A lot of my friends are getting onto the Internet today _ through Internet service providers, the major on-line services or even through their local libraries.
While they realize that access to the Net gives them the power to talk electronically with people around the world, they're often confused about the Internet's three major communication schemes _ e-mail, mailing lists and news groups.
E-mail is by far the greatest attraction of the Internet. It lets you send messages to anyone anywhere else on the Net, simply by putting their Internet address in the "To:" section of whatever program is handling your mail service.
Millions of users have discovered the joys and occasional pitfalls of e-mail. Some think it may well resurrect the art of correspondence, which disappeared with the onset of cheap long-distance phone service. E-mail has a major advantage over the Postal Service (known as snail-mail) in that it's virtually instantaneous. In most cases, when you post an e-mail message, it will arrive on your correspondent's host computer within minutes, or at most a few hours. The next time he or she logs on, the message is waiting.
Electronic mail is particularly popular among families with college students. Mom and Dad use America Online or one of the other services, and the kids have accounts on their college computer system. It's an easy way to keep in touch without worrying about time schedules or time zones, and more than a few parents say their children are apt to be more communicative in electronic writing than they are on the phone.
E-mail is also relatively cheap. Basic mail accounts are available for as little as $15 a month from commercial Internet access providers. So-called "freenet" systems in some cities will give you a basic e-mail account for a small donation, such as $50 a year.
E-mail is part of the package when you subscribe to any large on-line service, such as CompuServe, America Online, Prodigy, GEnie or Delphi. Until recently, users of these services were generally limited to communicating with other subscribers of the same service.
Now, however, the services are all part of the Internet, and it's possible to send e-mail from one service to another and to any Internet address. Be aware, though, that some on-line services charge extra for e-mail messages beyond a fixed number per month, and some have fees for mail delivered from foreign systems over the Internet. Check with your service. If you expect to be a heavy Internet e-mail user, it might be cheaper to set up a basic e-mail account with a commercial Internet provider.
One-on-one mail is just fine for handling business, but the greatest impact of Internet communication may well be its ability to let its users organize into groups with various interests. Whether you're interested in politics, religion, gardening, heavy metal, computer programing, windsurfing or classical music, there's undoubtedly a group of like-minded people out there.
There are two kinds of groups on the Internet: mailing lists and news groups. Because the number of lists and groups changes daily, it's hard to say how many there are. A good guess is anywhere between 7,000 and 12,000. Some are longstanding; others spring up for a month or two. Some lists and groups are moderated, which means there's a head honcho who decides whether to pass on your message. Others are pure free-for-alls that post anything and everything.
Mailing lists are just what they sound like. They're lists of people with similar interests who send e-mail to one another.
To join a group, you send e-mail with a "subscribe" message to the person or computer that manages the mailing list. After that, a copy of any message you send to the group is automatically passed on to everyone else in the group, and you get mail from everyone else.
Mailing lists have one major disadvantage: You tend to get a lot of mail.
For example, I subscribe to two lists for journalists. One deals with computer-assisted reporting, the other with on-line news operations. Between them, I get anywhere from 45 to 70 messages a day. Although I enjoy taking part in the discussions and get critical information that would be hard to come by elsewhere, I do have to spend some time sorting through the mail every day.
If you're using a commercial on-line service that charges extra for messages beyond a monthly maximum, or for Internet mail you receive, subscribing to an active mailing list can be a ticket to the poorhouse. So be careful.
Usenet news groups are the other major form of mass communication on the Net. These are more like electronic bulletin boards, organized by subjects. When you post a message to the news group, it becomes available to everyone in the group. But unlike mailing lists, news groups don't fill up your mailbox. You have to decide to look at the group's postings.
Most commercial Internet access providers take a daily feed of 4,000 to 5,000 news groups. In recent months, the major on-line services have also given subscribers access to news groups, although some feeds are a bit sanitized to get rid of the kinkier subjects (a group called alt.sex.bestiality.barney comes to mind).
On-line services such as America Online give you a friendly, menu-driven front end to news groups, while commercial Internet access providers can usually point you to a file that contains the latest list.
Michael J. Himowitz is the computer writer for the Baltimore Sun. Distributed by the Los Angeles Times-Washington Post News Service.