GOING on-line with an established service like CompuServe or America Online is like jetting off to Europe. Exploring the Internet is like taking off in a biplane and throwing out the compass. The ride can be rough and you might get lost, but you'll experience the exotic electronic places where anything can happen.
It's hard to explain the Internet. It's a network that connects more than 35,000 other networks that, in turn, connect more than 2.2 million computers in 92 countries. It's much bigger than the more- exclusive privately run on-line services that have limited access. It's called the prototype of the information superhighway, but it's much more like the electronic Wild West: borderless, largely ungoverned, and growing like jack rabbits. The Internet Society, a volunteer group that comes the closest to running the vast network, estimates the Internet is growing so fast that if things don't slow down, everyone in the world will be hooked up by 2001.
Depending on what you want to do, jumping on the Internet requires some computer expertise or an experienced guide. You need a computer, of course, a modem (get a high-speed model), and some kind of Internet connection.
If you're a student or a teacher, chances are your school already has an Internet connection that is probably free. If not, check with your employer to see if an Internet connection is planned. Some communities run Freenets, which are no-cost ways of hooking up. Most on-line services, such as America Online, let you send and receive Internet mail. But for full Internet access, you'll need a service provider.
It's not cheap. One of the best deals going is Delphi Internet Services, which gives newcomers a five-hour free trial of the service (800-695-4008). After that it's $10 a month for four hours or $20 a month for 20 hours. Be warned: The interface isn't graphical, so you'll have to learn commands. Easy-to-use graphical programs are available, such as the Internet Membership Kit, but at the moment, they require higher-grade connections at more than double the cost of Delphi or similar dial-up services.ONCE CONNECTED,
THE BIG QUESTIONS
On the Internet, you need to know who you are and where you are before going anywhere. The key is your Internet address. You can always tell Internet users by those funny @ signs in their addresses (@ means ``at''). Who do you think this Internet user is? president @whitehouse.gov
OK, that was too easy. Just remember, the name (or some version of it) goes before the @ sign and the location comes after. The ending of of an Internet address tells what kind of organization it is. Overseas users add a two-letter code to designate their countries. (See box above.)
On the Internet, you can go almost anywhere. To gather material for this article, I downloaded files from Internet computers in northern Virginia, Minnesota, Australia, and Britain. Be patient at the beginning. Cyberspace is vast. Start with simple things, like sending electronic mail or e-mail. Send an idea to the big fella at whitehouse.gov in the previous section. Just follow the menu commands or other instructions from your Internet service provider. When you get the hang of it, send me an e-mail telling me about your Internet experiences (firstname.lastname@example.org).
GOPHER: MAN'S BEST FRIEND ON THE INTERNET
Many beginners like Gopher, a search utility, because everything is menu-driven. Type in your menu choice and away you go. Try finding the text of Aladdin and the Wonderful Lamp. Use your service provider's Gopher to get to gopher.micro.umn.edu and choose Libraries, then Electronic Books, then By Title. You can display the text on-screen or download it to your computer.
USENET AND U
One of the best things about the Internet is that it's people who, like you, are vitally interested in a wide range of topics and hobbies. The Internet has thousands of news groups - alt.activism to talk.religion.misc - that act as electronic bulletin boards.
Anyone can post a question; then others leave their response or ask new questions. Use your service provider's Usenet directory to get to rec.pets.dogs or rec.pets.cats to see what dog and cat lovers are talking about. You might want to contribute your own ideas.
YOU CAN TANGO?
I CAN TELNET
Telnet is one of several useful exploration tools. It lets you log onto Internet computers as though you were sitting in front of them. Follow the directions of your service provider to telnet and then type ds.internic.net, and log on as guest. InterNIC is an organization that offers information about other Internet resources. Get to the search prompt, then type query nasa to get a list of NASA Internet computers. For directions on how to reach the first listing, type find 1 and write down the directions.
FTP - THE INFO-RACER'S EDGE
Many sites invite users to download files and programs using File Transfer Protocol or ftp. Try downloading a guide of US area codes. Depending on your service provider, you may end up typing the following: ftp ftp-spies.com, log on as anonymous, give your full Internet address as the password, then move to the Library/Documents subdirectory (type CD ``Library'' then CD ``Document'' ). Download the file by typing GET ``areacode.txt'' and don't forget to download the file again from your Internet service to your machine. If possible, set your modem and service to use the Zmodem protocol. Otherwise, large files can take hours to retrieve.
WHERE TO GO FROM HERE
There's far more to the Internet: searching with the Archie utility, subscribing to an electronic mailing list, and a new graphic interface called Mosaic, which may transform the way people interact with the Internet.
Several good books are available on how to use the Internet and what places to visit, including ``Using the Internet'' (Que Corporation, 1994); ``The Internet Yellow Pages'' (Osborne McGraw-Hill, 1994); ``Navigating the Internet'' (Sams Publishing, 1993); and many more.