On beyond email
by Joe Flower
International Copyright 1996 Joe Flower All Rights Reserved
Please see our free downloading policy.
What's it like?
- Cyberspace is a lot like the world: huge, messy,
with some delightful places and some streets you don't want to walk down. It's
not a neatly-ordered library. It's libraries and coffeehouses and cities of
conversation and argument, it's the Louvre, and Star Trek conventions, parents
talking about kids, and support groups for women with breast cancer. You can't
possibly "do" all of cyberspace -- but you can find resources that will help
you, people you'd like to talk to, and new and powerful ways to get things
- Traditional popular media, such as television and magazines, are
particularly good at dealing with wide, shallow interests, like the British
royal family, that almost everyone finds interesting, but few find deeply
involving. Cyberspace deals especially well with narrow, deep interests. If you
want to find a group that shares your fascination with Polynesian chess,
cyberspace is built for it. So Hospital Web, a discussion on all aspects of
hospitals, from the techies to the executive suite, actually has little
traffic. But discussions of the hospital as learning organization, for
instance, can be very lively.
- email: just one of those things you'd
never thought would be useful until you use it, then suddenly you use it all
- discussions: Talk, talk, talk, and more talk is the soul
of the Internet. The Net has revived the arts of conversation and
correspondence. They can be take place in real time or over long periods. They
can be one-on-one, in a small group, or in a large group. They can be
one-to-many (like a lecture) or many-to-many (like a discussion), moderated or
"anything goes," private or public.
- information: databases (free
and subscription), search engines, directories, lists, address lists,
dictionaries, useful and useless, well-arranged and chaotic, reliable and
questionable. You can find out almost anything online - government regulations,
tax forms, population surveys, airline schedules, translations of Homer, the
subway system of Paris, the odds on the Rams taking the Super Bowl
- articles: Whether written for the Net, or uploaded from print sources,
the Internet has an enormous number of articles about an amazing variety of
subjects, from co-enzyme reactions, the moons of Jupiter, and the future of
healthcare to the sacred texts of Tibet.
- services: Buy your airline
ticket, find out the weather, join a dating service, check your stocks, shop
for CDs, consult an oracle, order a book - you can find a rapidly growing array
of services online, some free, and some for fee.
- software: A great
deal of software is available online, a surprising amount of it "freeware" or
"shareware" (see glossary), from screen savers and clock utilities to games and
- chats: Discussions in real time. For this reason,
the collective wisdom in most chat "rooms" is noticeably lower than in
conferencing discussions - in a chat session, you hear only from people who
happen to be on at that moment. These are available on the Internet itself,
where they are fairly anarchic, or on proprietary systems, where they are
sometimes more organized, complete with special guests.
- gaming and
role-playing: A variety of games can be played across the Internet. In
"MUDs" and "MUSEs" the participants themselves build whole fantasy worlds in
text, and play out roles in these worlds - some in sword-and-sorcery mode,
others in outer space or the Old West. A few pioneers have begun to explore the
educational power of such role-playing games.
What are the different ways I can get to these things?
- proprietary systems: America OnLine, Compuserve, Prodigy and the like
are the giant malls of cyberspace - private property, separate from the
Internet itself, with their own rules, run for profit, with everything from
chat rooms and moderated discussion groups to databases and Internet access.
Their advantage used to be that they were easier to use than the rest of
cyberspace, but with the advent of fast, easy, powerful Web browsers and search
engines, that advantage is disappearing - and they can be frustratingly slow
and quirky themselves, despite the slick exterior. Smaller systems, such as the
Well, Echo, the Utne Cafe, and the River, specialize in conversation in
hundreds of different subjects. Others, like HealthOnline, cater to a
- World Wide Web: Web sites mostly present
articles, but increasingly they include interactive sections, such as chat
rooms, conference-style discussion groups, and forms for the user to fill out.
Unlike ftp sites or Usenet newsgroups, Web sites can use graphics of all kinds,
special formatting and fonts, and different background colors, and are quickly
integrating sound, animation, and video clips. This versatility - and their
ease of construction (my nine-year-old is working on his) - makes them the
burgeoning frontier towns of cyberspace.
- Usenet discussions:
Discussions known as "newsgroups," with names like rec.arts.disney,
bionet.diagnostics, misc.health.arthritis, and alt.med.outpat.clinic. There are
over 10,000. They use a "newsreader" program that your Internet provider will
have online. Anyone can start a group in the "alt" domain, so that domain has a
lot more junk and joke groups. Some groups are moderated, and have a higher
signal-to-noise ratio than the unmoderated ones. Disadvantage: your Internet
provider must carry the newsgroup you are interested in, or you can't receive
it. One big value: FAQs (see glossary)
- listservs: Organized email
rings that are a prominent form of online discussion. Join such a group, and
you get (as email) any comment that anyone else in the group wishes to make.
Want to contribute a thought? Just mail it to the listserv address, and it is
automatically distributed to the whole list. Some are moderated, with a
volunteer editor weeding out the superfluous and organizing the responses. Some
have archives of valuable information. The advantage over other forms of
discussion is simple: Not everyone can access AOL or Compuserve, or even all
Usenet discussions, but everyone who is online gets email.
- ftp sites:
Collections of documents and software put online so that others can freely
download them. An efficient way of distributing documents that somebody,
somewhere, might find extremely valuable, without taking up clerical time to
How to get online:At work, you can ask your organization's computer
person whether you have Internet access, and how to sign on. At home, you'll
have to do it yourself, unless you happen to have a random 14-year-old handy.
- a computer
- a modem (a 14.4k baud rate is adequate, 28.8
will make things a lot more swift and comfortable)
- some communications
software (proprietary systems often provide their own)
- an account with an
How to get to a Web address: Getting into the World Wide Web on the
Internet takes a little more horsepower. You can get on the rest of the
Internet with a decade-old command-line computer that just shows lines of type.
But to get on the Web, your computer must be graphics-capable (preferably with
a color monitor) and sound-capable if you want to hear sounds (which are
becoming more common on the Web). You will also need:
- a heftier connection
to the Internet (called a Slip or PPP account)
- a few more pieces of
software (in the Windows world called Winsock and the TCP/IP stack, on Macs
called MacTCP and Config PPP) that help the computer handle the Web connection.
These are available for free online, included with communications software or
with modems, or in disks that come with books about the Internet
- a Web
browser for looking at the Web
- other small programs that work with the
browser (or by themselves) on specific tasks, such as handling email, graphic
images, sounds, and compressed or encoded documents. These small programs are
also available at little or no cost.
When all that is done, all you have
to do is turn on your browser and type the URL of the place you want to go
(such as http://www.healthonline.com) into the line that says "Location" or
"URL." With most recent browsers, you can leave off the "http://" and just type
the address (such as www.healthonline.com).
How much does it cost?
Lots. Almost nothing. Depends. If you decided to build your own Web
site, you could easily spend $2 million to hire a design firm and a half
million a year to maintain it. The Change Project's web site, which was
recently featured in PC Week and The Los Angeles Times, cost me
$58 and some time. Some institutions maintain Web sites at costs that are so
small they are lost in the budgetary noise. Others hire a crew.
Private databases online can charge from $25 to $300 per hour, others
Proprietary systems like AOL and Compuserve typically charge a low
monthly fee (less than $10) with hourly charges that kick in after a certain
point, plus special charges for particular services. "Frequent Fliers" on these
systems can rack up bills for hundreds of dollars per month.
Basic access to the Internet, Usenet, the Web, and email is the
cheapest. At this writing, Internet providers are typically charging a flat
monthly fee of $15 to $20 for basic access - and AT&T and many of the other
phone companies have announced that they are about to enter the competition, in
a business in which the incrimental cost is close to zero.
Cheapest of all? Free email service. The catch? Every message is
"packaged" with an ad.
Phone charges are next to nothing - local calls in and near most metro
areas, 800 numbers elsewhere for some systems.
The price trend? For access, it's down, trending toward zero. For
building things such as Web sites in cyberspace, it's up, trending toward movie
Glossary: some basic Net terms
Acronyms: Like CBers and old-time telegraph operators, people online
sometimes write in acronyms to save time, such as YMMV ("your mileage may
vary"), ROTFL ("rolling on the floor laughing") and RTFM ("read the f-ing
manual"). If you don't know what they mean, ask.
Browser: Software for viewing and navigating the Web. The most popular
by far is Netscape. They also coordinate the tasks of "helper" and "plug-in"
software handling such things as email, sounds, and video. Usually inexpensive,
or bundled with communications packages, browsers are also available online.
Downloading: Find an article or piece of software that you like online?
Much of the time, you can simply copy it onto your own computer.
Emoticons: Emotional icons, or "smileys." Here's one: :-) Tilt
your head to the left, and you'll see a little smiling face. Some people put
them in online messages to show when they are amused, or shocked :-0 or
weargin glasses 8-) or dressed up like Santa Claus *<|:-)
There are hundreds of them.
FAQs: Frequently Asked Questions - Usenet discussion groups quickly get
tired of new people asking the same questions over and over, so almost all of
them have put together lists of these questions, with answers. These FAQs are
surprisingly useful and pragmatic introductions to the basic outlines of
subjects from earthquake prediction to AIDS. The Usenet group news.answers is
a collection of FAQs on a wide variety of subjects.
Flame: Both noun and verb. To "flame" someone is to insult someone and
derogate their ideas in an online discussion. As in the "real" world, some
people consider this a form of sport. Others consider it bad manners. A "flame
suit" is a mythical garment that renders the user immune to flames.
Freeware and shareware, demo, and beta: Different types of free or
inexpensive software available online. Even if cost is not a problem, these can
be very useful ways to evaluate your own needs. "Freeware" is free - they just
give it away. There is a lot of it, and some of it is quite good. "Shareware"
is a little different - if you like it you're supposed to send the author a
check, usually much less than retail software would cost. A "demo" version of
retail software either will show you all of its chops, but without saving or
printing, or it will work for a set period of time - three days or so - and
then self-destruct. "Beta" software is a test version. It's not quite ready for
prime time, but they're letting it out for free to find out where the bugs are.
HTML: HyperText Markup Language, the very simple coding (with marks such
as <p> for paragraph and <br> for line break) that turns plain text
documents into pages ready for the Web.
Internet ("the Net"): A physical global network of networks of millions
of computers. Founded by the U.S. government, originally for defense research
purposes, now run privately, overseen by the Internet Society and the National
Science Foundation. Often loosely used to mean not only the Internet itself but
the whole realm of networks connected to it, i.e. anyplace to which you can
send email from an Internet address.
Search engine: Powerful programs, most of them available for free
online, that can search millions of Web pages, ftp sites, and public discussion
groups for keywords. Popular ones include Lycos, Yahoo!, and InfoSeek.
Recommended: Excite for surprisingly human-like intuitive searches, and Alta Vista for speed and power.
Unix: The operating system used for much of the Internet. Occasionally,
you may need to know a few very basic Unix commands - and you can find guides
to them online.
URL: Universal Resource Locator, an address for a place in cyberspace
(such as a Web site or ftp site). HealthOnline's URL is
http://www.healthonline.com. Mine is http://www.well.com/~bbear/. Type or copy
URLs just as they are, with no spaces, and no periods on the end
World Wide Web (WWW): The World Wide Web is a virtual network of
millions of documents on computers all over the Internet, all available for
public perusal and downloading through easy-to-use Web "browsers." Anything on
any document can be "linked" to another document, or even to a particular word
on another document - click on a highlighted word or image, and you're there.
Going from one link to another is called "surfing the Web," or "Web