Some years ago when I first started surfing the net, I had terrible problems keeping track of the websites I had visited.
How on earth could I remember all those incomprehensible Universal Resource Locators? The workspace around my computer was strewn with tiny bits of paper scribbled over with http://www.blah/blah.com.
But I persevered and eventually, some months and several hundred Post-It notes later, I discovered the Bookmark facility. Oh joy! But all of that confusion and wasted time could have been avoided if only I had had a copy of The Internet for Beginners.
This is the latest of the hugely enjoyable Beginners series, produced by Icon Books, which uses intellectual comic books to convey complex ideas. Every page features a short chunk of text explaining how, say, a Bulletin Board works, supplemented with cartoon figures who take the explanation just one step further, plus more detailed pencil illustrations. Most of the series features either Great Thinkers - Jesus, Lacan, or Nietzsche, for example - or Huge Topics: Ethics, the Enlightenment, Ancient Eastern Philosophy.
The Internet for Beginners comes right up to date with practical advice on how to get the best out of the medium and makes an ideal companion to the 1995 Cyberspace for Beginners.
The earlier volume put the net in an intriguing historical context of language, numbers, and communication systems, but this book is much less theoretical. It explains how to contact other users and exchange files and information using telnet and ftp; how to use newsgroups, and how to write simple html programming, all in an accessible soundbite format illustrated with amusing diagrams and drawings.
The problem with any volume such as this is that it has to limit itself, and the authors must have had to make some hard decisions over what to leave out. Perhaps that is why there is a long explanation of how to download files using ftp, but little mention of the hugely popular consumer websites such as www.shareware.com, and no proper description of the difference between shareware (which you are expected to pay for eventually) and freeware (which is yours for ever at no cost). Also, there is no clear explanation of what these "files" actually are.
For the net-novice it is hard to believe in the wealth of free programs out there for the taking, and this could have been spelled out more clearly, especially when so many beginners are fooled into buying software on diskette or CD-Rom that they could have downloaded legally for free.
Many well-known applications for email, sound, graphics, web authoring, and, of course, games are available as freeware and can easily be found on the web, using popular search engines such as Yahoo and Altavista.
But the humour of these books is never in doubt. Laurel Brunner, who wrote the text, issues a firm warning to beware the addictiveness of newsgroups, and she is not talking about the soft, warm and wet variety when she says: "It is easy to get caught up in endless philosophising and pointless pontifications." Sadomasochism is one thing, but the newsgroup which seduces users into an endless loop of discussion about Virilio and Baudrillard can be excruciatingly harmful in the long run.
There is another subtle word of caution in the section on building your own web pages. It is no accident that the very first instruction which comes even before you start to create your site is to "Make sure you have some content - i.e. something to say that someone else might be interested in." Amen!
Sue Thomas is creative director of the trAce International Online Writing Community. She has just completed her third novel The (+)Net(+) of Desire, set in a virtual world. She is based at Nottingham Trent University.
The Internet for Beginners
Author - Laurel Brunner and Zoran Jevtic
ISBN - 1 874166 84 6
Publisher - Icon Books
Price - £8.99 (CD-Rom free)
Pages - 175