ACTIVATE YOUR COMPUTER, fire up the modem, log in. Suddenly you’re wandering the labyrinthine halls of the Internet where info is cheap and people are plentiful.
How much of it’s for real?
And who was responsible for posting it? The Internet also provides one of the finest smokescreens for those who like to keep identities secret. Do you really have a college prof at the other end, or is it a precocious 14-year-old?
Burdens of Proof
Humans have an admirable trusting streak. Unfortunately, it helps cultivate the thorny garden of gossip, which reaches its apotheosis in such National Enquirer-style reporting as – well – the National Enquirer.
Each new technology lends a special credence to what’s being reported. Print conveys respectability – you believe me, don’t you? – and radio and TV add more trust-inspiring dimensions. Computers are associated with intelligence, therefore what comes out of a computer should be intelligent.
Once upon a time it was almost true. When they were big, expensive and difficult to use, nobody was maintaining a Courtney Love fan club on a computer. Universities, banks, military-industrial spy complexes – that’s who had computers, because you needed money to buy and run them.
The Internet began as a project between the U.S. Defense Department and some cooperative colleges, and quickly grew to link academic institutions around the world. Then the civilian world found out about it.
Getting Internet access is a matter of having the right computer and a phone line or cable. You can put up a Web page, post information, leave messages at the news groups – and say anything you like. Which means that the burden of proving whether or not a given piece of information is accurate lies, as it always has, with the recipient. The more scholarly-looking the text, the tougher it may be to verify. There’s no other verification system available, except in the matter of peer review of certain academic journals.
Looks Great, Less Filling
Check out online ’zines like the Michael Kinsley-Microsoft Slate and the Time-Warner complex and you’ll see great magazine-quality graphics and tons of information, none of which is bias-free, all of which benefits from good typesetting and design.
But the Internet, at least right now, is a level playing field. Anyone with a little knowledge of Web design, which means knowing a little hypertext markup language (HTML), can put together just as good-looking a site.
The better the design, the more credence you’ll win. Be as tongue-in-cheek as you like; folks out there will take you seriously. (See the wonderful Web page “Heather Needs Men – Now!” [long gone] for a good example of this.)
A fascinating side-effect is that spelling now speaks volumes about who’s out there. As casual as this article may seem, it’s been editing and spell-checked a few times before hitting the newsstand. That adds to its credibility. The orthographically-challenged, however, are spewing messages riddled with errors, and the reactions aren’t always favorable.
Take the young fellow who recently visited an Internet newsgroup devoted to the work of Stephen Sondheim. By spelling the songwriter’s name “Soundheim” throughout a rambling, poorly-written message, he inspired a deluge of angry responses from a group that’s probably more literate than most.
“Spelling shouldn’t matter that much,” the young man argued, but it was obvious that he’d diluted the effectiveness of his messages.
Too Good to Be True
It took no time at all for chain letters and pyramid schemes to hit the Internet. Almost every day, I get a blind mailing promising me unbelievable wealth if I only send a dollar to each of the five people listed below (or some similar variant).
New technology – especially one that perches so pleasantly in your home or office – seems not very threatening, so it’s easy to imagine that any offer that arrives through the computer is legitimate.
Check out Internet Scambusters. You’ll find a regularly updated magazine with news of the various schemes used to part you from your money. The snake-oil salesmen are definitely working the Net.
Credit cards, too, are vulnerable, although it’s ironic that people who make credit card orders over a cordless phone (detectable by your scanner-wielding neighbor) or crumple their receipts into restaurant wastebaskets are reluctant to enter numbers on an Internet screen. Secure financial transactions are vital to the Net’s endurance, and safety systems are getting better and better. You’re generally safer with an Internet transaction than with that gas station receipt; at least, there haven’t been any reports yet of Internet credit card theft – except from folks foolish enough to give out their numbers to scam artists breaking in on a session to pose as tech support.
That’s Not What I Said!
Does what you receive match what was sent? One of the most talked-about Internet safety issues is the security of e-mail. Messages pass through a number of systems as they travel, so some users would prefer an encryption scheme that scrambles the message as or before it’s sent, with a decoding scheme available only to the proper receiving party.
Not surprisingly, the U.S. government has gotten involved, insisting that any encryption scheme put to that much use must be government-breakable. National security may be at stake.
Not so fast, say the users. Uncle Sam is just being that Nixon-era busybody once again, and demands access where it doesn’t belong.
Debate rages on newsgroups like alt.privacy, although the paranoiac tone you’ll encounter may make you wonder who should be worried about whom!
The biggest problem right now with Internet information isn’t even with the information you’re getting. It’s what you’re not getting, as various forms of Net censorship are tried out.
Attempts to set national policy have failed, keeping the first amendment intact, but some systems operators take it upon themselves to be police. America Online, for example, is an Internet Service Provider to its members, but will pull the plug on any user’s Web pages that contain what AOL considers to be dirty pictures. Likewise, all mention of the sex-related newsgroups has been eliminated from AOL’s newsgroup subscription list.
Computers also give users the easy ability to alter photos, so you’re forced also to question the validity of what you see on that clear, graphic screen. It’s hardly a new problem, as you’ll discover at a site devoted to the history of doctoring photos [link is no longer active, but try this] for a fascinating (and, for all I can tell, true) history of the phenomenon.
More than information itself needs to be questioned. Who’s at the other end of it?
Newspaper advice columns these days are full of stories about guys (it’s usually guys) who’ve gone dashing off after a heartthrob met by way of the Internet, pursuing a romance that started, typically, in an online chat area and moved into private messages before photos were exchanged and voice contact was made.
It’s an odd, contactless style of dating that flies in the face of social custom but has worked for people like Rush Limbaugh, who met his present wife via Compuserve messages. What’s appealing is the anonymity. You’re not judged on the basis of anything except what you type.
Thin, pasty-faced nerds can be articulate heroes; straights can flirt with gayness. Let your fantasy come true. As the recent New Yorker cartoon declared, “On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog.”
That chatty cheerleader in Wisconsin you’ve gotten hooked on messaging could be a bored construction worker in Queens – shades of Nathaniel West’s Miss Lonelyhearts. In other words, the urge to so hide has been with us for a while. The Internet makes it easier.
It works both ways. Pederasts trolling for victims have discovered that the chatty twelve-year-old is actually a middle-aged cop. On the Internet, nobody knows if you carry a gun.
If you have major personality issues to deal with, then, you probably can find a sympathetic news area or discussion group. On the other hand, you may well find a date. Just be cautious about throwing over your spouse and children for this person. Net love is the most superficial form of infatuation.
It’s the sense of acceptance that’s addictive. As Joe E. Brown said with that big smile at Jack Lemmon’s revelation at the end of Some Like It Hot, “Well, nobody’s perfect!”
– Metroland Magazine, 18 August 1996