Salon 21st: The online life-line: By Andrew Leonard. Forget those tech-support phone numbers. Only the Net can answer the zillion questions and solve the endless problems generated by today's computer technology.

Published June 29, 1997 7:00PM (EDT)

Back in the summer of 1993, I spent three frustrating weeks learning how to download a file from the Internet. Seems pathetic now, but one must start somewhere. Today, while I'm no hacker hotshot, I feel somewhat more in control of my relationship with my computer.

The world is not divided into power users and hopeless bumblers -- there is many a stage between. Anyone can make the same journey as I have, from stumbling idiot to barely competent moron. All that is required is an application of will.

Alas, unfortunately, I cannot provide an itinerary for a sure-fire path to prowess. Organizing the Net into an easy learner's manual is a quixotic task; there is too much out there, and it changes too often. It is, as its detractors so often note, a confusing jumble, with an infinite number of starting points and possible endings. I could list my favorite stops, places like Curt's High Speed Modem Page, the alt.winsock FAQ and the invaluable Windows Annoyances Page. But every troubled computer user has a different problem, and there's no way to anticipate them all. The best advice I can offer is to outline a kind of clunky search algorithm -- a series of steps that will lead, almost inevitably, to the particular info-oasis that fulfills your needs.

The first, and most important, requirement is a willingness to ask questions. There is a Usenet newsgroup or a mailing list devoted to every possible topic in the computing universe. A straightforward question, phrased politely and as intelligently as possible (with as many details as one can comprehend), will usually result in positive feedback. Flames, no doubt, will also come your way, for there is always some crusty Net wanker lurking out there whose sensitivities will be outraged by your clumsy queries ("Read the FAQ, stupid!"). Asking how to unsubscribe from a mailing list -- when such information is automatically sent to anyone who has subscribed -- is a particularly egregious sin. But so what? Cyber-flames don't singe like the real deal. Just make sure you learn from your mistakes.

Ah, but you ask, how do I find that mailing list or newsgroup or invaluable FAQ? First, never despair. Somewhere, someone has assembled a Web site devoted to your problem -- with pointers to newsletters, archives of information, and links to valuable software. Treasure troves abound -- cornucopias of info such as Dan Kegel's ISDN page or David Gingold's Cable Modem page or Ric Ford's Macintouch. Such aggregations of knowledge are as natural to the Web as manure in a cow pasture. You can hardly move a step without stepping right into one. Plug keywords into search engines. Leaf through Yahoo's catalog. Don't expect to hit the jackpot on the first try -- you must winnow out the chaff, and seek until you find.

I personally have had great success in inputting entire error messages into search engines -- inscrutable phrases such as "port already in use" or "comm overrun" often direct me straight to a FAQ where someone has asked (and answered) the question, "what do you do when you see the error message 'comm overrun.'" For this story, I idly wondered who had written the first FAQ; I plugged the words "first FAQ" into Altavista and presto -- I found the "FAQ about FAQs."

Learning the rudimentary basics of the query-language parameters for whatever search engine you favor doesn't hurt, either. A simple half-hour investment can achieve remarkable results. Don't be afraid of Boolean Logic! A little goes a long way.

Before ever picking up the phone to call technical support, visit a company's Web page (provided, of course, you can connect to the Net). Not only are the answers to the most common problems occasionally available somewhere on the site, but there are often links to other Net-based sources of knowledge. And don't be afraid to e-mail people directly who appear to have run into similar problems (as evidenced by their posts to newsgroups or mailing lists or their authorship of Web pages). The Net's great vigor is founded upon its ability to connect people; take advantage of it.

Persistence will pay off, and with enough practice, you will form search habits, hone your instincts and solve your problems. The payoff is self-confidence -- and a steady closing of the alienation gap that exists between most of us and our computers. We can all be power users. Don't let anyone tell you differently.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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