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The Whole Internet User's Guide
By David W. McFadden
The Internet is being trumpeted as a great global network of information superhighways, destined to bring about a brave new era of universal peace and understanding, a sort of Pax Electronica for the twenty-first century.
But dah-ling, it's sooooo time-consuming!
What's that line about sailboats?-owning one is like having a bottomless pit you have to keep topped up with money. Being on the Internet is a lot like that, except you have to fill that bottomless pit not with money but with time.
Even the most serious researcher has to have iron discipline on the Internet, or he/she ends up becoming a professional goof-off artist. You need to know the names of the moons of Uranus, so you log in, find you have 147 pieces of e-mail from all around the world, and by the time you've replied to a few items, downloaded a few other items, reformatted them, and faxed them off to some friends not on the Internet, it's four in the morning and you still haven't got the names of those damn moons. It might have been better just to have made a little call to the public library.
As for me, I'm not what you do call a professional researcher. In fact I'm an unlikely person to be interested in the Internet in the first place. Here's how it happened.
'Way back in the eighties, a fresh bright young with-it English teacher, Trevor Owen by name, asked me to be a "writer in electronic residence" for the kids in his creative-writing class at Riverside Collegiate Institute in Toronto. The kids would write little stories and poems on the school computers and they would come up on the screen of my computer at home. I'd read them and send back my comments. All I needed was a modem. So I went out and bought one and worked with the kids for a year. It was fun, but it was exhausting, and when it was over I put my modem away in storage.
Then last year, Trevor contacted me again. He was no longer teaching, he had an office in the computer department at York University and had become a fulltime visionary, busy developing computer networks for high schools in Canada and flying off to conferences around the world.
This time he asked me to get the modem out of storage and get involved in a program similar to the one at Riverside,but this time it was to involve high schools across Canada. The program had a name, W.I.E.R., which stood for Writers in Electronic Residence, had received some financial support from Trans-Canada Pipelines and involved poets, novelists and playwrights and so on like Susan Musgrave, Katherine Govier, Rick Salutin, Myra Kostash, Daniel David Moses, Pat Lane, George Elliott Clarke, Marilyn Bowering all members of that tribe of writers who had long ago quit their day jobs but still couldn't live off their royalties.
And as an added inducement Trevor was offering each of us a full Internet account on the big computer at York University.
Something clicked, and this time I knew when my stint with WIER was over I wouldn't be putting my modem back in storage. In fact I ran out to my neighbourhood Toronto Computer Book store and plunked down $29.95 for a copy of The Whole Internet User's Guide and Catalog by Ed Krol, and started reading about Usenet, Listserv, FTP, FAQs, Gopher, Archie, WWW, Telnet, WAIS, VERONICA, JANET, Project Gutenberg, Smiles, NICOLAS, and so on.
Pretty soon I'd downloaded a massive list of Listserv mailing lists, thousands of them, and, carefully following the directions in the book, began subscribing to everything that looked interesting.
For a few weeks I was deliriously reading and contributing to all these mailing lists and doing very little of anything else, such as sleeping. Then came the terrible task of trying to figure out which lists were dispensible and painfully unsubscribing from them. I finally got it down to about three. That's about as many as any one can really handle at any one time. As for the others, whenever you're inspired to do so you can dip into the archives via FTP and find out what's been going on in your absence. There's no quality control on these lists, to be truthful: one week they're vitally interesting, and then they go off in a tangent that is deadly dull.
The aforementioned User's Guide is good. It's based on the Unix operating system, which is okay by me because that's the system the York account uses as well. But it's easily understandable for those who aren't on a Unix system.
Many other books on the Internet have been published since the Krol book, but all you really need is one that covers the basics and gets you started. Then all the information you need (and that's a classic understatement to be sure) can be found on the Internet.
WIER is supported by The Writer's Development Trust as well as TCP.
David McFadden is a Toronto-based writer.