The Power of Virtual Community

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In the onslaught of pop psychology that has followed the grim discoveries at Rancho Santa Fe, so-called mind control experts have speculated that the fault somehow lay in the tech world, that something about the Web explained Heaven's Gate and the isolation of its members from the cushioning norms of society. Not true. The cult had been around for 22 years, and had seen better days. Most of its members were Web novices at best. Yet in some ways, the Web was made for groups like this. For it is not the culture of the Internet, but its utility as a two-way means of communication that attracts and connects militias, hate groups and wacky fringe movements. The profoundly American, truly revolutionary character of the Internet is fundamentally egalitarian. Everyone can take the stage online, even the nuts. But as the initial reaction to the cult's Web connection proved once again, the wild, unfiltered nature of the Internet presents a difficult quandry for the freedom-loving American society, particularly for parents. Like the content of television, newspapers, magazines, books and radio, the messages on the Internet range from the profound to the outrageous. But the Net makes it cheaper and easier than most mainstream-dominated media to broadcast your message to a large potential audience. Anyone can create web pages. Most Internet service providers and online services offer customers server space to publish their efforts on the Net. Whether anyone will look at them is another question. The radical difference between the Internet and other mass media is that while anyone can make a bid for attention at http something or other, there is no central audience regularly tuning to channel 2 or 4 or 7 -- no easy way to command major market share. If websites were channels, there would be tens of millions of them on the Net, which helps explain why every muffler shop, pizzeria and hardware store seems to have one, as well as every crank. And that is precisely what gives parents pause when they wonder what strange ideas and people their children may encounter on the electronic frontier. As a readily accessible soapbox, the Net attracts the same groups that have always tacked pamphlets on grocery store and college bulletin boards and placed tiny ads in the backs of journals to get the word out. As disturbing as the quasi-philosophical blather on the Heaven's Gate website may be, it never got much attention until the networks and Internet publishers (including Pathfinder) sought it out as legitimate news in the wake of the deaths. As far as anyone has been able to determine, the Heaven's Gate cult used the Net mainly to memorialize itself, or to generate freelance income by producing commercial web pages for local firms. But a growing number of other cults and splinter groups use the Net to try to recruit new members, just as advertisers use the Net to sell products to consumers. Unlike TV or radio, the Net offers a very personal way to contact the audience. Some people are particularly vulnerable to email and chatroom conversations with folks they may meet in the intimate setting of the computer screen in their own den or bedroom. In that sense, the Net offers the same sort of intrusive contact with people in their homes that has made telemarketing a multibillion-dollar business. Just as lonely people often are vulnerable to pitchmen who call them at home, some maladjusted or immature people are unusually receptive to online conversations with strangers or to information that is different than what they see around them in their communities. The communication and the ideas can feel more personal or important than they are. While most people are mature enough to ignore the nuts or the nosy people and use this rich medium for communicating with their friends or seeking out information, children may not be. For parents who worry that their children may meet dangerous strangers amid the enormous information riches on the Net, the best advice is that any child who is not old enough to go to the Mall alone will need some guidance when wandering the Internet. Computers are the most valuable source of free education since the library. But they are not baby-sitters. The Internet, the most powerful communications tool of this generation, was never designed for that.