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A good account of Internet and its use

Mar 30, 1997 10:30 PM
by M K Ramadoss

The following is extracted from Time Daily. And may interest some.



                                          The Power of

                                          On the Web, the
                                          lines can blur
                                          between the normal
                                          and the fringe

                 In the onslaught of pop psychology that has followed the
                 grim discoveries at Rancho Santa Fe, so-called mind
                 control experts have speculated that the fault somehow lay
                 in the tech world, that something about the Web explained
                 Heaven's Gate and the isolation of its members from the
                 cushioning norms of society. Not true. The cult had been
                 around for 22 years, and had seen better days. Most of its
                 members were Web novices at best. Yet in some ways,
                 the Web was made for groups like this. For it is not the
                 culture of the Internet, but its utility as a two-way means
                 of communication that attracts and connects militias, hate
                 groups and wacky fringe movements. The profoundly
                 American, truly revolutionary character of the Internet is
                 fundamentally egalitarian. Everyone can take the stage
                 online, even the nuts. But as the initial reaction to the
                 Web connection proved once again, the wild, unfiltered
                 nature of the Internet presents a difficult quandry for the
                 freedom-loving American society, particularly for parents.

                 Like the content of television, newspapers, magazines,
                 books and radio, the messages on the Internet range from
                 the profound to the outrageous. But the Net makes it
                 cheaper and easier than most mainstream-dominated
                 media to broadcast your message to a large potential
                 audience. Anyone can create web pages. Most Internet
                 service providers and online services offer customers
                 server space to publish their efforts on the Net. Whether
                 anyone will look at them is another question. The radical
                 difference between the Internet and other mass media is
                 that while anyone can make a bid for attention at http
                 something or other, there is no central audience regularly
                 tuning to channel 2 or 4 or 7 -- no easy way to command
                 major market share. If websites were channels, there
                 would be tens of millions of them on the Net, which helps
                 explain why every muffler shop, pizzeria and hardware
                 store seems to have one, as well as every crank. And that
                 is precisely what gives parents pause when they wonder
                 what strange ideas and people their children may
                 encounter on the electronic frontier.

                 As a readily accessible soapbox, the Net attracts the
                 same groups that have always tacked pamphlets on
                 grocery store and college bulletin boards and placed tiny
                 ads in the backs of journals to get the word out. As
                 disturbing as the quasi-philosophical blather on the
                 Heaven's Gate website may be, it never got much
                 attention until the networks and Internet publishers
                 (including Pathfinder) sought it out as legitimate news in
                 the wake of the deaths. As far as anyone has been able to
                 determine, the Heaven's Gate cult used the Net mainly to
                 memorialize itself, or to generate freelance income by
                 producing commercial web pages for local firms. But a
                 growing number of other cults and splinter groups use the
                 Net to try to recruit new members, just as advertisers use
                 the Net to sell products to consumers. Unlike TV or
                 radio, the Net offers a very personal way to contact the
                 audience. Some people are particularly vulnerable to email
                 and chatroom conversations with folks they may meet in
                 the intimate setting of the computer screen in their own
                 den or bedroom.

                 In that sense, the Net offers the same sort of intrusive
                 contact with people in their homes that has made
                 telemarketing a multibillion-dollar business. Just as lonely
                 people often are vulnerable to pitchmen who call them at
                 home, some maladjusted or immature people are
                 unusually receptive to online conversations with strangers
                 or to information that is different than what they see
                 around them in their communities. The communication and
                 the ideas can feel more personal or important than they
                 are. While most people are mature enough to ignore the
                 nuts or the nosy people and use this rich medium for
                 communicating with their friends or seeking out
                 information, children may not be. For parents who worry
                 that their children may meet dangerous strangers amid the
                 enormous information riches on the Net, the best advice is
                 that any child who is not old enough to go to the Mall
                 alone will need some guidance when wandering the
                 Internet. Computers are the most valuable source of free
                 education since the library. But they are not baby-sitters.
                 The Internet, the most powerful communications tool of
                 this generation, was never designed for that.

                                  -- Janice Castro

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