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The Independent Culture
AMID the awkward jargon and misplaced metaphors that orbit the world of computers, the occasional apt phrase is used. The term "global village", coined in the Sixties, has been given a new lease of life - it now refers to the community of people who can chat not because they live close to one another but because they are connected by computer. It is a pretty big village: 25 million computers are said to be linked through the Internet, the computer equivalent of the international telephone networ k.

But who on the Internet are you most likely to want to talk to? In any group, the people who communicate most are those who share a common interest; the global village is no exception. Most of the on-line services available, the systems that connect homecomputers down telephone lines - such as Delphi (part of News International) or the giant CompuServe - run special interest groups. Also known as bulletin boards or forums, they are a ways of exchanging information on specialist areas of knowledge.

Subscribers to on-line services can "visit" not only that company's own special interest groups but also the 8,500 available on the Internet (where they are called news-groups). You will tap into what resembles a series of letters to a newspaper, which everyone can read - but not alter - and to which they can, if they like, reply.

If you are a CompuServe subscriber with an electronic mouse and a Windows program, all you do is click on the "Find" icon displayed on your screen and type "Usenet". If you do not have Windows, type "Go Use-net". An index appears, listing those Internet newsgroups that CompuServe thinks its subscribers should be allowed to see. (There are some, such as "foot fetishists" - yes, it exists - which are not indexed; to gain access you have to know their exact names.) The variety of Newsgroups available is astonishing: antiques, Tolkien, Japanese fan-zines, Dr Who, wedding plans and hundreds more.

Most on-line services' own specialist forums have the added advantage of being monitored by a professional computer buff who will offer help if needed. The Delphi service says it has more subjects of specific interest to British users on its network, butthe sheer size of CompuServe means there is plenty to look at here, too. Most of its 600 forums are provided by computer folk for computer folk, but there is a fascinating spread of non-technical subjects: fish, automobiles, cancer, cooks, g ardening, freemasonry, New Age, scuba, UK. That the UK has its own special interest group shows how very American the whole system is. Select "Cooks Online" from the index, and the language suggests that few of the cooks swapping recipes live this side o f the Atlantic. Not that a recipe for "the world's greatest chocolate truffles" should be ignored for that reason.

As a newcomer to the global village, you may just want to "preview" or "browse". This means you can read messages, but not send them. When you have finished looking, a message will appear asking if you want to become a member of that particular forum. Ifyou type in your name, it will be registered (sometimes for a small fee) and you will then be able take an active part.

Before you become a member, you will have to learn your "Netiquette" - the social rules of the global village. We will cover this subject next week, and also tell you how you can smile or grimace to indicate the "tone" of a computer conversation.

David Bowen