20 top online hints and tips. (Compute's Getting Started With: Online Communications)
by Richard O. Mann
As you get started with the online services, there's a lot to learn. Here are 20 tips for selecting and learning to use the services, as well as for avoiding problems. Let's make your first experiences positive.
1. Buy a book. For what you'd pay for a sign-up kit, you can often get a fullscale book explaining the service and including both the necessary software (if any) and usage credit. You're going to need the book anyway; you might as well have it from the start.
2. Get an offline reader. If you work with a lot of E-mail or forum (also known as bulletin board or club) messages, you'll save significant sums by using a front-end program that grabs material of interest off the network as quickly as possible. You read and respond to it offline, at your leisure. The program then posts your responses in another single, lightning-fast session.
3. Disable call waiting. The breaking noise used to indicate an incoming call will throw your modem offline every time. Your phone company has a way to temporarily disable call waiting (usually by dialing *70). Use it every time you go online.
4. Monitor your online time. An hour seems like a lot of online time, but hours slip by so fast you won't believe it. If you really get into the service, you can run up a hundred-dollar monthly bill in no time. And, since it's billed to your credit card, you won't know right away.
5. Manage your costs. Know what you're paying and spend your money intelligently. For example, browse at the less expensive 2400-bps speed and download files at 9600 bps. (High-speed connect time is usually more expensive.)
6. Learn online etiquette. There's an unwritten code of conduct online--it pays to know it. For instance, WRITING IN ALL CAPS is considered to be rude shouting (it's harder to read). Once you've learned the rules, be tolerant of newcomers as they learn the rules.
7. Use E-mail effectively. Get E-mail addresses for your friends and relatives and use them. You get instant written communications, often worldwide. You can usually send E-mail to users of other major services. Send longer documents as files. (I file my articles with my editors through CompuServe only minutes after I finish them. It's a full day faster than Federal Express--and much cheaper.)
8. Audition the various services. Try the competing online services one at a time. The free sign-up bonuses usually give you enough time to discover how well you're going to like the service. Even though you may like your present service, how do you know that one of the others isn't even better? And give them another try every few years--they change quickly and dramatically.
9. Don't give up too soon. It takes a while to get up to speed on even the best of the services. Give the service a fair chance and don't shy away from expending a little effort to really understand what's going on.
10. Don't get in a rut. It's easy to get comfortable with the online areas that you found early on and stop exploring. Spend a little time periodically looking over new features of your service and looking for other fascinating areas you never previously suspected were there.
11. Learn the jargon and have fun. You'll encounter arcane symbols such as :) (which is a smiley face on its side) and acronyms such as LOL (Laughing Out Loud) and IMHO (In My Humble Opinion). Don't be afraid to ask--the oldtimers enjoy enlightening newcomers.
12. Develop a thick skin. Unfortunately, people online lose some of their civilized inhibitions. Flamewars--angry diatribes and insulting behavior--pop up now and again on all the services. Learn to ignore boorish behavior.
13. Develop family phone-use rules. Unless you can afford a separate line for the modem, no one can make or receive calls while you're online--which is often for hours. I never go online before 10 p.m., for example, except for short necessary sessions--and then I warn everyone so they won't knock me offline by picking up an extension phone.
14. Explore local bulletin board systems (BBSs). Every city has local BBSs that offer some of the same services as the national networks at lower cost--some are even free. For file downloading and random chat with a local flavor, a local BBS is often the best bet.
15. Ferret out local commercial and public BBSs. Local public agencies (libraries and universities) and commercial entities (newspapers and television stations) often provide excellent services through BBSs. You might have to really dig to find the access numbers, but it's worth the effort.
16. Monitor kids' usage. If your teenager learns how to download shareware games, he or she can run up staggering bills just having fun. Similarly, the online games, chat lines, and round tables can become all-consuming pastimes. Also watch out for unauthorized access to "adults only" areas of the online services and use of the separate adult BBSs (which can be openly pornographic).
17. Use the network for tech support. Hundreds of software and hardware vendors run forums on all the major services. Post your questions and problems online, and you'll get help from both the vendor and other users who've already beaten your problem. Also, monitoring other users' comments can help you prevent problems before they happen.
18. Be specific when requesting computer help. Don't say you can't get the sound to work on your new game. Instead, explain exactly what hardware you have and how it's configured--then ask why it doesn't work and what to do about it.
19. Write to your representative in the House--or write to the White House. Washington is online; you don't need to dig out your congressman's or congresswoman's address any more--just send him or her your comments instantly, online. The White House staff has a message area on several of the services, too.
20. Step back and reevaluate things periodically. Can you really afford the time and money you're spending online? I dearly love my writer friends in GEnie's Writers Ink area, but if I monitored every interesting discussion, I'd be spending three or four hours a night there--which just isn't reasonable.