Do it in the road: Navigating the Net

  1. What You Want
  2. Do it in the road
  3. Serving Up

The Internet is the biggest Dead show in the world: when you need to get from here to there, you know it’s going to be a long, strange trip. Navigate, according to Eric Partridge, comes from the medieval Latin navis, a ship, which in turn goes back, through Latin nauis (long a) and Greek naus to the Indo-European naus (long a), which had something to do with boats but we’re not really sure what. It’s also how we get nausea and noise. Nausea is originally seasickness, and noise comes to us from nausea via old French, “the seminal link being afforded by the noise made by an ancient shipful of passengers groaning and vomiting in bad weather.” (Eric Partridge, Origins)

Welcome to the Internet. Why is that bit about nausea important? It isn’t important. What gave you the idea it was important? I just happen to have two word origin books sitting on my desk as I’m writing this paragraph and I thought I’d stick it in. What kind of information can you find on the net? Anything that was easy for someone else to put there yesterday. Tomorrow you’ll be able to find what was easy to put there today.

In order to find something, you have to know what you’re looking for and where it is. If it’s on a world wide web site somewhere, you use a web searcher. If it’s on a gopher server, there’s a special set of tools for searching gopherspace, and yet another tool for searching ftp sites. You must always make sure you’re looking beneath the street lamp. There are a lot of places with great stuff that you just can’t find until someone else puts a street lamp there. Live with it. You can find everything on the net, but not if you look for it. The opposite of everything is something, and that’s what you have to find. Too many people come onto the net and expect it to open up like an LSD vision, revealing everything in it’s place. Perhaps someday it will do this for us, but not now. Today you must know what you are looking for.

Where to find Street Lamps on the Infobahn:

Street lamps on the infobahn come in a variety of models, from automated to personal:

Try The Joy of Access for a more detailed discussion of getting around the net.


It’s pretty hard not to use jargon when talking about the net. But when I say a word, it means what I meant it to say, and nothing more nor less.

A client is a computer program that goes and gets fun stuff for you. A client does this by hooking up to a server and stealing it blind.
A person controls each computer on the net. Persons use clients to get to Internet sites. Persons are also usually the guiding force behind Internet sites. Discussions are often carried out between persons on the net. It is even rumored that persons created the net itself!
A server is a computer program that provides a service. A client talks to a server in order to get great stuff off the net.
A service is a way for the net to provide you with really fun stuff. Internet sites use servers to provide the service, and you use a client to get to the service. Web, Usenet, and e-mail are probably the three most common services.
A site is a place on the Internet that has fun stuff. The site provides some Internet service, such as web, ftp, or gopher. (Gopher? Damn, I’m showing my age!)

Finding things on the net in general

The best way of finding good things on the net is to find good people on the net. With millions of netizens and growing, the Internet is bound to contain someone who shares your interest. The best way to find your net kindred is through Usenet and mailing lists. These discussion groups are electronic bars where net citizens gather to discuss their favorite topics, kick back, and have a glass of whine.

Big Bold Bloody Letters just Begging to Be Read

The Internet has no standards when it comes to presenting information. None. It has a few badly-adhered to standards for serving information, but that’s just a technical thing. It’s something for the computers. When it comes to organizing and displaying the information, it’s all up to a human being who had to figure out from scratch how to do it best. Pay attention to the road signs as you barrel down the highway.

Most of the sites that you pull into on the infobahn will have narcissistic descriptions of themselves. On web sites, it’ll be in bold, bloody letters that you can’t miss. Read these things! They explain in detail how to get around all those problems that newbies have asked the proprietor a thousand times. If you want something good to happen, don’t go pressing buttons just for the hell of it. If you see an alluring button on some web page in the Netherlands just aching to be ‘clicked’, take a few seconds to read the text right next to it... the text that says Press here to start World War III.

Just the FAQs

The first thing you should look for upon joining any discussion group is the FAQ, or Frequently Asked Questions. The FAQ contains answers to the questions that are most commonly asked on that discussion group.

Not all discussion groups have FAQs, so you may need to post a question to the group. But make sure you look for the FAQ first! You can find quite a few FAQs on the Usenet group news.answers, a newsgroup created for the dispension of all Internet FAQs. It includes FAQs from mailing lists as well as Usenet groups.

FAQs are almost always a gold mine of information. They include the answers to the most common questions, as well as whatever esoteric questions the authors felt were important, and they also will list the various Internet sites that have even more information.

And when you find something good, let your people know! One of the joys of information is that it can be worth more shared than it is hoarded.

The World Wide Web

You can find a number of net indexes on the web, organized by discipline, location, topic, and service. Volunteer net.librarians as well as commercial net providers are maintaining numerous ‘net shelves’ that allow you to find Internet sites using a variety of search strategies.

What’s a search query?

In order to use these ‘search engines’, you’ll need to use a ‘search query’. Search queries are creatures best served with greens in shadowy diners off the infobahn, or used to strike a light in the eternal vorpal darkness of the information highway. A search query allows you to look for more than one thing or less than one thing in the database that the search engine keeps. Search queries are almost never “case sensitive”. It doesn’t matter whether you enter the words you’re looking for in upper or lower case.

  • If you just enter one word, you’ll get a list of all possible results that have that word in their title. That’s what we’ve already been talking about.
  • If you enter more than one word, you’ll get a list of all possible results that have all of those words in the title. If you tell Altavista to look for house style, you might get the following results:
    • What is the Marvel House Style?
    • Architectural style in a 17th century house
    • The guitar style of Son House
    • Houses in the Fifteenth Century
    • Style as a Mode of Dress

You’ll notice that the last two items only contain one of the search words. That’s how search engines return their results: first, they show you the things that contain all search words, then they start returning items that fewer than all the search words. So if you search for “God is Dead” and get back 1,035,323 responses, don’t worry: chances are only the first few actually have anything to do with what you want.

Usenet newsgroups

The reason people get on the net may be to download dirty pictures of Brooke Shields, but the reason they stay is to talk to all the other people who download dirty pictures. That’s what Usenet is for. It’s a collection of thousands of discussion groups, all on different topics. You can discuss the merits of downloading dirty pictures with astronomers, doctors, lawyers, historians, drug users, and comic book readers.

Finding out where the astronomers, doctors, lawyers, and historians are is another matter entirely. I’ll leave that as an exercise for the reader. That’s you, kemosabe.

The best place to go to find out what Usenet newsgroups exist is DejaNews. DejaNews is most useful for searching out past conversations, as they maintain a database of just about everything said on Usenet for the last few years.

Mailing lists

In general, most of the useful mailing lists are archived. Read the instructions that came with your ‘Welcome Message’ to find out where the mailing list is archived. Mailing lists are not centralized, and there is no central place to go for reliable archiving of mailing lists.


The best place to go for books on the net is The Gutenberg Project. They have huge text-only files of quite a few books, as well as links to people who have turned those text files into web pages. Of course, I have a number of my favorites on-line at the FireBlade Coffeehouse.

  1. What You Want
  2. Do it in the road
  3. Serving Up