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Letter to a novice

Peter Durrant recalls his struggles to learn computer and the Internet - and offers advice to a colleague.\


Dear Colleague.\ \ With luck you will find the following experiences helpful as you tread what can sometimes be a lonely road. But it can be extremely enjoyable as you meet people from across the globe, or even a neighbourhood close by, whom you might never have contacted before. Anyway, if divide the 'road-to-becoming-familiar-with -the-Internet' into three parts it might make more sense for us both.\ \ Perhaps the INTRODUCTORY PART of becoming an (inter)-net enthusiast is to;\ \ (a) get yourself a computer. I started with an Apple-Mac and much of what follows is based on their user-friendly approach. But this has also created problems which I will explore later. I've since learned there's some-one in the next village who reconstructs computers and sells them cheaply so perhaps it's worth looking around for a reliable second hand source. Once you have the computer in the house the next problem is to learn how to connect the various parts. I'm a non-technocrat and it took me a long time to realise that the connections at the back of the set have signs on them which match the cords. I also had to hunt around for a modem but, these days, they are advertised every-where. The On-Line section in the Guardian on a thursday always has a number of offers but many other adverts sometimes throw in the modem for good measure. It seems common sense that the higher the V numbers are (does this mean volt's) the quicker the whole thing will connect. Mine's 14.400 which seems o.k. for me at my particular stage of development.\ \ (b) I've just realised I'm making the same mistakes that proved so difficult for me when I started, a year and a half ago, from a corner of my back room at home in Cambridge. PC means personal computer and it took me a long time to even begin to get used to the language. But some early clues are that 'down-loading' means printing-out from the screen and the 'menu' is the various lists of selective options at the top of the screen which alter according to the various setting.at the top of each page. Whilst 'hard-ware' means what is in the machine and 'soft-ware' is those almost oblong plastic discs you stick in the front. Although I've never managed to understand, let along make it work, the gibberish call 'file attachments.' Can anybody help me?\ \ © I found myself spending weeks trying to 'print-out' and if it hadn't been for my teenage kids I would never have succeeded. You'll need some-time to talk about starting in general so don't be afraid to confess your ignorance and ask around.Even phone some-one up. And, gradually, as you get started there's plenty of people around to answer specific points as and when they arise. Although it's probably best to look for another beginner since, once you've made a little progress, you tend to forget how difficult it was when you started. Rather like our driving tests.\ \ (d) on the print-out procedures try experimenting on menus with 'copy' but don't forget to black-out the type-face you want to save first. Then look for a 'save as' sign on one of the menus, fill in what seem to be the most appropriate boxes and switch to quit. Then return to your e-mail system , nudge the top left hand box and hey presto, the original message will appear and clatter away. After you have remembered to switch on the printer and told it to print. Anyway, it's about learning on the job although I'm biased since I went to evening classes and never learned a thing.\ \ (e) I suppose this first part is about trying things out for yourself and it's quite difficult to damage the equipment through simply playing around with the keys. At this point you will have probably contacted a host such as Compuserve who, in fact, make it really easy for you. Especially with their free telephone line to Bristol. I eventually changed on cost and other grounds to Cityscape where the getting on-line instructions were'nt nearly as good, although they are much cheaper, and I'm beginning to think that an empathic host might be worth paying for. The 'host' is simply the agency you pay monthly, or yearly if you want to save money. BT, for example, have recently entered the market at £15 per month inclusive of VAT and there's dozens of others around. What you also need to ensure, and it is getting better all of the time, is that your host is using a local telephone number. Otherwise you will be paying for costs via one of the major cities. Oh, and 'on-line' means simply that. That the system is working.\ \ (f) once you are on-line, and have accepted your e-mail address which is usually your choice of words, and been given a pass-word which only you know, then you're in business. You then use the mouse, and you get much better at it as you gain confidence, to click, and usually double-click on the boxes which seem relevant. After a while you get really expert at 'drawing' boxes from one space to another. Especially the waste-bin although don't forget you can also retrieve from here. Up until the time you trash the lot, of course.\ \ (g) on an Apple-Mac the e-mail system is called Eudora, World Wide Web is MacWeb and group discussions are through Nuntius. But most people seem to agree that the e-mail system is the one which enables us all best to relate to one another. With the Web as a back-up reference point providing a number of useful and changing overviews of where that particular debate is at. It's also worth remembering here that in order for the Web Pages to be in existence there's any number of volunteers around actually constructing them in the first place. As well as keeping them up-to-date. Often for little or no income and may be we should all, eventually, once we have learned the rules of the trade, join them.\ \ (h) you will quickly learn that the e-mail system will allow you to contact anyone, anywhere and, at any time. Since the beauty is that it will be waiting for you to access yourself to messages only when you are ready. But you do need to know people's e-mail addresses and it is very easy, particularly in the early days, for messages to be bounced back to you because you have placed the dot, or an oblique, or something else, in the wrong place. This is where, once you've made some contacts, that the reply button really comes into its own.\ \ (i) whilst with the Web you also need to have an address which is usually prefixed with http://www followed by their personal details. A good one, if you are interested in community development issues is Communities Online http://www.btwebworld.com/communities/ but don't put a full-stop at the end even although it seems appropriate. There are also hundreds of Nuntius groups, or the equivalent, around where you can zip in and out of but, and this is a personal view, you have to search hard for not much useful information and contacts.\ \ (j) so before we move on to phase two I'd just like to say it's all about networking and community development work if that's familiar to you. Community work depends essentially on following through leads, reading between the lines, being informed about a range of materials and issues and knowing how to make useful connections with like-minded individuals and groups. From the grass-roots upwards and the nice thing about 'the net' is that it is esssentially an eqalitarian approach. No hierarchies around and plenty of cooperation no matter what people's non-net status.\ \ The MIDDLE PHASE is about consolidating your first, often quite difficult, and isolated, attempts to become part of the gang. I've had lots of ups and downs and often felt like packing it all in. But do stay around and it does get better. So this section might be a little more tutorial-like;\ \ (a) how do you get into a forum, special interest group and link in with like-minded people? Well there is a search mechanism around at the start of my WWW system which is quite helpful. You simply try a range of words which reflect your interests and this remarkable memory system will then come up with some possibilities. You can also speak to other people in the neighbourhood, or at work, who are beginning to explore the system and pick up addresses and contacts from newspapers and the mass of magazine in Smith's. Or, and this is when it began to get really rewarding for me, you hunt around for some specialist information that will provide you with some start-up help. I'm interested in community development leads and I found some early addresses in community work magazines and journals. And when you've found some-where you would like to join, simply leave the subject matter blank and type in the main text SUBSCRIBE, followed by your name. Or something like that, and UNSUBSCRIBE when you want to leave. It does differ from place to place but usually some-one will come in and help you out and there's often instructions in those confusing lines of type at the top of the message.\ \ (b) be helpful, and consciously learn how to relate to and with others. Once you have a bit of confidence it all becomes worth while. A lot of people will not join in initially and this is called 'lurking. But, gradually, others get to know your address and after a while you don't have to keep on writing theirs down. Try Sellotaping the ones you use the most to the side of the desk and you can always alter them as time goes by. You will also pick up a lot of useful web-addresses from being part of a forum which, again, will provide you with lots of individual and group contacts. The subject line on your e-mail can often be of considerable use here since, together with a quick glance at the sender, it gives you some clues about the nature and usefulness of the communication.\ \ © one important point here is that there's some basic written rules about how we all behave towards each other. Obviously politeness, concern and keeping things brief are important but so is, when you reply to others on issues which do not involve everyone, replying to the individual's private address. As opposed to the general forum who may not be interested in individual exchanges. In other words it's about us all developing a sense of consideration in a system which can become very demanding and complex.\ \ (d) at this stage it's as well to remember that when your Apple Mac and/or PC needs some repairs you need to find somewhere in one of the files to tuck away the external connections which you use most often. My local firm wiped off, 'reformated' in their terms, my word processing and internet connections. Which are the only two I use and it took me a frustrating month to get them back. With no apologies.\ \ (e) as time goes by you will have the opportunity to become members of, no joining fees here, of a wide number of groups and many people have written about the good feeling of anticipation that you get when you 'check-in' and wait for responses to your earlier conversations. You'll also soon recognise other peoples styles of working, and I'm an early morning person by the way which guarantees cheap phone rates. But you quickly learn how to scan, subscribe, unsubscribe and to be selective. Although if you can keep up to date on a daily basis it does help you avoid being snowed under.\ \ (f) the only other thing I'd like to say on this part of what I hope are some useful ideas is about costs. If you're paying for it youself it makes sense never to compose e-mails when you are live on-line. There's always a way of doing this when the modem is off and you then just switch on and press 'send.' It also seems sensible, once you've checked your messages, to play around, or look at them any time, for nothing, by keeping the modem switched off. This is where the word-processing part of your machine really comes into its own and it's always a sobering thought that very few of us use more than ten per cent of its incredible technology.\ \ (g) it is also worth printing-out when you have something really important to transmit. I did it with this e-mail and one is always amazed how many mistakes are missed from looking at the screen itself. As opposed to the printed word where punctuation and grammar, I hope, can be easily corrected.\ \ (h) so, thanks for staying around. By this time you've become familiar with the machinery and its various parts and have probably switched hosts. I changed from Compuserve, not only on grounds of expense, but also because it.was also dominated by American interests. Nothing wrong with that, and it has probably got better by now, but it's helpful to have national and european connections. I then switched to Cityscape and I've had too many rows with them as they changed direction to meet increased demand and I couldn't get back for weeks. So I'm looking around for a user-friendly, informative and supportive host. Any ideas?\ \ Finally PRESENT, AND FUTURE, DEVELOPMENTS will be concerned with continuing to build on, and consolidate, an increasing range of electronic resources, new friends and contacts as yet often unknown and untried. But there's large numbers of acqaintances around already and together we can traverse the world. Literally and cheaply. Once you realise from your phone bill that it isn't costing you very much more than you normally spend then perhaps that's the acid test that you have become fairly competent.\ \ (a) as you become part of these networks you will find that relationships become warmer and friendlier. This week I wasn't able to go to a meeting because of poor health in the family and, quickly, some sympathetic e-mails appeared. Along with details of the agenda. We also had an American party over last week to look at local services and soon established e-mail links for a collective newsletter which appeared on their desks in seconds on their return. Boston here we all come next year. Whilst the International Association of Community Networkers, with Madeline from Boulder County at the helm, joined by Heikki from Finland, and David from Brighton,is really beginning to make internationalism work.\ \ (b) at this point the skills and art of networking as an art-form becomes something to really work at. You worry far less about becoming a member of a group, taking a few risks and getting anxious when some-one disagrees, usually in a civilised way, with one of your on-line comments. You'll also find, as your confidence continues to increase, that you can often just re-route information to a friend whom you know is interested in a particular subject by changing the address and re-sending it. Or you will become part of an NGO (Non-Governmental Organsiation) that reinforces your interests by meetings, letters (it's rudely called snail mail) and telephone calls. Nothing like an all-round approach for moving on. Local media contacts seem also to be taking off all over the place, with newsletters and magazines beginning to appear to complement it all.\ \ © it also seems to me that we can then test out, and explore, some really good community options. Communities Online, try, (with a little help from our friends at BT), http://www.btwebworld.com/communities/ are well into community regeneration, our Cybercafe here in Cambridge has recently started its own Online local information service and the local councils are really well established if you look at the cc entry in the address. This means that correspondence with MPs and others, who might normally be difficult to contact, becomes routine. I was speaking, and complaining, the other day to our district council about rubbish which hadn't been cleared down our street. Last week I found myself listening to Richard Luka, (more on loka@amerst,edu) talking about his latest book on technology and democracy. An e-mail on his return to the States quickly led to a warm and helpful reply. And I've just heard from Anne Campbell, the parliamentary IT innovator and supporter, letting me know of local developments going on beneath my very nose. Which I hadn't noticed until she told me about them.\ \ (d) the emerging lesson here is that social action can be linked with an achievable directness. As opposed to having to circumvent endless bureaucracies. But you're probably into other areas of interest and there are specialist forums and groups around to meet every-one's needs.\ \ (e) I also need to say something about Apple-macs and PCs. It's increasingly proving quite difficult to get software, together with its entrance to the Internet, for the first so perhaps we will all end up with dull old Windows. Bill Gates rules O.K. but the system itself is still cheap, and flexible and it's up to us how we use it. In spite of the fact that it all began from military bases wanting to inter-communicate it's now, uniquely, become an open systems strategy. One thing you will also have noticed here is that some people operate from an office base and others from home. That's why, at week-ends and holidays, the debate often declines and even disappears.\ \ (f) the other mistake we've made in community and social work, and maybe your field too, is to have become too insular. But the web helps us all to cooperate and willingly share information, identify our shared values and debate the issues of the day. In a creative and helpful fashion. I'll look forward to your e-mails and your latest ideas for a web page sounds really good. Are you into Bulletin Boards yet? Remember our exciting, but short-lived adventure with First Class?\ \ regards to everyone.\ \ Peter Durrant.\ Coordinator.\ Humberstone NetworkingGroup.\ 5 Kentings.\ Comberton.\ Cambridge.\ CB3 7DT.\ Tel: 01223 262759.\ \

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