Before I dive into the "hows" of the Internet, I'd like to take a chapter to discuss the "whys." I spend most of the rest of this book talking about how to do things -- how to use Eudora, how to use News Xpress, what's neat about Netscape, and so forth. But, it makes sense to spend a little time first talking about why you would want to use email, read news, talk to people via IRC (Internet Relay Chat) or browse the World Wide Web.
The problem with attempting to give you a sense of why you would want to do these things is that for most readers, I don't know you personally. Any specific example I give might or might not interest you, so instead I talk about the things that I do on the Internet and the kinds of ways I use the Internet in my daily life. Although you and I are undoubtedly interested in different subjects, if you just sit back in a comfortable chair and read through this chapter, I hope you'll get a better sense of what life on the Internet is really like.
Don't sweat the details in this chapter. It's not meant to be technical at all and you've got the rest of the book to answer any niggling details. If you don't recognize a program name or an Internet service, don't worry about it -- just mentally note it for later and come back after you've read the later chapters. As odd as it may sound, consider this chapter a work of fiction. It's not that the subject matter is contrived, but instead that you must suspend disbelief and just flow with the text. After all, you don't worry about how Ian Fleming enabled his fictional master spy, James Bond, to drive a car that could metamorphose into a submarine, right?
After you've read the rest of the book and gotten on the Internet, you might come back to this chapter and see if you can perhaps duplicate some of the examples that follow. You never know what you might find when you retrace the steps of a fictional, or not so fictional, character.
Actually, I've already written an entire book, called Internet Explorer Kit for Macintosh, devoted to this less-technical subject matter. My coauthor on that book, Bill Dickson, has graciously agreed to join me for a chapter to go over some of the material we cover in Internet Explorer Kit for Macintosh. Hi, Bill!
Bill: Hi, Adam! Hello, Readers!
Adam: You'll notice that we've just switched over to a dialog format. In keeping with the more informal nature of this setting, we'll present this chapter as a sort of extended conversation. It worked well in Internet Explorer Kit for Macintosh, as we were able to draw on each other's experience with different aspects of the Internet, and interject with questions where appropriate.
Bill: Think of it as a quick spin around the Internet in the back seat of a Pentium convertible, with Adam and I sitting up front and taking turns driving. Kick back and relax, and we'll see if we can show you something interesting.
Adam: And I suppose the first thing we'll do is what most people do when they get their first car -- we'll go visit some friends.
Adam: News stories about the Internet love to quote big numbers, since big numbers impress people. I suspect that's mostly because few people have ever sat down and counted to a million, or even much past a hundred. Today's youth probably consider it sufficient to watch that many digits flash by on the computer screen, muttering that if Zeus had intended us to count to a million, he would have given us a million toes -- and wouldn't that have made "This little piggy" difficult?
So, you hear a lot about how there are over two million computers on the Internet and how the growth rate increases at some 15 percent per month. It's equally chic to talk about the hardware and software and the myriad of protocols, each with an acronym like FTP or HTTP, all of which mean little to the average person, even to the average Internet user.
Let's face it, a vast number of people drive cars in the world, and I'm willing to bet that almost none of them know how powerful their cars' engines are in terms of horsepower. Here's the important fact about the Internet: people.
The Internet is about people. The actual number is unknown, and relatively unimportant, other than the number of zeroes, since estimates place the population of the Internet between twenty and fifty million people worldwide. That's a large pool, and there's a pretty good chance that someone you know, or even many people you know, have access to the Internet.
Bill: The first thing many of us do when we arrive on the Internet is look for our friends. It's only natural; it's harder to make new friends than to stick with old ones. So, we sit down at our computers, try to imagine who we know, anywhere in the world, who might be able to receive email over the Internet, and we start hunting around for them.
This can be a great deal harder than it sounds. Paradoxically, the Internet -- one of the greatest tools for the exchange of information devised since Gutenberg starting mashing ink onto paper with wooden blocks -- can't keep track of who is using it. Or rather, it could, but nobody's ever bothered to tell it how. So, silly as it may sound, there is no comprehensive directory of Internet users. Not even close. Some sites maintain their own directories, but the information can be pretty dated, and you've still got to know where to look.
Adam: To illustrate this fact, we're going to look around for Bill. Now, you may think this is strange, even pointless, as Bill is obviously pretty close by or he wouldn't be able to raid my fridge for beer while writing this chapter.
Bill: Hey! It's my beer, bucko!
Adam: What dark secrets does the Internet hold? Perhaps the Whois server can provide some details on one William R. Dickson, possibly exposing his sordid past as the illegitimate son of a third-world dictator. Let's find out.
First, we'll try a little program called Whois. It turns up a William E. Dickson, but no William R. Dickson. Even if it had found him, all that Whois provides is an address, phone number, and email address, which aren't enough to suspect illegitimacy (see figure 5.1).
Figure 5.1: Probably not the illegitimate son of a third-world dictator; also, not our man.
You must be careful when finding people in this manner, since some names are relatively common. You might be embarrassed if you send an intensely personal letter to an old flame you located on the Internet, only to find out that you'd found somebody else's old flame.
But I don't give up easily, and I do want to see if I can turn something up on Bill. I like to use Gopher, which is a program created by the University of Minnesota to provide access to all sorts of information on the Internet. Gopher knows about a number of ways of searching for people, so first I'm going to try something called Netfind (see figure 5.2).
Figure 5.2: Netfind and Gopher.
Netfind only works if your target works at a large business or university, and Bill's workplace -- a Popular Copy Shop -- isn't included. Strike two (Whois was strike one).
Next up is something called X.500, which sounds like a robot but turns out to be a large white pages database maintained by some organization in England. It wants tons of information, including department and organization, that Bill doesn't have, so that's a strike as well.
Ah, but now I see something that searches Usenet contributor email addresses, and I know that Bill occasionally posts to the Usenet newsgroups -- maybe that will find him. Blast it, Gopher reports, "Could not connect," which means that the machine that runs that service or the network to that machine is down -- maybe it's frozen. Strike four. Internet machines go down fairly frequently, but don't worry about it -- they usually come back up in a few hours or the next day, so there's no need to panic and ask if the site has gone away. Just try again later.
I'm beginning to worry that I can't find Bill at all on the Internet. I know he exists, since he raids my fridge, but is it possible that he has erased all trace of his existence from the nets, in an attempt to cover up his horrible past? Hmm, I just found an item called something like "Search all the directory servers in the world." Unfortunately it doesn't know of any Dicksons. Hey, wait a minute, it doesn't know about any Smiths, either. I wonder what world it's on? Strike five.
Next up is a service called Veronica which knows how to search through all the Gopher databases in the world (or at least, a lot of them) to find files matching the search term. I start a Veronica search on "Dickson" and am immediately rewarded with lots of...information that I don't want, including reviews of Gordon Dickson's books and a report (coauthored by a professor I knew) about computers in a dorm at Cornell University, Clara Dickson Hall. It's a small world, but, sigh, strike six (see figure 5.3).
Figure 5.3: No shortage of Dicksons out there, not still not our man.
This is beginning to annoy me. Two outs later, and my reputation as an Internet guru is at stake. I have one last trick to find some record of Bill on the Internet. I know he uses a Macintosh, and thus very well may read and contribute to the Info-Mac Digest, which is a discussion list about things Macintosh. I also happen to know that the entire list is archived and indexed in WAIS, which stands for Wide Area Information Servers, and contains many massive databases of information on all sorts of topics. Last I checked, there were over 500 databases in WAIS, so I'm going to check the macintosh-news.src database for some sign of Bill (see figure 5.4).
Figure 5.4: Captured at last -- the elusive Bill Dickson.
Adam: You readers can't see this because I didn't want to embarrass Bill by showing his posting in public, but take my word for it, some of the postings in figure 5.4 are from Bill, and it comes complete with his email address.
Bill: Argh! Found me!
Adam: I assure you that it isn't always this hard. On the other hand, it isn't always this easy, either. Sometimes finding people works immediately and at other times it's almost futile. Don't worry, just don't rely on these methods. I certainly don't. The telephone is almost always the most reliable method of finding someone's email address -- just call and ask!
Adam: Superman, Batman, the Black Cat, Spiderman, Phoenix -- all of these comic book heroes and heroines shared one feature other than great bodies and skintight uniforms that showed every curve. They all had alter egos who could mix in normal society without anyone else realizing their true identities. One minute, mild-mannered reporter Clark Kent was being brow-beaten by Lois Lane, the next minute (and a phone booth later), Superman was saving the world from the latest crazed supervillain. Bruce Wayne and Batman, Peter Parker and Spiderman... Can anyone who has read comic books not have wanted an alter ego at some point? Our alter egos could do what we didn't want to, and would be stronger, smarter, and always ready with a clever comeback to any insult from dastardly villains of every ilk.
The Internet doesn't change your physical appearance or capabilities, but because of the lack of visual interaction, it enables you to portray yourself in any manner you so choose. Some people might become crusaders for truth and justice, albeit in a single discussion list, whereas others might turn into psychotic bastards in a subconscious rebellion against abusive parents or whatever. I doubt that most people change all that radically in their net personas, but keep in mind that you can never know what any given net citizen is like in person, without a face-to-face meeting.
There is another phenomenon that relates to this concept of net alter egos -- that of amplification. Because the Internet enables any single person to send a message to tens of thousands of other people around the world and to maintain intellectual discussions with numerous people on a number of different topics, the Internet amplifies the individual, or enables him or her to do far more than any single person could do outside of the Internet.
The Internet thus enables the individual to become more important and more influential than would otherwise be possible in real life. Of course, the extent to which this happens is directly related to the level of interest and utility of your postings. Those who do good stuff are respected, whereas those who merely clog the Internet with garbage are universally reviled. Well-known, yes, but infamous.
Bill: There's something about the Internet that makes some people cut loose a little bit. Not everybody; Adam's email, for instance, conveys his real personality fairly accurately.
Adam: I'm not sure if he's flattering me or being subtly underhanded. Must be his background as the illegitimate son of a third-world dictator.
Bill: We'll never know, will we? But, many people have an "electronic personality" that is distinctly different from their "real" personality.
It bothers me when people put quotation marks around words that don't need them, so let me assure you that I mean it in this case. The question that arises here is, given that the pressure of face-to-face interaction (and the possibility of embarrassment that goes along with it) are largely absent on the Internet, do people behave more or less naturally when they communicate this way?
Well, the answer, of course, is both. There, that clears it right up, doesn't it?
Let's take as an example one form of human interaction that's in abundant supply on the Internet: flirtation. People love to flirt electronically! Since it's so unlikely that you'll ever actually meet the target of your wiles, there's no fear of rejection; since you're judged entirely by your words (and skillful use of smileys), you don't need to worry about your weight or your hair. So, what you'll find is that people who couldn't possibly force themselves to buy somebody, anybody, a drink in your typical cocktail bar become remarkably fluent in the language of romance when you put them behind a keyboard and monitor. Which is the real person? Hard to say. Obviously, the talent for personal interaction is there, but that talent seems to take a vacation when there's another person around to actually interact with.
Likewise, you'll find people on the Internet telling total strangers things they'd never say to many of their friends if they had to say them face-to-face. Incredibly personal information will find its way into your email from surprising sources. People are willing to bare their souls, revealing aspects of themselves you'd never see in person.
There are also people who would be polite in person, but who may, since they need not worry about getting punched in the mouth, sound off in an abrasive manner about anything that bothers them -- which frequently turns out to be rather a lot.
This stuff is all very interesting and could probably be the subject of many studies involving mazes and cheese and spilled ink. But there's another sort of alter ego you'll encounter on the Internet, and that's the deliberate role of an actor. People actually construct a part for themselves to play, and present that character as their network personality. Some do so as a disguise, playing the role as if it were a real person. Others make no secret of the fact that they are playing a part. The role may be played for the network at large, in discussion groups and correspondence, or only for a specific group of people in some corner of the Internet where such roleplaying is the norm.
This is one of the most fascinating things about the Internet for me, and I've wholeheartedly participated from time to time. I currently play several roles, including a six-foot anthropomorphized pickle in a virtual community called FurryMUCK, a nigh-omnipotent (but highly irresponsible) Author in the Author's Altiverse of Superguy Digest, and a Supreme Court Justice on the Politics list. It may sound weird to you, but it all makes perfect sense to each of those three groups of people.
Adam: You're really strange.
Bill: Yes. But lovably so. Net personalities can manifest themselves in some unusual ways, even if you don't turn into a giant walking pickle. Sometimes it takes the form of an affected quirk: there are three people on the Politics list who refuse to use capital letters. One of them explained her reasons to me; she is a relatively shy person, and feels that lowercase conveys her personality more accurately by implying a small, quiet speaking voice.
Adam: Although most people are extremely pleasant in email because they know that email lacks the body language and intonations of normal speech, there are exceptions. I suspect that most of these occur simply as a matter of limited time to answer email messages, or perhaps as a subconscious response to the frustration of being asked the same question over and over again. Recently I received over a hundred copies of the same message from different TidBITS readers, all of whom forwarded it to me because it raised some serious questions about an article I had written. I had actually seen the message before publishing the article, but failed to mention that fact within the article itself, so I shouldn't have been the slightest bit upset with any of the individuals who tried to warn me about a potentially bad situation. Nonetheless, I was a bit peeved at having to deal with over a hundred of these messages, so I decided to write a single reply that was sufficiently generic, and then to send it back to each person. That allowed me to stay pleasant, whereas if I had had to reply to each message individually, by the end I would undoubtedly have been writing, "You're wrong -- and probably stupid. -Adam." That's not a particularly nice way to respond to someone who was just trying to help, and it seldom helps to be testy.
Bill: I've got a specific example. Norman is a long-standing member of the Politics discussion list, to which I've belonged on and off since, oh, 1988 or 1989. Norman's politics are almost always diametrically opposed to mine, and he's extraordinarily outspoken about them -- sometimes to the point of offending many list members. He can be abrasive, and more than a few people have called him obnoxious.
Adam: He sounds like real winner.
Bill: Well, early in my career on Politics, he and I got into a nice little row over something I can't even remember anymore. It was extraordinarily heated online, flames going back and forth like there was no tomorrow. Neither of us was especially civil. So you can imagine my surprise when the phone rang one day, and there at the other end of the line was Norman.
We talked some, and he was surprisingly pleasant. We talked about the car I was about to buy, life in general, a bit of political stuff, things like that. Although I still disagreed with him strongly, I found it hard to dislike him after that.
Basically (as later correspondence with him suggested), I think he just likes to argue. The volatile arguments on Politics are fun for him. Not that he doesn't believe what he's saying -- he does; but he gets a blast out of intense argument, and writes accordingly. It's his Internet personality.
Adam: Of course, these examples prove nothing, since it's equally common for people to interact better remotely than they do in person. There have been a number of occasions during which I've conversed quite happily with someone via email, and then, when the time came to meet, found that I wasn't all that fond of him or her. Usually, the meeting also dampened later email conversations, since it's difficult to communicate with someone you've met without recalling your impressions of that meeting.
In one respect, I like this facet of Internet communication more than any other, because it says that when we communicate purely on a conscious, intellectual level, we can often do so far better than when we're staring into each other's faces. I see the Internet as important not because of the information available on it, but because of the ways it opens channels of communication between people who would never otherwise talk due to barriers of language, geography, religion, or even philosophy.
It's interesting, because people can find almost any excuse to avoid talking to one another in person, whereas online you can't pry them apart with an electronic crowbar. Although I won't pretend that talking on the Internet could solve the world's problems, the model of communication in which anyone can say anything and is allotted attention commensurate with the coherence and interest of the message is one I would love to see more of in the world.
Bill: Net personalities are part of life on the Internet, and you get used to them. Eventually, you begin to learn where you can expect to find certain kinds of personalities, much in the way you learn which bars to visit on a Saturday night to find your kind of crowd.
The personalities you'll encounter will be many and varied. People can be pretty much anything they want to be on the Net. Superheroes are favorites, along with many other fictional characters. Some people even choose the names of real, more famous people. This, of course, raises a little question. If you're chatting on the Fly Fishing channel on IRC, and suddenly "Madonna" signs on, how do you know it's not...well, it couldn't really be...Nah.
Adam: Last summer I watched a multipart PBS television series called "Fame in the Twentieth Century." It used fabulous old photographs, newspapers, and newsreel footage to make the point that although initially an event might give someone fleeting fame, only the mass media could provide lasting fame. In the process of working its way through each decade of the twentieth century, the show examined the lives of people like Al Capone, who was addicted to his media-reflected fame; Charles Lindbergh, who tried to escape it, only to become all the more famous for attempting to avoid the spotlight; and Madonna, whose fame is the result of being one of the most skilled self-promoters in the world today.
How does this all apply to the Internet? I'm not completely certain, except to note that the concept of fame seems to translate directly to the Internet as another medium of information exchange. The icons of popular culture are starting to appear in various ways on the Internet, which is an interesting process to note in its own right, since that which makes one popular in People very well may turn you into a laughingstock on the Internet. This is not to imply that the Internet rejects all the heroes of popular culture, or that there are no homegrown Internet legends. Both traditional celebrities and Internet celebrities exist on the nets, but the Internet being what it is, you can never quite predict how people will react to the arrival of a celebrity.
Bill: There's no telling how many celebrities are lurking on the Internet. Some say Harry Anderson of Night Court fame is out there somewhere on the Internet, possibly reading rec.arts.magic. Rush Limbaugh is on CompuServe, and Tom Clancy supposedly is connected through America Online. Of course, if Harry Anderson has an America Online account, does that mean he uses the Internet, or is even aware that he can send mail to it? Not necessarily.
It's sort of interesting, seeing who chooses to make him- or herself known. You generally won't find big-name mass-appeal celebrities, but you can find many, many people who would be considered celebrities in certain circles. Game designers and writers can often be found mingling with the people who buy and play their games, getting feedback on the Internet. I wouldn't know them if I tripped over them, but they're well known in the gaming community. On the Mac newsgroups, asking a question about a program will often bring you an answer from its author.
Adam: Although some people have brought their fame to the Internet, there are a number of people whose fame has yet to spread beyond the Internet. In the Macintosh world of the nets, one of the most famous net denizens, John Norstad, hails from Northwestern University. Although he no longer works on it except when events require him to, John is best known for his free antivirus program called Disinfectant. John created Disinfectant in response to early Macintosh viruses (evil little programs designed to reproduce themselves within other files on your computer, making you feel unclean, and sometimes causing damage in the process) and continued to improve it over the years. It has become a commercial-quality piece of software, and being free, is something that I recommend that every Macintosh user have and use periodically.
More recently, John turned his attention to his current project, a Macintosh program called NewsWatcher that enables Macintosh users with full Internet access to read and reply to messages on Usenet, which is home to the many thousands of newsgroups, or discussion lists, on almost every imaginable topic. NewsWatcher had actually been started, and then dropped, by Steve Falkenburg, a programmer from Apple. John picked up the program from Steve and enhanced it significantly, turning it into what I feel is the best of the Internet newsreaders on the Macintosh. Once again, NewsWatcher remains completely free to users everywhere, and although he retains final control over what goes in, John has had help from numerous people on the nets. In essence, then, NewsWatcher has become a community project, something to which any programmer can contribute and which any Macintosh user connected to the Internet can use and enjoy.
In real life, John works at Northwestern University, so I asked him via email just why he works on projects like Disinfectant and NewsWatcher and if he minds being an Internet celebrity. I'll let him answer those questions in his own words.
John Norstad: That's a hard question, and I get asked it a lot. I'll try to give a serious answer, at the risk of being pretentious.
I am passionate about free software. For me, developing free software in my spare time is more than just a hobby. I'm also passionate about the Mac. It's so incredibly clear to me that the Mac is the very best computer anywhere, period. I don't understand why there's any controversy at all about this. I'm also passionate about the revolutionary potential of the Internet, and the Mac's role on the Internet. It has certainly changed my life, and with the right software and services and access, it can change other people's lives, too.
The best kind of programming is an act of artistic creation. Truly great programs are works of art. They have beauty and elegance and truth and purity. They are much, much more than just a random collection of features. Writing this kind of program is much, much more than just "software engineering."
For me, the only way to even attempt to create this kind of software is to have total freedom and complete control over the entire development process. My best programs are the ones I've written on my own time, not as official projects as part of my job.
I've discovered over the 30 years I've been a programmer that as soon as money is involved in any way with the software I write, I in some way lose some significant amount of control over the software. By developing free software, I retain complete control. I don't have to respond to market pressures, or to often-misguided customer complaints and requests, or to lawyers or marketing people, or to bosses, or to magazine reviewers, or to shipping deadlines, or to financial pressures, or to anyone or anything else. If you don't like one of my free programs, tough. I'll give you double your money back.
There's no question that the extent to which my programs are good and even begin to approach being in any sense the works of art I want them to be is because of this freedom.
In short, "free" software = "freedom" for the software creator. For me, this freedom is what it's all about. Sure, I'd like to be rich, but I've got enough money to support my family well, and it's more important to have the freedom.
Programming as an act of creation is an addiction. The only reason I write Mac programs is because of this urge to create. I don't do it because my bosses tell me to do it, or for money, or as a public service, or for fame. I do it to feed the monkey on my back.
This is nothing new or startling or unique. Any good programmer who really cares about his or her work will tell you much the same thing.
I'm very fortunate to find myself in a working environment that makes this all possible. I have a good job with good pay, and Northwestern gives me a very large amount of control over my work and encourages and supports my independent projects like Disinfectant and NewsWatcher. Few people are so lucky.
Adam: And as far as being a celebrity?
John Norstad: It's very much a mixed blessing.
I get way too much mail and way too many phone calls. Way too many people want me to do way too many things. Email is sometimes like a Chinese water torture. I have to keep up with it every day, or I get hopelessly behind. If I leave town for three days or a week, when I get back it takes a whole day or two just to get caught up. I sometimes have to be ruthless and quite rude when I reject requests for help or requests to speak or requests for interviews or requests for whatever. This is unpleasant, because I don't like being nasty to people.
But overall, becoming a minor "celebrity" in the Mac world (a somewhat larger than average fish in a rather small pond) has been very pleasant. The very best thing that has happened is that it has given me the opportunity to become friends and colleagues with some of the best Mac programmers in the world. It's also very pleasant to have people recognize and appreciate my work. I really enjoy getting simple thank you notes via email and postcards from all over the world and having strangers come up to me and thank me at conferences and all that sort of thing.
Awards are nice, too. I recently went to San Francisco to receive this year's MacUser Editors' Choice John J. Anderson Distinguished Achievement award. It was a very fancy black tie affair. I got to give a short speech, and I brought home an incredibly large and beautiful Eddy statue. This was definitely the thrill of a lifetime.
Finally, I have to admit that my "celebrity" status is pretty cheap, and is entirely due to being lucky enough to have written Disinfectant in the late 1980s, just when the virus problem was becoming more serious and seriously overhyped by the press. Sure, it's a very good program, and I'm a very good programmer, and viruses are a serious problem, and my program is a serious and successful attempt to deal with the problem, but it's still just one program, and I'm still just one programmer. There are many, many developers in the Mac world who have done much more work and much better work and much more significant work and are much smarter than I am, but who haven't gotten anywhere near the same recognition as I have.
Adam: The first task that faces any Internet newcomer, or newbie in Internet parlance, is finding the group of people with whom you want to hang out. This of course assumes that you're not an antisocial hermit who doesn't want to have anything to do with other people. Don't become discouraged if it takes you some time to find just the right place. If you were anything like me, it took years during adolescence to do the same thing in real life, and I can guarantee that it won't take that long on the Internet.
As with anything on the Internet (and in real life, for that matter), many ways of finding your future group of friends exist. They range from extremely low-tech methods, such as asking someone in person or looking in a book, to the high-tech methods of running complicated searches in WAIS databases.
Bill: One of my main social groups on the Internet is the Politics list, a group devoted to the discussion of current events, political theory, and all those other government-related topics that make you unpopular at parties.
Adam: If the conversation turns to education reform in Nicaragua, you know it's not going to be one of those parties where people balance spoons on their noses.
Bill: Well...don't be too sure. I wound up as part of the Politics crowd through a rather complicated series of events. Around this time in my college career, I had signed up for a Political Science minor, and I was quite fascinated with much of what I was learning. It's been so long now that I don't remember the exact details, but one of the various people who I'd met through entirely different channels on the Internet told me about the Politics list. He wasn't subscribed to it, but he thought it might interest me, and pointed me in the right direction. I signed up, and I've been there every since. In fact, I am now a Supreme Court Justice.
Adam: You are not. You're lying.
Bill: Am too! Within the context of the Politics list, anyway. There are three Supreme Court Justices, and I'm one of them.
Adam: Okay, say I wanted a cabinet position. How would I find the Politics list?
Bill: Well, I can't be sure you'd be offered one, but let's say you are interested in Politics anyway, and you decide to look around for it. If you don't know where to look -- or even what you're looking for -- how can you hope to find it in the vast sea of Internet resources?
Well fortunately, the LISTSERV programs that run many of the mailing lists themselves are pretty helpful. They maintain a complete list of lists, called (not surprisingly) LISTSERV Lists. You can retrieve this list fairly easily from any LISTSERV, such as email@example.com, by sending email to it with the words LIST GLOBAL in the body of your message.
Adam: If you don't want to keep your own copy of the list of mailing lists, but do want to be able to get at it when you need it, you can find it in numerous places online. Beware that it's a lot of data, so the files are large and sometimes unwieldy. One place that I like to look for this sort of thing is in the newsgroup, news.lists, which contains periodically updated lists of lots of useful information, along with some utter trivia such as the most prolific Usenet poster of the month (see figure 5.5).
Figure 5.5: Lists, lists, lists, we've got lists.
Adam: As you can see, there are a number of postings for the "Publicly Accessible Mailing Lists." That's because the entire list is too large to put in a single message. Just download all of the messages if you want to keep your own copy for searching, but remember that the details change frequently.
Adam: The next trick, once you've found a group that interests you, is learning how to assimilate without seriously offending your newfound acquaintances. The first thing most people do, or at least should do, is lurk. Don't worry, we're not suggesting that you spend your spare time in dark alleyways, frightening passersby. On the Internet, lurking is an innocuous occupation practiced by the vast majority of Internet users. It simply means that you read and observe the goings-on without actually contributing to the group. Think of the old adage about how children should be seen and not heard. On the Internet, no one even sees the lurkers, and there's nothing to hear from a lurker, either.
Bill: Let's take a newsgroup on which I lurk as an example. The group comp.sys.powerpc is devoted to discussion of the new PowerPC machines from IBM and Motorola. People talk about everything from the number of transistors on the chip to the speeds we can expect from it in the next year to the reasons it may or may not wipe the floor with its Intel competition. Much of this information and conversation is extremely technical, far more technical than I am. I can understand much of it, but I sure don't know enough to contribute intelligently to the conversation. So I just sit there and read and soak it in -- the possibilities offered by these new machines interest me, but I don't know enough about them to post constructively.
Adam: I do much the same thing that Bill does, with a list called Newton-L that comes from firstname.lastname@example.org. I have absolutely no use for one of those Newton MessagePads, because I seldom go anywhere and I write a great deal, so I don't need the ability to communicate with people via email or fax while on the road, and I could never write quickly enough with the stylus. Nonetheless, I think some of the Newton technology represents the future of computing in terms of intelligent assistance, so I like to stay up-to-date on what people say about the MessagePad.
Adam: Once you do decide to participate in the discussions, and we strongly recommend that you do so when you feel you have something useful to add, be careful at first, since people are often judged on first impressions on the Internet. If you act as though you're Zeus's gift to the nets, people will quite correctly consider you to be a serious jerk. I suppose that if "serious jerk" describes you well, you might want to stick with that tone in your posts, but if you want anyone to listen to you and respond in a thoughtful and intelligent manner, you should pick up a little humility at the 7-Eleven.
Bill: And some beef jerky while you're at it.
Adam: Bill, you're a vegetarian.
Bill: I'm not positive that beef jerky contains animal products.
Adam: Good point -- do vegetarians eat petrochemicals? In general, discussion lists are little worlds all to themselves, so what you've done or said in one group generally won't be known in another. This can be both good and bad -- if you were a major contributor to one group and move to another, your reputation probably will neither precede nor follow you. You must prove yourself all over again, although I'd hope that you would know how to go about it more quickly the second time. However, if you managed to become known as a major drip on one list, you can move to another and enjoy a clean slate.
Adam: We've talked about the processes of finding the group of people with whom you want to hang out, tips on how not to offend them immediately by lurking and watching what goes on, and some basics about introducing yourself to the list. But what about the majority of the time you spend on the list? How do you assimilate into the day-to-day conversations that ebb and flow across the wires? How do you become one of the gang, and how do you ascend to a chair on the front porch from which you can sit and spit while trading tall tales? Hopefully, it's mostly a matter of being your normal friendly self, but here are a few other things to consider.
Bill: The means of becoming accepted in your group varies quite a bit. I believe my acceptance into a social group called the Pink Iguana Tavern began the day I started a pie fight. It began simply enough -- I chose a safe target, the woman who had introduced me to the group in the first place. I knew that planting a virtual pie in her face wouldn't upset her greatly, so she was my target. Of course, she had other friends present on Relay (the precursor to Internet Relay Chat, the interactive chatting part of the Internet) that night, and one of them, Frank I think, sprang to her defense by informing me that I had just received a banana cream pie pressed firmly against my face. Somebody else who had probably been just looking for an excuse to get Frank leapt to my defense, and soon the proprietor had wheeled in the virtual dessert cart. The rest is history.
Adam: Sounds virtually messy.
Bill: Yes, but virtually tasty too. Of course, not every group will accept you on the basis of your written slapstick skills.
Adam: Since many of the discussion lists and Internet groups exchange useful, at least to the participants, information, making yourself useful always speeds the assimilation process. The more I learn about the business world, the more I realize it's not so much what you know, it's who you know. On the Internet, however, that doesn't fly. No one gives a hoot who you know, but if your knowledge is valuable to the members of the group, they appreciate it.
Bill: It is usually best to let others decide whether your knowledge is valuable to the members of the group, rather than deciding yourself, if you truly want to get along with them.
Adam: You must still dole out your knowledge with the online equivalent of a smile, since no one likes a know-it-all in the real world or on the Internet, even if you do. Know it all, that is.
I've tried to practice what I'm preaching here on the main groups in which I participate currently, the Info-Mac Digest and the comp.sys.mac.comm newsgroup. The Info-Mac Digest carries general Macintosh discussions, and since I know that there are plenty of knowledgeable and helpful folks on the list, I don't attempt to answer every question to which I happen to know the answer. However, if a question comes up in one of my fields of expertise, such as MacTCP connections to the Internet, Nisus (the word processor I use), recent events in the industry, or certain PowerBook issues, I try to jump in and help out. Much of the research I do for articles in TidBITS aids me in this process, so even if I decide not to write an article about something, I often share the knowledge I picked up on Info-Mac. As I see it, if I know an answer that no one else on the group is likely to know, it's my duty to my friends to pass on that bit of information.
Adam: One of the reasons for the proliferation of Usenet newsgroups is that they tend to split into much smaller groups to bring the signal-to-noise ratio back into line.
Bill: Whack! Two-minute penalty for jargon.
Adam: Humph. Let me explain, will you? Signal-to-noise is a phrase that probably comes from a field like electrical engineering or something, but it's quite simple with regard to information on the Internet. Signal is information that interests you, and noise is information that you would prefer never darkened your monitor. The concept applies well to many fields -- for instance, in terms of music, for me, Leonard Cohen is signal, whereas Kate Bush is noise.
Adam: Knew that would get a rise out of you. Note that I didn't say that signal was information that was generally interesting, since it's not. Signal is information that interests you, and possibly no one else. What interests Bill may bore me stiff, and vice versa. That's why we participate in different groups on the Internet. But, in fact, any group talks about a large number of different topics, and as an individual, you may find yourself utterly uninterested in most of them. That's fine -- there's no one checking up on you to see if you read all the messages in a group.
Of course, if you have a technical bent, you'll consider any socializing to be noise, since it doesn't convey useful information for you. And, for the socialites (or is it socialists?), the socializing might be all you want from life.
Bill: The concept of signal-to-noise doesn't apply everywhere, of course. You need a focus of some kind in order for noise to interfere with it. The Pink Iguana Tavern, for instance, was entirely a social group -- everything we talked about could be considered signal. Or noise, if you prefer. But nothing was outside the intended topic of discussion, since there wasn't one.