The Internet Curmudgeon: "Representing the Internet"


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Copyright (c) 1994, 1997 Daniel P. Dern

Note: An edited-without-my-knowledge <grumble!> version of this appeared in the November/December 1994 issue of Internet World for my Internet Curmudgeon column under the title "Paint the Right Picture." This is the original, unmunged text. - DPD

Speaking of 'talking on the Internet' (this issue's theme, I'm told), let's talk a minute about 'talking about the Internet.'

With the Internet ever-more in the public eye, it's important -- imperative, many believe -- that the correct things be said clearly, and, equally if not more important, that incorrect things NOT be said.

It's important because the eyes of the world are literally upon us. The Internet is receiving daily media attention, everywhere from the New York Times and Wall Street Journal to Glamour magazine and USA Today (not to mention places like Wired and right here in Internet World), on radio talk shows and on television mini-segments. And Internet issues are being discussed in online forums (which many of the media follow), often by users who are very new to the Internet and Usenet.

And the information-consuming public (and frequently the media that are doing the informing) all too often have comparatively little notion of what's what Internet-wise, and thus allow minor, even major mis-statements into the public record, where they are read, accepted, and passed along.

One distressing example of this has been the coverage of the "spamming" incidents, notably the Green Card Visa episodes. Many major newspapers reported the net.outcry as "against <gasp> advertising" or "using the Internet for business." These articles often also give the impression that it's OK to blast one's message across the length and breadth of cyberspace, and the complaints are from "old-timers unhappy with these new uses."

As I hope you know and understand, none of this is true. Advertising and business are perfectly welcome IN THE CORRECT PLACE AND MANNER on the Internet and USENET -- but other methods may abuse user resources or ultimately make the network itself unusable.

Bobbi Fox (bobbifox@world.std.com) points out some of the impacts of these inaccuracies: "Many people who don't know any better take the information from these articles as license to advertise as they will. And some 'Young Turk' wannabes, reading the (false) claim that the 'net.old-fogies' are against any advertising, take it as a challenge to their perceived 'free speech' rights. These readers may then take up the gauntlet by posting messages of their own, or engaging in 'flame wars' based on these incorrect assumptions."

And any follow-up Letter to the Editor or retractions won't have anywhere near the exposure of the original article.

Another example is the "new e-mail convention" in the first edition of the book, E-mail Addresses of the Rich and Famous, which "suggests" a new subject convention for identifying unsolicited advertisements and the like.

Unfortunately, this wasn't a "convention," it was a suggestion by one individual, who happened to cast it into somewhat firm concrete by putting into their book. The remaining 99.999999% of the Internet community -- i.e., twenty million or so, minus one -- was unaware of the news. When at least one enterprising e-mail entrepreneur sent out a round of unsolicited advertisements using this convention, he was astonished by the vehement public roasting he received.

The book's author has since acknowledged that, while well intended, his proposal was a mistake. Unfortunately, it is impossible to recall all the copies of the book that have this mistake in it.

Then there was the article in CompuServe's magazine some months back which "explained" how to subscribe to Internet mailing lists: by sending "subscribe" messages to the address of the list, e.g., turtle-lovers@tortoise.com, rather than to the administrative address, turtle-lovers-request@tortoise.com. (The fact that there are at least four different types of mail systems, each with a different convention, doesn't help here, I admit.) A simple, easily catchable error before presstime; now a festering problem generator for years to come.

More recently, there's been a large hue and cry regarding the announcement by the CIX (Commercial Internet Exchange) that it will begin implementing its policies regarding denying service to packets from sites that aren't entitled to CIX transit. In other words, the free ride is over. Users whose Internet providers had promised/claimed full access to CIX members, but hadn't actually joined the CIX will possibly find they can't make connections they previously could. (This shouldn't impact e-mail or Usenet messaging, by the way.)

I believe that not providing free CIX use to non-members is reasonable -- I remember how the founding of the CIX made non-NSFNET Internet connectivity a reality in early 1991. But many don't understand the issues, and are engaging in debate based on very major misunderstandings.

Heck, many people still haven't caught on to facts like a) there is no ARPANET any more (dismantled in 1989), b) it's OK to use the Internet, per se, for business (except, of course, in those situations where it isn't), c) the Internet isn't funded by U.S. tax dollars (although some government sites use our tax dollars to pay for their Internet access, along with paying for their electricity, water, and so on), or d) the Usenet is NOT the Internet (it just happens to use it as one of its major delivery routes).

But every time another article appears in a newspaper -- and then gets endlessly quoted, recycled and discussed -- another round of myths and misunderstandings is propagated, forcing you and me and the Internet community at large to spend endless effort combatting and debatting and correcting this mis-statements.

Going by what you read in the press, you'd think that the Internet is primarily a morass of... well, trivialities and icky stuff, Newsgroup in-fighting, purloined programs and pictures, retro ex-hippy anti- establishment types and cyber cowboys and gunslingers.

By contrast, how often in the mainstream press do you hear about the exciting, nifty, life-changing, empowering things happening on the Internet and Usenet? There was a great article about Frank Odasz' Big Sky Telegraph in the newsweeklies in the past year -- but what about the Global Schoolhouse, and AskERIC, and the Internet Town Hall, and how companies are doing marketing, sales and support, and the million and one other exciting Internet success stories? (FARRNET has one such collection, comprising 'success stories' from each state in the U.S., I believe.)

Answer: You don't, at least anywhere near as often.

Part of the problem, of course, is that the first set of topics are "better news." They're short, punchy, and sound hot -- and the press hasn't had a really big Internet news story since Cliff Stoll caught his Hanover Hacker and the infamous "Morris Worm" infested the 'net... and we're talking several years ago now. The Green Card and password- sniffer incidents were good, but not as good (and they lacked the same novelty impact).

SPEAK UP AND PLEASE "SAY THE RIGHT THING"

As you can see, we are collectively being watched, written about, quoted, analyzed and explained, more often than not by people who don't know the Internet's history, technology, or present status, don't have the time to learn it fully, and may not have the time or space to present it properly -- or editors who care as much about accuracy versus media-worthiness.

Because there is no one single organization that "is the Internet," we have all been put in the challenging position of being its spokespersons. It is, therefore, I maintain, our collective responsibility to speak up and represent the Internet as fairly, clearly and positively as possible.

This mandate applies to "Internet public figures" such Vint Cerf and Tracey LaQuey Parker (author of The Internet Companion) and ClariNet president Brad Templeton and Chicago-based MCSnet president Karl Denninger and -- well, me, I guess -- the folks who are writing, speaking, teaching and consulting about the Internet, what it's all about, and what it can be used for.

Part of this means I, and my colleagues, spend a fair amount of time on the phone and at events carefully explaining issues to new-to-the- Internet press people, and going out of our way to be accessible, even though we may not be quoted in a fraction of the resulting stories. I believe it's part of the job; it comes with the virtual territory, as it were. It's explicitly part of the charter of the new Internet Business Association.

I believe this mandate also applies to regular everyday Internet users, including you and me and every account-holder and net user. At some time or other, being a member of any member of any club, group, organization or association carries some ambassadorial responsibilities; being an Internaut is no different.

This means thinking carefully (at least a little bit) regarding what we say in our Usenet postings and our messages to public e-mail lists, in what we tell our co-workers and friends and family, in what we say to the press when contacted, and in what we put in the files we make available via the Internet's myriad FTP, Gopher, WWW and other serverspaces.

The expanded size and nature of the Internet community has brought some other changes worth remembering:

  1. Many of today's new users don't know when they're being kidded -- they don't (yet) recognize smileys, humor alerts, things that what more experienced users recognize as tip-offs (e.g., FBI Agent Purvis). This <sigh> means being more careful about labelling humorous and spoof posts. (Except on April Fool's Day, of course, when all bets are off.)
  2. Many new users simply don't know any better when they make mistakes like posting "Test" messages, TYPING IN ALL CAPITALS, replying publicly intead of privately, etc. Do your best to be patient, and assume they just didn't know, rather than knew and didn't care. We need these people to "get it" and become our allies and comrades more than we need to get a few more jollies flaming newbies. Don't worry, I'm quite sure there'll still be lots of offenders left for legitimate, well-deserved net.roasting (see my Internet song parody "We've Grepped A Little List").
  3. When complaining or criticizing, always leave room for the possibility that some prankster may have been mis-using the account of the apparent offender.

Coming back briefly to my earlier comment re "being positive" -- I believe this includes a healthy, even curmudgeonly (I'm required to make at least one curmudgeonly statement per column*), acknowledgement that the Internet isn't a finished, ready-for-prime-time thing yet. Yes, the user front ends are getting friendlier -- but there's an awful lot of unfinished construction out there. Those of us who have gotten used to using the Internet have lost sight of how strange and often useless it still can be to the general populace.

* (Just like William Shatner's contract as Captain J.T. Kirk in the original Star Trek is said to have called for his shirt to be ripped at least once every two episodes, or something like that.)

To sum up, if you care about the Internet and the Usenet, be willing to help be a positive spokesperson for it. Whether by talking one on one with a friend or speaking on national television, every positive statement counts for something. It's too important to be left to chance.

Thanks for helping, see you on the 'net.


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Last modified: Tuesday, 16-Oct-2001 11:08:15 EDT