned above are available via FTP, as are electronic editions of books, newsletters such as TidBITS, fiction magazines such as InterText, and huge numbers of other files.

Gopher, another method of transferring information over the Internet, is increasing in popularity. More than 2,300 Gopher servers exist today, and the information available on them includes things like computer price lists at major universities, Internet statistics, tech support information from Microsoft, and press releases from the U.S. government.

Finally, a vast amount of information is appearing on a daily basis on the World Wide Web, a service created by CERN, the high-energy physics research lab in Switzerland. Other methods of providing information over the Internet have been pretty much restricted to text until the data is downloaded to a PC or Macintosh, but the World Wide Web supports text with fonts, sizes, and styles; graphics within the text; sounds; animations; and movies -- and all of it is interconnected with hypertext links. For many folks with information to provide to the Internet, the World Wide Web is the way to go. For instance, I've seen a beautiful collection of fractals (some even animated) on the Web, the University of California at Berkeley has made available a wonderful museum-style paleontology exhibit, and a group called INFACT Online has an extensive Web server devoted to a campaign to stop tobacco companies from marketing cigarettes to children.


The Lemming Factor


Aside from the personal communications, the discussions on every imaginable subject (and some you'd never imagine), and the databases of information, the Internet is neat for yet another reason: It's what I sometimes call the "lemming factor." That is, if so many people from so many cultures and walks of life are connecting to the Internet, something has got to be there. Don't scoff; no one makes all these people log on every day and spend time reading discussion lists and sending email. People aren't forced to increase Internet traffic at a whopping rate of 15 percent per month. They use the Internet because they want to, and few people are happy when they lose Internet access for any reason. And as much as the "lemming factor" may imply people are getting on Internet because their friends are, they aren't doing it from peer pressure (well, okay, so I hassled my parents into getting connected, but they love it now). People connect to the Internet because it is becoming more than just an elite club of technoweenies -- it has become a virtual community in and of itself.

The allure of the Internet sets it apart from other communities such as religious, charitable, or humanitarian groups. No implied theological punishment exists for avoiding the Internet, and although its attraction somewhat resembles that of volunteer groups such as the Red Cross, those organizations often depend on people's belief systems. The Internet continues to thrive because of the volunteer labor pumped into it; but also important is the fact that it provides as much information as an individual can handle, and in this day and age, information is power.


The Internet Is What You Make of It


Whatever advantage you want to take of the Internet, remember two things: First, the information available on the Internet has generally avoided the processing introduced by the mass media. If you want some unfiltered opinions on both sides of any issue ranging from the death penalty to abortion to local taxes, people usually are discussing the issue at length somewhere on the net. Because of the lack of filtering, you may read a bit more about any one subject than you do in the mass media.

Second, you get only the information you want. For about a year, my wife and I followed a weekly routine with the Sunday Seattle Times. First, we'd compete for the comics and then for the Pacific Magazine, which has in-depth articles. Then we'd settle down: I'd read the sports section and the business section, and my wife proceeded to the Home & Garden section. Good little stereotypes, weren't we? The point is that I was completely uninterested in reading at least three-quarters of the two-inch-thick stack of paper, and so was my wife. So why were we paying for the entire thing only to bring it home and recycle half? A good question, and one that newspaper publishers should get their duffs in gear and answer.

Tonya and I answered it by ceasing to bother with the Sunday paper most weeks. Not only was it a waste of paper resources, especially considering that we didn't read most of it, but it was a waste of time to flip through much of the parts that we did read. Instead, I've started getting most of the news I want on the Internet, through a combination of mailing lists and newsgroups that cover my interests closely. I can't get all the comics that I'd like to read yet, but Dilbert from Scott Adams, an Internet-only cartoon called Dr. Fun, and some of the Slugs! cartoons that my friend Dominic White drew for Internet Explorer Kit for Macintosh have all appeared in recent months.

The same problem applies to junk mail. I instantly throw out about 90 percent of the snail mail (the Internet term for paper mail) I get, whereas almost all email I get is at least worth reading.

On the Internet, when all is said and done, I get only what I ask for. Periodically, my interests change, so I switch things around, but I don't have to read, or even deal with, topics that either bore or irritate me -- such as anything unpleasant happening in Northern Ireland or Beirut. Try avoiding such topics in the mass media. It's just not possible.

Now that I think of it, there's a third point I want to make about information on the Internet. Most of it, as I said, is free of media processing. That's because most of the information comes from individuals and small groups rather than large publishing conglomerates that own hundreds of newspapers and magazines around the world. Even though I'm not going to tell you anything about how to set up an Internet machine to provide information over the Internet, be aware that you as an individual don't necessarily need your own machine. You could run a small mailing list, and could easily post a newsletter or report of some sort to discussion lists without a dedicated machine. And, if what you want to do requires an FTP site or mainframe that can run mailing list software, ask around; someone might be willing to provide that sort of access to you. This is how I've published TidBITS for the last five years. So as long as you're providing useful information for free, you'd be surprised how many people may step forward to help you.


Champing at the Bit


I know you're all excited about the Internet now that you know why it's so neat. But you're probably saying to yourself, "Self, it sure sounds like I can do lots of cool things on the Internet, but just what the heck is this Internet thing, anyway?" Glad you asked yourself that question, because that's precisely what we will talk about next.