Where do you want to go this year?
I am leery of anything Gatesian these days, but as we enter the New Year in cyberspace, I find this little twist on Microsoft's catchphrase quite appropriate. (If you're looking for commentary on the world beyond our electronic universe, you've picked up the wrong newspaper.)
There are hard limits to the pioneering that may still be done in the physical realm of our little planet. Granted, this rock has a few unplundered corners that haven't yet been defiled with footprints. For the most part, however, humanity's enormous t-shirt is printed with a jaded, apathetic proclamation: "BEEN THERE, DONE THAT".
But the virtual world is infinite. It has no sharp edges and its horizons are dynamic, shifting and expanding with every right-button-click on the mouse of the collective consciousness. There will always be new paths here for reality-weary travellers who crave excitement of another kind. The air in this place fills our mouths with the hot taste of tomorrow, and leaves us greedy for more.
Go Everywhere (But Read This First)
My life has become richer since I started my virtual joyride last January. I've made many new friends, and hooked up with old ones; I've met Swedish comedians, Russian archaeologists, Australian geeks and even a banjo-picker in my own backyard. I've found websites that made me laugh till I cried, and others that made me weep because of the sadness of their contents. I've used voice-communication software to chat with folks around the world, and visited IRC chatrooms with a wide variety of topics that intrigue me.
I've also learned a lot, both vicariously and through personal experiences. In this column, I'll share a few thoughts that might be useful to newbies and seasoned surfers alike. I encourage you all to explore the wonders that await you in this amazing world. May your own joyride through cyberspace this coming year be educational, safe, and enriching!
Words can be dangerous. When you communicate in cyberspace, you must be very, very careful. This is a quick and easy medium which facilitates rapid-fire exchanges between people who are often total strangers. Misinterpretations are common because body language, inflections, and other visual and vocal cues common in face-to-face or telephone conversations are absent here. If you wouldn't say it in person, don't write it. Never send an e-mail written in anger. Think twice, or even three times, before you press ENTER.
Don't be afraid of virtual shopping. For mall-phobes like me, the Web is a godsend. My smallest purchase this year was a sampler of exotic natural perfumes from a company on the East Coast, and the largest was an airline ticket purchased from Preview Travel. In all cases, I looked for the solid key in the lower left-hand corner of my browser before I typed my credit card information into the order form. That solid key means that the site is secure. Shopping is easy and fun here in cyberspace --- and using a credit card on a secure site is about as safe as using one at Ala Moana.
Sign guestbooks, especially on personal websites. Website design is a labor of love. People spend long hours on their pages, in the hope that their creations will entertain and inform the folks who stumble onto them. If I see a woman at Safeway wearing a pretty sweater, I tell her it's pretty, and by the same token, I try to find something nice to say about the sites I visit, particularly when I've been asked to go take a peek at them by their makers. HTML can be daunting for beginners, and encouragement and constructive criticism are always welcome.
Everyone in cyberspace could be an axe-murderer, and that includes YOU. Okay, perhaps I exaggerate. But an ounce of virtual prevention is worth a pound of very painful cure. Use caution when getting personal with people you do not know. Don't give your telephone number or full name to strangers; be wary of sharing your webpage URL if it contains your home address or other personal information. And if you ever arrange a real-life meeting with a virtual playmate, BE CAREFUL. Meet your new pal in a public place, and take a friend with you. If that isn't possible, find a friend who is willing to be a "virtual chaperone" for you; provide your chaperone with the name, telephone number, address, and photo of your cyberfriend, and the time and place you'll be meeting. Check in by telephone with your chaperone at several pre-arranged times. And never get into a car with someone you've just met.
Get your kinfolk online! Almost every Tuesday evening, I visit a private chatroom at www.talkcity.com. Regulars include Mom, my sister Nancy, my Aunt Anita, and my cousin Cindy, all who live on the East Coast; and my beloved cousin Trish in Texas. We're working hard to get my Aunt Lulu to upgrade her poor old 386 so that she can come join us for our weekly kibbutz. If your clan is scattered all over the globe, why not beat the homesick blues with online family reunions?
Remember to sleep. This one's tough. Cyberspace is fascinating; there's so much to do here that many people surf when they should be sleeping. If you find yourself dozing at your desk, you may want to set a limit on your surfing time. And if you begin to forget the names of those short noisy people who live with you, it's time to turn off your ‘puter for a while. Your nightly visits to the #mensa chatroom may be the most fun you've had since your six years in a college dormitory, but your family must come first!
Caroline Wright, of WRIGHT FOR YOU Word Services, is a freelance writer. A former resident of Hawaii, she now lives in rural South Carolina. Feel free to e-mail your comments to Caroline at email@example.com.