That Wacky World Wide Web

Or, Confessions of an Internet Junkie

After spending an endless summer with old buddies in a New York suburb best known for its state-of-the-art pool hall, it's good to be back at school. So far I've spent a lot of time partying with friends and meeting new people, wolfing down burgers at Bartley's and looking for wicked cheap compact discs at New-bury Comics. This week I even stopped in on a few classes.

But let the truth be told. When I got here last week my first thoughts were not of exploring my new house, or even of crashing the Freshman Mixer. Within a few hours of my arrival, I marched myself over to the Science Center basement. Like a frenzied addict, I plopped myself in front of one of the large new monitors and got ready for a quick fix. Surfing the internet for the first time in three months, minutes flew by like seconds, hours like minutes.

All summer long I had been cut off from the inexhaustible volume of information, the instantaneous speed, the populist feel, the lack of authority and the faceless interaction that mark this new electronic medium. I'm a junkie, I know it. But what's wrong with a little escape to cyberspace every now and then?

Living outside the world of the internet for the last three months hasn't been easy. When school let out, "the net" was receiving widespread national attention, becoming a vibrant part of the national and even international culture. My off-line computer sat lifeless in the corner of my room as references to World Wide Web pages and news groups, chat lines and e-mail accounts popped up everywhere.

For the entire summer I endured seeing newspaper reviews of Web sites, the letters "http" plastered all over magazines, and daytime talk shows flaunting their e-mail addresses. "The Net" opened in theaters around the country, C-SPAN hosted World Wide Web seminars, MTV televised a Michael Jackson chat session and The New York Times monitored news group activity following Jerry Garcia's death. And there I was, with my ethernet card still packed from school, feeling more than slightly impotent.

So in the last week, I've done a lot of catching up. Sure, I've done my fair share of e-mail. But I've spent far more time on the Web and the news groups, where the real action is to be found.

I've found some pleasant surprises on my recent excursions to the Web. Since may, the Cheesenet site has added some new recipes, the Franz Kafka Homepage has been overhauled, and the Sleep Homepage has been expanded. I even found a new Timewasters page.

But there also have also been a few disturbing developments. Some of the services of ESPNet, the sports network's internet arm, now require a monthly fee for user access. Information that was free three months ago is now available only on a pay basis.

Similarly, the homepage for Lycos, Carnegie-Mellon University's search engine, has a hypertext link to a list of business partners and search results are accompanied by advertisements. Even the Netscape homepage, complete with a link to a Netscape Store," is cluttered by words from sponsors.

If the Web seems to be feeling the pull of commercialization, I was reassured to find that my beloved news groups, the bulletin boards that make up the net's zany intellectual-forum/underworld appear unaffected by the infusion of business and media attention.

The folks over at the newsgroup alt.drunken.bastards were still at it, arguing which beer deserves to be crowned the world's worst. Alex Falls weighed in his vote for Staropramen, a Czech brew. "It took me a week to drink three, and the rest went to charity."

Meanwhile, the good people of alt.politics.clinton still appear to be divided on almost all issues concerning our 42nd president, but over at alt.music.pearl-jam there was a consensus growing that the correct lyrics to Yellow Ledbetter had been found. Things seemed calm at alt.philosophy.zen, one discussion of zazen culminating with advice from a user going by the name Sleater, "You need only listen to the whisper in your own heart. My brain is only a reflection of yours."

As the information revolution gathers speed, it seems that two facets of the internet are responding in very different ways. On the World Wide Web, commercialization, even in its nascent stages, seems to carry along with it a threat to the populist spirit of the internet, even as it increases the range of information available. Who will be noble enough to establish the Cheesenets of the future if the Web comes to be regarded as merely a cluster of corporate-driven pay services?

Even so, there's still a definite novelty to finding scores of minor league baseball games and the weather in Greenland at three in the morning, and neither would be possible without the corporate money that's been used to improve the Web in the last several months. On the other hand, the news groups, which place a premium on expression, interaction and debate rather than speed and accuracy, seem impenetrable to the forces of capitalism.

Corporate involvement is not going to prevent the folks at alt.drunken.bastards from discussing the finer points of cheap beers, or the readers of the newsgroup alt.philosophy.zen from striving towards greater spirituality. In fact, it is the free-flowing, gossipy nature of these electronic communities, the specific absence of an underlying profit motive, that gives them their strength and charm.

All in all, the net seems to be going through a very exciting time. As it expands and improves at an increasing pace during this stage of infancy, it's hard to be anything but optimistic. Then again, some people have a different view.

"There is a war being prepared right now on the Internet," rails a Web page sponsored by The Right Side of the Web. "It is a war between the Federal Government and the people of the United States. The Government will win. And you are about to lose your liberty and your rights." Oh well. Let's hope it's a fun ride.