Among the Tribes of the Net

A Writer's Lament for the Internet's Lost Youth

April 12, 1995

By Scott Rosenberg

In the present glut of Internet books, the arrival of a new tome entitled "Surfing on the Internet" might not exactly perk up your ears.

It helps when you learn, about halfway through the book, that author J.C. Herz is using the cliche with more than a little irony. She plucks it from the mouth of a corporate vice president who's bragging to a superior about his cyber-prowess: "Hey, you'll never guess what I'm doing right now -- I'm surfing on the Internet!"

The only trouble is, the guy's actually logged on to America Online.

To the serious Internet addicts, or "netheads," upon whom Herz focuses, believing that you're "surfing on the Internet" when you're actually trolling AOL is something like boasting that you had the most authentic Mexican meal in town at a Taco Bell: It's not only arrogant, it's ignorant.

AOL -- along with competing commercial networks like "Compu$erve" and "Plodigy" -- is for the masses; the Internet was, at least until recently, for adepts, and particularly for young adepts. Herz, who fell in love with the Net as a Harvard undergraduate, writes about it with the kind of ardent possessiveness more typically reserved for underground bands -- by the sort of fans who turn on their idols the moment they sign with a record label:

" 'Electronic superhighway.' God, it's like "grunge' or "Generation X,' one of those buzzwords that trips over its own hype into the irony end zone. Even the word "cyberpunk' is kind of a Net in-joke now ("Woo-hoo, jACked iNto Plodigy, did you. How cYBerPunK!!!!'). It's like alternative rock. Once underground, it has now been officially exploited by The Man. With the media trying to latch onto the mirage of cyberstyle as assuredly as it's extruding Generation X articles, callow netters are having pop-cultural bar codes stamped onto their foreheads. And it hurts. . . ."

"The Net is one of the only fantastic things we have that our parents didn't have and, more importantly, that our yuppie uncles and aunts, who had everything, didn't have. It feels like our turf, whether or not our name is on the deed. We settled it. We live on it. And now we are being invaded by direct e-mail carpetbaggers, publicists, and on-line mall developers ready to 'streamline' it for the consumer."

In the subcultures that Herz chronicles, the Internet is something to be precisely defined, profligately used (and abused), extravagantly defended and, finally, mourned.

"The Net," the author explains, during a book-tour coffee break at Starbucks, "was this little club, where you had to know what you were doing -- you had to know the secret knock to get in. Now that anyone with an AOL account can use the Internet, the veterans feel kind of cheated. And I don't know that they're entirely wrong, because something is over. The golden days are gone for the scrappy little netheads -- the Net that's portrayed in this book is already gone. It's like if you went to Brazil hoping to see the Yanomano in their wonderful natural state and found them hanging around boomboxes instead."

She is not, you understand, talking about the Internet you may have seen in the news lately -- the shiny cyberspace malls sprouting on the World Wide Web, the interactive shopping ventures and the target for investment by moguls like Rupert Murdoch. This is the hard-core stuff: the vast, anarchic bulletin boards of 5000-plus Usenet news groups, or the Citizens Band-like channels of Internet Relay Chat (IRC), or the on-line alternate dimensions known as MUDs and MOOs. Places where people have been known to disappear for months on end, as Herz herself did to research her book.

"This story happens a lot -- people get completely sucked into it," says Herz, who pegs her own "heavy Net junkie period" at four months. "You don't know what information overload is until you've been submerged in the Net for weeks and not gotten any sleep and lived on caffeine and sugar cereal."

"Surfing on the Internet" -- subtitled "A Nethead's Adventures On-line" --isn't a how-to book, or an electronic Yellow Pages, or even a thoughtful cyberspace Baedeker like Howard Rheingold's "The Virtual Community." Brash and anarchic as its subject, it's an impressionistic record of life on the Internet -- what it looks, sounds and feels like.

The exercise is absorbing -- and useful, too, since if you're past college age the odds are relatively small that you'll ever have the time to explore these ephemeral electronic nooks and burrows yourself: Internet chain letters and pyramid schemes. UFO theorists and amateur rocket scientists and anti-Barney cultists. The IRC Jeopardy Channel (automated games, 24 hours a day), the playful self-description fantasies of LambdaMOO, the abstruse meditations of ZenMOO.

Herz finds a virtual home in the punky, New York-based environs of Mindvox, where the residents haze newcomers and revel in "their reputation as the Hell's Angels of cyberspace." And she adopts a male persona named "Kit" in a gay sex-chat group, hot-talking her way through a steamy shower scene with another ostensible guy.

Herz calls her work "pop anthropology." With its detailed descriptions of Net folklore, social customs, mating behavior and stylistic quirks (all on-line typos lovingly reproduced), the book makes fun reading now. And it may come in handy a few decades hence, when people want to know just how late-20th-century youths spent their time on the ur-networks of their day.

Not always edifyingly -- as the pages of verbatim on-line conversation transcripts in "Surfing on the Internet" sometimes attest. Herz is candid about Net life's superficiality: "There are things on the Net that are really cool, and there are other things that are just cool when you're discovering they exist. IRC degenerates into Beavis and Butthead pretty rapidly. It's a supreme waste of time."

But though Herz admits the surrealistic quality, the sheer weirdness of disembodied electronic communication, you won't find this writer railing at the Internet for undermining Western, or any other, civilization. Sit with her long enough, in fact, and she'll launch into avowals of devotion to the medium that make you wonder just how honest her professions of being "over her Net addiction" are.

"What I love about the Net is that it's interactive -- it's live. A CD-ROM is not interactive. But on the Internet, there are all these people out there, in real time, all over the world, and you're connecting with them. And you may discover that you have all kinds of things in common with someone in Iceland that you don't have with the person who lives upstairs from you. Maybe it's really idealistic to say that this fosters global understanding. But on some level, even on some cheesy pop-cultural level, like the Jeopardy Channel, it does.

"I also love the Net because I'm a writer, and it's text. Anyone who loves language has to love the Net. People are actually typing and reading and responding in a very immediate and personal way that makes you look back to Kerouac and Burroughs and Ginsberg just going at it. It's like a digital "Howl' in places.

"The Net is the ultimate beatnik hangout, in a way. We have this idea of the Beat as someone who's thrashing away on his typewriter. That's everyone on the Internet. I love the messiness and the sloppiness and the exuberance of it. Maybe it's because so many of the people on the Net are so young. Sometimes it gets juvenile, but that's the price you pay."

Right now, Herz is working on a new book about the culture of video games, pondering a move from Miami to New York, and crossing her fingers about the future of Net life. "I'd like to think that there will always be some part of the Internet that's underground. Someone somewhere will always be operating some little cool area, because the real estate's basically unlimited. Unlike a cool area of town, where the artists once lived but now can't afford it, the Net has space for everyone."

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