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The Independent Culture
NOW that you are ready to join an electronic street-corner discussion about a subject that interests you - anything from Venezuelan culture to a Volkswagen's mechanics - you will need to learn the language of cyberspace.

To start with, you will simply want to see what special-interest groups, or forums, are around without actually contributing anything. You do this by clicking on the "browse" or "preview" icon displayed on your screen. At some stage, though, you will want to join in. Perhaps you want to know who the next Venezuelan finance minister is likely to be, or where you can get go-faster stripes for your Beetle. When you click out of "browse", a menu will appear asking whether you want to join the group: click o n the "yes" icon, or type "yes", and you can join in.

Before you utter a single (written) word, however, it is essential to learn your Netiquette. This rule book is authoritative; extraordinarily so given that nobody owns, or polices, the Internet. If you transgress, you are likely to be "flamed", or assaulted by abusive messages from outraged users.

Rule one. Make sure you are not asking a question that has been asked a zillion times before. Each special-interest group will have an easily accessible section labelled FAQ, for Frequently Asked Questions.

Rule two. Do not advertise. You are allowed to tell other readers about something they may be interested in, but you must not promote your own product.

Rule three. Do not flood several groups with the same message: this is called "spamming", after the Monty Python spam sketch.

Rule four. Do not use capital letters: this is the computer equivalent of shouting.

There are ways, however, of expressing mood in messages. The written word can be cold and flat compared with voice and body language: jokes can be misinterpreted or missed altogether, as can irony and scepticism. The on-line world has developed its own symbols (called "emoticons") and acro-nyms to make sure tone is understood.

The most widely used is :-) . Turn the page on the side and you should see a smile. Other common ones are :-( (frowning), :-> (biting sarcasm), ;-) (winky smile). Less common ones are :*) (user is drunk), :'-( (user is crying), :-& (user is tongue-tied).

Acronyms are also used to save time and space: TTBOMK (to the best of my knowledge), ROFL (rolling on floor laughing), WTH (what the hell), TANJ (There ain't no justice). And plenty more. They are listed in books on the Internet and on-line services suchas Pamela Kane's The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Electronic Highway (MIS Press, £19.99), or John Levine's The Internet for Dummies (IDG Books, £17.99).

Once you have your Netiquette cracked, you may feel brave enough to take part in a "real time" - that is, live - chat or conference. This is the computer version of ham radio or Citizens' Band (CB) radio; CompuServe even calls its system CB Simulator. Several enthusiasts at a time can join in jargon-ridden conversations on esoteric and often dull subjects. On-line services have their own chat areas: on some, anyone can take part, for others you have to ask permission.

Most of the conversation is general and banal. But there are specialist conferences, scheduled for particular times. If Italian cookery or Sci Fi is your interest, you can join in a more useful "discussion" with other well-informed parties; these are advertised in the relevant special-interest group.

David Bowen