First Nation in Cyberspace

Twenty million strong and adding a million new users a month, the Internet is suddenly the place to be

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Suddenly the Internet is the place to be. College students are queuing up outside computing centers to get online. Executives are ordering new business cards that show off their Internet addresses. Millions of people around the world are logging on to tap into libraries, call up satellite weather photos, download free computer programs and participate in discussion groups with everyone from lawyers to physicists to sadomasochists. Even the President and Vice President have their own Internet accounts (although they aren't very good at answering their mail). "It's the Internet boom," says network activist Mitch Kapor, who thinks the true sign that popular interest has reached critical mass came this summer when the New Yorker printed a cartoon showing two computer-savvy canines with the caption, "On the Internet, nobody knows you're a dog."

But the Internet is not ready for prime time. There are no TV Guides to sort % through the 5,000 discussion groups or the 2,500 electronic newsletters or the tens of thousands of computers with files to share. Instead of feeling surrounded by information, first-timers ("newbies" in the jargon of the Net) are likely to find themselves adrift in a borderless sea. Old-timers say the first wave of dizziness doesn't last long. "It's like driving a car with a clutch," says Thomas Lunzer, a network designer at SRI International, a California consulting firm. "Once you figure it out, you can drive all over the place."

But you must learn new languages (like UNIX), new forms of address (like president and new ways of expressing feeling (like those ubiquitous sideways smiley faces), and you must master a whole set of rules for how to behave, called netiquette. Rule No. 1: Don't ask dumb questions. In fact, don't ask any questions at all before you've read the FAQ (frequently asked questions) files. Otherwise you risk annoying a few hundred thousand people who may either yell at you (IN ALL CAPS!) or, worse still, ignore you.

All that is starting to change, however, as successive waves of netters demand, and eventually get, more user-friendly tools for navigating the Internet. In fact, anyone with a desktop computer and a modem connecting it to a phone line can now find ways into and around the network. "The Internet isn't just computer scientists talking to one another anymore," says Glee Willis, the engineering librarian at the University of Nevada at Reno and one of nearly 20,000 (mostly female) academic librarians who have joined the Internet in the past five years. "It's a family place. It's a place for perverts. It's everything rolled into one."

As traffic swells, the Internet is beginning to suffer the problems of any heavily traveled highway, including vandalism, break-ins and traffic jams. "It's like an amusement park that's so successful that there are long waits for the most popular rides," says David Farber, a professor of information science at the University of Pennsylvania and one of the network's original architects. And while most users wait patiently for the access and information they need, rogue hackers use stolen passwords to roam the network, exploring forbidden computers and reading other people's mail.

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