I think I just took an impossible job.
America Online, one of the nation's largest online services, has asked me to host their Internet beginners' forum. If you're an AOL user, and you have a question about using the Internet, you'll probably find yourself in my forum. My job will be to answer questions, teach America Online's Internet users about netiquette, why spamming Usenet is a bad thing, and generally show them how to get around.
It should certainly be a challenging job, if only for one reason: a lot of Internet users *hate* America Online users. I've known this for a long time -- spend a few minutes reading the newsgroup alt.aol.sucks and you'll see what I mean.
I don't consider myself a staunch defender of America Online, or any of the online services, so I have to admit that some users of online services have been less than gracious in their new Internet environment. Some don't seem to understand that a single Usenet post might be read by some 500,000 people ("Hey, is there anyone reading this b-board? My name is Jake. Send me some email!"), others spam their commercial ads in inappropriate areas, others post racist propaganda that angers everyone. These folks are from America Online, Delphi, Prodigy, eWorld, all the online services which just finished the ramp-up to provide Internet access.
Admittedly, the online services have a huge job: besides the technical challenge of providing Net access to millions of people at once, they have the incredible logistical challenge of educating those people about the Internet. Here, some would say, the online services are failing.
Despite this, I was somewhat surprised to find not one, but two Web pages dedicated to explaining to people why "AOL sucks". Intrigued, I searched for web pages about other online services. I found one page describing why "Prodigy sucks" and another called the "Delphi Drop-Outs Club". (Surprisingly, I couldn't find a "GEnie sucks" homepage, even though GEnie is perhaps the online service that sucks the hardest.)
I cruised these pages, and have come to the conclusion that while some of them do offer a modicum of valid criticism about the online services, the main gist of them is this: "We liked the Internet the way it was when we joined, and we don't appreciate all you new users. Go away!"
A more cynical way to look at it is this: "I've been on the Internet longer than you have, and I have "real" Internet access, and although you're making the same newbie errors that I made when I started using the Internet (pick one of: in 1975, last year, last month, or last week) I don't like it. Go away!"
Usenet is rife with this sort of talk: on alt.internet.services, alt.online-service.america-online, alt.current-events.net-abuse, and elsewhere. Sorry kids, but if you don't like what this massive online service immigration is doing to the Internet, get out now, before Internet access comes with your cable TV, your personal satellite uplink, your toaster oven. This is the tip of the iceberg. Learn to love change, revel in the newbies, because that's all you're gonna see for the next decade.
My advice to online service users struggling to grok the Internet: RTFM. Don't say a word on the Internet until you've cruised the Web and Usenet for at least two months. Understand that you've entered a long-established community, one with its own rules, jargon, in-jokes and leaders. You wouldn't move to a foreign county and run for president as soon as you unpacked your boxes, nor would you call the locals at random and introduce yourself. (Or maybe *you* would.) Know that no one cares about your time-share opportunity or your thigh-reducing cream. The people on the Internet are friendly, helpful and intelligent. They're just a little uptight right now.
The Internet is your playground, but there are a lot of other kids here, who see it as their turf. After all, they've been there longer than you: since 1975. Or last month, or last week.