Casting the net. (using Internet; includes bibliography and list of Internet access providers) (Cover Story)
by Rosalind Resnick
Imagine New York City without street signs, the Kalahari Desert without a map, hieroglyphics without the Rosetta stone. Now you're beginning to see what it's like to journey the Internet, a worldwide network that's spreading like kudzu throughout cyberspace with no end in sight. According to reliable estimates, more than 20 million people worldwide tap into the Internet today. And that number is growing by 150,000 users a month.
What is the Internet? It's a collection of thousands of interlinked computer networks that communicate with each other using a common computer language, or protocol. By accessing the Net, as it's popularly known, users can exchange E-mail, chat live, log on remotely to other computers, and download copies of files from other computers to their own machines.
But the Internet is far more than that. It's also a virtual community--a living, breathing place where some of the sharpest minds on the planet swap notes and do battle over topics as varied as medieval English literature, artificial intelligence, male-female relationships, and Star Trek trivia.
John Perry Barlow, the lyricist for the Grateful Dead who cofounded the Electronic Frontier Foundation with Mitch Kapor of Lotus, described the Internet as "a state of minds."
"It's almost certainly the most important thing to happen to information since Gutenberg let words out of the abbey," Barlow wrote in a foreword to NetGuide, a newly published directory of cyberspace services and destinations. "I increasingly suspect it may alter what it is to be human more than any technological development since the capture of fire."
Heady stuff, to be sure. But, for all its many marvels, the Internet is still not quite ready for prime time. Unlike commercial online services such as Prodigy, CompuServe, and America Online, the Internet has no 800 number to call to get a starter kit, very little point-and-click navigational software, and no technical support staff to call with problems or questions. What's more, Internet computers communicate in UNIX terms, with which DOS and Mac users may have only a glancing familiarity.
And if something goes wrong on the Internet--if the system crashes, a hacker pilfers your password, or a computer in Helsinki neglects to forward your mail--there's nobody to call up and complain to.
"The advantages of the Internet are that it's very widespread and very flexible," says Steve Souza, a homebased computer consultant with West-World Engineering in San Jose. "The disadvantages are that it's not a product, it's not a company, it's not a service. If it's broken, tough beans."
If the Internet's infrastructure is quirky, you can thank--or blame--the U.S. government. Set up in 1969 as a way to link the U.S. Defense Department with university researchers working on sensitive government projects, the Internet has no central computer that stores its gigabytes of information. That's because the government feared that all its valuable military data could be destroyed in the event of a nuclear attack if the data were housed in one place. As a result, the Internet became a decentralized network with data stored on each of the thousands of computers throughout it--even though government traffic is now only a small part of the data that flows back and forth.
Consider Internet E-mail. When an Internet user in Chicago wants to send a message to an Internet user in Budapest, the Internet doesn't send that message directly from point A to point B. Though the Internet carries its data over phone lines like commercial services, the network has more in common with the post office than the phone company. Unlike the phone system, which wires every home and business into its network, the postal-like Internet takes your electronic letter, mixes it in with everybody else's mail, and shoots it off to another online post office, which sorts it again and sends it on until your mail finally reaches its destination. Instead of nine-number zip codes, the Internet uses E-mail addresses and protocols (or rules) that tell each computer along the route where to send your mail.
Surprisingly, the whole process typically takes no longer than several minutes--and is so efficient that CompuServe, Prodigy, and the other commercial online services have informally adopted the Internet as the mail delivery system of choice for users of the various services to communicate with one another.
Even so, the Internet's decentralized structure can be frustrating and confusing for modem users accustomed to the relative ease of use that commercial online services offer. Unlike with CompuServe's CIM or WinCIM, for example, you can't click on a little traffic light that represents the "Go" command and type in the keyword, work, to visit the Working from Home Forum. Unlike with America Online, you can't click on an icon with two faces to zap you over to the part of the system where you can engage in live chat. On the Internet, there are thousands of discussion groups, known as mailing lists, that won't even let you in unless you subscribe--using the Internet address, of course.
So why even attempt the Internet--especially when the commercial online services are so easy to use and offer the full range of news, sports, and weather plus hundreds of bulletin boards and access to Internet mail? There are many good reasons to access the Internet.
* Price. Depending on how much time you spend online and what you like to do there, the Internet can be a lot cheaper than the commercial online services. Most dial-up Internet access providers offer unlimited Internet access for a flat fee of from $15.00 to $30.00 a month. While that's more than the $9.95 a month that America Online charges for access, you can stay online as long as you like; DELPHI Internet Services, the first with the most in terms of commerical Internet access, offers 20 hours of access per month for $20 ($1.80 an hour for access over 20 hours; another rate structure is also available). America Online charges $3.50 an hour after the first five "free" hours are up. And, unlike with CompuServe and Prodigy, there are no extra charges to access special-interest bulletin boards and other premium features.
* Variety. Even though the commercial online services offer a wide range of special-interest bulletin boards on topics ranging from computers to pet care to food and wine, the Internet offers access to thousands of Usenet "newsgroups" (the equivalent of bulletin boards) and mailing lists on topics as esoteric as German TV cartoon characters and UFO sightings. And, if you don't find what you're looking for in an existing newsgroup or discussion group, you can start your own. Usenet newsgroups about Star Trek, for example, include rec.arts.startrek.misc (which covers Star Trek in all its generations and media), rec.arts.startrek.current (Star Trek gossip, jokes, and production information), and rec.arts. startrek.reviews (reviews of Star Trek books, episodes, and films).
* People. Taken together, the five largest U.S.-based online services--Prodigy, CompuServe, America Online, GEnie, and DELPHI--have roughly 4 million subscribers, most of them in the United States. The Internet, by contrast, has 20 million users all over the world, from Tasmania to Milan. Also, the primary language of the commercial online services is English; on the Internet, people from all over the world chat live and exchange messages in dozens of different languages.
* Accessibility. Though CompuServe and GEnie offer some directdial access overseas (primarily in Europe), Prodigy and America Online are available only by placing a very expensive international call. The Internet, by contrast, offers local dialup access worldwide.
* Databases. Arguably the world's largest library, the Internet lets you access the Library of Congress card catalog, the New York Public Library Online Catalog, and millions of pages of U.S. government data, all without paying a dime. The Internet's Wide Area Information Servers (WAIS) tool lets you search multiple databases at the same time, a help if you're not sure where to find what you're looking for.
Things to Do, Places to Go
The Internet offers a cornucopia of culture, both high and low. Here's a sampler of Internet destinations to get you started.
Rome Reborn: The Vatican Library and Renaissance Culture. An indefinite online exhibit of more than 200 of the Vatican library's most precious books, manuscripts, and maps. Includes images of each work and the text captions as displayed at the 1993 exhibit held at the Library of Congress. Available via FTP at seq1.loc.gov.
Chaucer Discussion Group. An open forum for discussion of medieval English literature. Subscribe to firstname.lastname@example.org.
rec.arts.animation. Discussion about animation with a focus on cartoons. Available via Usenet.
alt.cult.movies. Covers favorite cult movies like The Rocky Horror Picture Show, Plan 9 from Outer Space, and Reefer Madness. Available via Usenet.
alt.fan.howard-stern. For fans of Howard Stern. Available via Usenet.
alt.elvis.king. Speculate about Elvis's whereabouts. Available via Usenet.
rec.arts.startrek.misc. Covers Star Trek in all its generations and media. Includes periodic postings of several lists: "Star Trek: The Next Generation," and "Deep Space 9" episode synopses and trivia; starships by type and episode; actors by episode; the Star Trek Comics Checklist; Star Trek books on tape. Also includes information on Internet sites with Star Trek GIFs and sound files. Available via Usenet.
alt.tv.twin-peaks. For those who can't forget the TV show "Twin Peaks." Available via Usenet.
alt.folklore.computers. Stories and anecdotes about computers. Available via Usenet.
Internet Baseball Archive. Includes simulated-baseball software, major-league schedules, GIFs of team logos, playing rules, major- and minor-league stats, and ticket information. Available via FTP at eucalyptus.cc.swarthmore.edu.
rec.sport.football.pro. Forum for discussing professional football. Available via Usenet.
rec.pets.herp. Interested in snakes? If so, this forum is for you. Available via Usenet.
alt.cyberpunk. Covers virtual reality, the fiction of writers like William Gibson and Bruce Sterling, and the convergence of cyberpunk with mainstream culture. Available via Usenet.
sci.virtual-worlds. Discuss all aspects of virtual reality. Subscribe to email@example.com.
soc.singles. Men and women currently not involved in relationships talk to each other. Available via Usenet.
alt.conspiracy.jfk. Theories about the assassination of JFK. Available via Usenet.
alt.politics.correct. Discussion about political correctness, particularly terminology issues and stereotypes. Available via Usenet.
ADND-L. All aspects of Dungeons and Dragons and Advanced Dungeons and Dragons covered, including new spells, new monsters, and more. Subscribe to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Source: Peter Ruttan, Albert Bayers, and Kelly Maloni. NetGuide. A Michael Wolff Book. New York: Random House, 1994. ISBN 0-679-75106-8.
The folks on the Internet can be unforgiving of people who break their rules. The trouble is, unlike the commercial online services, the Internet has no central authority to cast its rules in stone. Break the rules, however, and punishment will be swift: Transgressors will almost certainly be flamed (verbally attacked).
Here are some basic tips to help you duck the flamethrowers.
* Don't type your public messages in all capital letters. On the Net, that means you're shouting (and it's considered quite rude).
* Avoid profanity and abusive language.
* Be brief and to the point. Don't waste bandwidth with a wordy diatribe.
* Think before you write. Once you've cast your words upon the Net, you can't take them back.
* Respond to a public posting only if you have something meaningful to say.
* Don't plagiarize. If you're quoting from another source, give credit where credit is due.
* Stay on point. Don't stray from the newsgroup's or mailing list's stated purpose.
* Don't advertise or send junk mail. It's illegal on government-controlled portions of the Net, and even in those places where it is allowed, it will probably annoy the very people you're trying to entice.
Internet Tools and Features
Here are the useful tools you'll find on the Internet for dealing with data.
E-mail. The Internet makes it possible for users to exchange electronic mail with other users around the world in addition to subscribers to commercial online services such as CompuServe, GEnie, America Online, DELPHI, and The WELL. In addition, you can subscribe to mailing lists that let you post and receive E-mail about a wide variety of topics. There's also the electronic journal (or E-journal). E-journals are either distributed to a list of subscribers as an E-mail text message or retained in a particular area for downloading.
File Transfer Protocol (FTP). Another widely used feature of the Internet is its ability to transfer files from one Internet-connected computer to another. FTP allows Internet users to search for, list, and retrieve files; the Internet's Archie service indexes files from over 900 FTP sites.
Finger. The Internet's Finger command lets you access identifying information (such as full name and postal address) about anyone with an Internet mailing address.
Gopher. Gopher, a project of the University of Minnesota, is a menu-driven service that lets users browse the Internet's resources, read text files, and retrieve files of all kinds.
Internet addresses. Internet mail addresses consist of three parts: a computer name, a location, and a domain (or type of site) name. Here is a sample address:71333. 1473@ compuserve.com. Here, 71333. 1473@ is a CompuServe address and takes the place of the computer name. (If this weren't an address on a commercial service, an actual computer's name would be listed.) The next part of the address, compuserve, is the location (another example would be AOL for America Online or UWA for University of Washington). The last part of the address, com, is the domain name; com stands for commercial (another example is edu for education or gov for government).
Internet Relay Chat. Popularly known as IRC, Internet Relay Chat is the Internet's worldwide, multilingual chat board--like CompuServe's CB Simulator and America Online's People Connection but bigger and more chaotic. IRC is divided into hundreds of categories, where users talk live around the clock about everything from Russian politics to true romance. Like the commercial services, IRC lets you go private to chat about things that you don't want the whole Net to know about.
Telnet. Telnet, or remote log-on, enables a computer user in one location to use the Internet to tap into another computer somewhere else. Once the connection is made, the remote user can use that system as if that computer were part of his or her own network. Telnet can be used to access everything from bibliographic databases (primarily library catalogs) to computer bulletin boards and interactive role-playing games.
Usenet. Not officially part of the Internet, Usenet is a collection of millions of E-mail messages organized by subject categories called newsgroups. They are the Internet equivalent of the special-interest bulletin boards available on the commercial online services, though much more specialized. There are two kinds of newsgroups: official (voted in by a majority of Internet site administrators) and alternative. Official newsgroups contain the prefix comp (for computer-related topics), news (for topics related to Usenet itself), rec (for recreation, hobbies, and the arts), sci (for science and research), soc (for society and culture), talk (for issues and debate), or misc. Alternative newsgroups, which start with the prefix alt, can be started by anyone. There are more than 2500 alt newsgroups.
Wide Area Information Servers (WAIS). A joint project of Thinking Machines, Apple Computer, Dow Jones, and KPMG Peat Marwick, WAIS is a powerful searching tool that lets users search over 300 Internet sources with a single keyword.
Whois. Though there's no comprehensive directory of Internet mail addresses, the Internet's Whois feature provides a limited directory of Internet users and a utility for searching it.
Right now, the biggest obstacle to exploring the Internet is that it is difficult to use. Dozens of software developers are pioneering Windows interfaces that offer point-and-click access to the Internet's E-mail, Gopher, WAIS, Telnet, FTP, and other features. And some of the books now coming on the market--such as Michael Fraase's PC Internet Tour Guide: Cruising the Internet the Easy Way--come with easy-to-use interfaces bundled on disks.
What's the future of the Internet? Some experts predict that it will swell to 100 million users worldwide over the next five years, with people logging on from their television sets, their screen phones, and their personal digital assistants. Others speculate that the Internet will be paved over by corporate communications giants eager to build an information superhighway.
But whatever the future may hold for the network of networks that is called the Internet, the virtual community that it has spawned will almost certainly live on--and prosper.
Want to bone up on the Internet? Here are some books to get you started.
Dern, Daniel P. The Internet Guide for New Users. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1994. ISBN 0-07-016511-4.
Fraase, Michael. The PC Internet Tour Guide: Cruising the Internet the Easy Way. Chapel Hill, NC: Ventana Press, 1994. ISBN 1-56604-084-1.
Fraase, Michael. The Windows Internet Tour Guide: Cruising the Internet the Easy Way. Chapel Hill, NC: Ventana Press, 1994. ISBN 1-56604-081-7.
Step by Step
Here is how to send E-mail over the Internet.
1. Connect to your Internet access provider and log on to your account.
2. At the prompt (%), type mail followed by the recipient's Internet address and press Enter. For example, to send me E-mail, type %mail email@example.com.
3. When prompted for the subject of the message, type several words describing your message and press Enter. For example, you might type navigating the net.
4. Type the body of your message.
5. When you've finished composing your message, press Ctrl-D to send it. (If for some reason you wish to cancel your mail message, hit Control-C twice.)
6. At the Cc: prompt, type the E-mail addresses of any other people to whom you want your message sent. If you don't want to send out any copies, press Enter. (Not all systems have the Cc: function.)
7. After you've sent your message, the % or & prompt will appear on your screen.
If you find an area that's of interest to you, you might want to subscribe to a mailing list in order to receive all communications about that particular subject.
Each Internet mailing list has a different E-mail address. Here's how to subscribe to net-happenings, a list that serves as a clearinghouse for new products, services, and activities of interest to the vast majority of the Internet community.
1. Connect to your Internet access provider and log on to your account.
2. At the prompt, type mail firstname.lastname@example.org and press Enter.
3. There's no need to fill in the subject line because the subscription command is placed in the body of the message, so at the Subject: prompt just press Enter.
4. In the body of the message, type subscribe net-happenings firstname lastname. For example, you might type subscribe net-happenings jane doe.
5. Make sure there are no other characters in the message, then hit Control-D to send it. You will be returned to the system prompt.
6. After a short time, you will receive two messages. One message will confirm that you now subscribe to the list; the other one will contain introductory information. Once these messages arrive, type mail at your prompt and press Enter. To read the messages, press Enter at the mail prompt or type in the number corresponding to the message you want to read and press Enter. If you need help with commands at any point, type? and then press Enter. When you are done, type q and press Enter to quit.
To stop receiving messages from the mailing list, send a message to email@example.com. In the body of the message, type unsubscribe net-happenings firstname lastname.
If you don't have free access to the Internet through a university or research institution, you can pay from $15 to $30 a month for what's known as a dial-up account from an Internet access provider. This lets you dial up the Internet just as you would a commercial online service or a bulletin board and gives you unlimited access to Internet features such as E-mail, Gopher, WAIS, World Wide Web, Telnet, FTP, and IRC.
Down the road, however, you may find yourself (or your company) wanting a full Internet connection that can run multiple sessions at the same time, allowing you to, say, download a file while you're accessing a Gopher site. When you access the Internet through a SLIP (Serial Line Interface Protocol) or a PPP (Point-to-Point Protocol), the modem on your computer or on your local area network connects to the Internet provider's host computer, which is connected directly to the Internet. A SLIP connection generally costs about $160 to $250 a month with a one-time installation fee of $1,500.
Here is a partial list of Internet access providers (a more comprehensive list can be obtained from Susan Estrada's Connecting to the Internet: An O'Reilly Buyer's Guide).
AlterNet UUNET Technologies Falls Church, VA (800) 488-6384 (703) 204-8000 firstname.lastname@example.org U.S. and international
BARRNet Palo Alto, CA (415) 723-3104 email@example.com Northern and central California and western Nevada
CERFnet San Diego, CA (800) 876-2373 (619) 455-3900 firstname.lastname@example.org U.S. and international
Connected Kirkland, WA (206) 820-6639 email@example.com Northwestern U.S.
Global Enterprise Services Princeton, NJ (800) 358-4437 (609) 897-7300 firstname.lastname@example.org U.S. and international
lowa Network Services Des Moines, IA (800) 546-6587 email@example.com U.S.
NEARNET Cambridge, MA (617) 873-8730 firstname.lastname@example.org Northeastern U.S.
NorthWestNet Bellevue, WA (206) 562-3000 email@example.com Canada and northwestern U.S.
PSINet Herndon, VA (800) 827-7482 (703) 709-0300 firstname.lastname@example.org U.S. and international
Sprint SprintLink Herndon, VA (800) 817-7755 email@example.com U.S. and international
THEnet Austin, TX (512) 471-2400 firstname.lastname@example.org Texas
WinNET Mail and News Computer Witchcraft Louisville, KY (800) 589-5999 (502) 589-6800 email@example.com U.S. and international
The World Software Tool & Die Brookline, MA (617) 739-0202 firstname.lastname@example.org U.S. and international