A reporter takes an offbeat maiden voyage through the internet to the edge of the on-line universe

By Dana Kennedy
September 23, 1994 at 04:00 AM EDT

I got home, cracked open a smart drink, and flipped open my laptop. I jacked in and started surfing the Net. First I took a look at that scene from The Mask where Jim Carrey’s heart shoots out from his chest. Then I kicked back and downloaded Aerosmith’s ”Head First.” While listening to the song, I skimmed the latest issue of Vibe, then downloaded that nude shot of MTV’s Kennedy taken at Woodstock. I joined Garth Brooks’ live news conference from Nashville (with 496 other people) just long enough to read his answer to one fan who asked him about life on the road. (”It’s like sex and pizza. Even when it’s bad, it’s pretty good.”) Had enough of Garth but I can never get enough of Melrose Place, so I wandered over to The Place Mats and posted a few way- cool messages in the after-show chat room. Forgot to watch Late Show too but at least I can check out Letterman’s Top Ten list before I go to sleep…

Call me a ”newbie.” Actually, please don’t. Like a lot of the jargon in the nerd-driven world of cyberspace, the term describing newcomers to the Internet — the world’s largest computer network — and the commercial on-line services linked to it, is a bit precious. It certainly doesn’t prepare the thousands of people invading the domain of scientists, academics, and computer hackers for the flames, or nasty E-mail, they get when violating Netiquette. But, whether the gearheads like it or not, membership on the Internet (roughly 35 million) and services like CompuServe (2.2 million), Prodigy (2 million), and America Online (1 million) has soared so much since 1990 (a mere 1 million users) that cyberspace is rapidly being transformed from geek heaven into a massive, one-stop home-entertainment center.

Less than four years ago, the Internet was a place where eggheads could trade binary programs and source codes. These days, though, you can also catch movie previews and celeb gossip (AOL’s Hollywood Online, CompuServe’s Showbiz Forum, GEnie’s Show Biz RoundTable), download music, and order concert tickets (RockLink Forum on AOL, the Dead Heads on the Internet), read a book (the Online Bookstore on the Internet), or a magazine (HotWired, an on-line version of Wired magazine, debuts on the Internet this month), watch a talk show (CompuServe’s Stein Online), write a screenplay (three writers who never met in person coauthored a script by passing pages and ideas around GEnie’s screenwriter’s forum), and obsess about old and new TV shows (Delphi has a near-lock on The X-Files, more than 30 Star Trek groups are thriving, and shows like Beverly Hills, 90210, Northern Exposure, and Married With Children all have cyberstations on the Internet). Or maybe you just want to get away from it all. Why not take a cybertour of Elvis’ home, Graceland? It’s all there — no, not in Memphis — on the Internet.

To take part in all this, you need nothing more than a computer and a modem — at least that’s what the giant on-line services (and the movie studios, networks, and record companies hooked up to them) want you to believe. In truth, unraveling the mysteries of cyberspace takes more than a fast baud rate and the ability to distinguish one of the most popular emoticons, :), the symbol for a smile, from one of the more obscure, E:), Brooke Shields’ eyebrows. Nor is it enough to master common abbreviations like LOL (laughing out loud), BTW (by the way), IMHO (in my humble opinion), or, more menacingly, RTFM (read the f—ing manual). Anyone masquerading as a cybernaut must master not only the most basic rules of Netiquette — i.e., NO TYPING IN CAPS! IT’S THE SAME AS YELLING! — but must also navigate a parallel universe with its own language, culture, neighborhoods, shopping malls, and whimsically named methods of transport. (Need to find your way around the Worldwide Web on the Internet? Try hitching a ride with Archie, Veronica, or Gopher — searching tools that help you cut through the labyrinth.)

Established in 1968 by the Department of Defense to keep communication lines open in the event of nuclear war, the Internet was long ruled by hackers, and the big on-line services like CompuServe and Prodigy catered mainly to civilians seeking stock prices and research databases. ”It used to be a bunch of techies talking about computer shows,” says Matt Jacobson, a vice president at Delphi, the fourth-largest on-line service. ”Now it’s all about creating a cool place to connect with other people, and the studios want to use a lot of this as an outgrowth of their publicity machine.” As subscriptions to America Online — the most boomer- and slacker-friendly service — tripled in the past year, advertisements and tie-ins to new movies, TV shows, and music have clogged up once pristine Cyberian corridors. Case in point: Viacom and Hollywood Online just launched a Forrest Gump merchandising boutique. For $18, you can buy the official Bubba Gump Shrimp Co. baseball cap.