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The Internet Totem Pole

(Written in 1997 and published in the Utah Statesman newspaper.)

It seems there is always a special group of people at the bottom of the Internet totem pole. Several years ago, it was the freshman college students. A couple years ago, it was the America Online users. Today, it's the folks using WebTV. These Internet newbies generally know absolutely nothing about using the Internet and waste absolutely no time making that known to other Internet users.

Over time, these people gradually move up the totem pole, but often not before having some embarrasing learning experiences.

The WebTV users are an especially interesting group. Because the WebTV concept negates necessarily owning a computer in order to have access to the Internet, these people lack fundamental computer skills which could help them understand how the Internet works. For example, an associate of mine who maintains an Internet e-mail discussion list told me about a WebTV user who sent an e-mail message expressing interest in joining the list. Instead of giving their e-mail address, they supplied the street address of their home.

America Online (AOL) users were almost as bad when AOL initially connected to the Internet. Their general lack of knowledge about Internet etiquette, or netiquette, caused a huge anti-AOL movement throughout the Net. Usenet newsgroups with names like alt.aol-sucks and alt.aol.rejects were created and the term "AOLamer" became a common insult in online flamewars.

Everyone starts at the bottom of the totem pole. I remember when I was part of the lowest common denominator of the Internet. It was my first year in college and at that time, there were no commercial Internet service providers and the Internet was strictly an educational network.

I remember sending my first chain letter via e-mail. It was no sooner than 24 hours after I added my name to the list of people to send a money to that my VAX account was suspended by the system administrator. I had to go visit with one of the system bigwigs and be told that such behavior was bad and would not tolerated.

That wasn't the first time my account was suspended. Eventually, after a few more trips to the system administrator's office I figured out what I could and could not do. I slowly became an informed Internet user and was moving my way up the totem pole.

Newbies tend to draw a lot of unneeded attention to themselves on the Net simply because they don't know what is appropriate and what isn't. You don't need to be an AOL or WebTV user to be a Newbie (although most of them are). If you're an Internet newbie, do not fear. There is hope.

While embarassing screwups online can be powerful learning experiences, they don't have to happen. You can learn plenty without running virtually naked in front of 40 million Internet users.

First, take things slowly and do your research. There are plenty of resources available to the new Internet users, especially on the World Wide Web. Check out Yahoo < http://www.yahoo.com > and other search engine sites for information specific to new Internet users.

If you want to post messages to mailing lists or to Usenet newsgroups, realize that other users are very particular to topicality. Make sure your message belongs there before you post it. When AOL users first invaded the Internet, it was not uncommon for some of them to ask AOL-specific questions in dozens of totally unrelated Usenet newsgroups at once.

It also pays to become associated with someone who is an experienced Internet user so you can bounce questions off them instead of exposing your ignorance to many people you don't know.

There are Usenet newsgroups dedicated to discussing new users' questions. Check out the news.newuser.questions, news.newuser.announce, and news.answers newsgroups.

So there is hope for newbies, even the WebTV users. As they become accustomed to the way the Internet works and what is appropriate behavior online, their position in the Internet totem pole will increase... to make room for future newbies.