For many people, this chaos is one of the attractions of the Net. But it is also a chore, because you have to spend so long searching for useful information. World Wide Web sites whose titles sound interesting turn out to be overflowing with outdated material, or are always busy. Newsgroups - the Internet's public forums - are even worse. The discussions wander so far that the names of topics are often downright misleading. And while you're searching for gems, the phone charges are stacking up.
There is a way of avoiding this, though, one that gets others to do the spadework and keeps your phone bill down: subscribe to an Internet mailing list. Like paper newsletters or magazines, Internet mailing lists cover specific subjects, but instead of arriving by post, they are sent to your electronic mailbox.
There are thousands of these lists, covering everything from art to arms control to Manchester United Football Club to fly-fishing. Unsurprisingly (given the medium), hundreds relate to computer issues; another common topic is environmental issues. The majority are American in origin and subject matter, but this is changing fast. New lists are appearing in Britain every week. Just as anyone can set up a Web site, anyone with the technical facilities (usually a little skill with the Perl programming language) can establish a mailing list.
Not all lists are just straight newsletters. Many are interactive discussion groups on specific topics, in which any subscriber can offer an opinion or comment. You can tap into the debate about information technology policy in Britain by signing up to the so-called Collaborative Open Groups (COGs), run by the UK government. Its Web server (at http://www.open.gov.uk) has full details.
When the material proper arrives, you download it along with the rest of your e-mail, and read it offline. And, unlike conventional paper magazines, most mailing lists are free.
Not only do you save money, but time as well, because you no longer have to spend so long Net-surfing. Moreover, to be part of a mailing list, you need only e-mail access to the Internet. Lists are also a perfect way of meeting other like-minded people on the Internet. I have made many useful contacts through my membership of various lists.
Most discussion group lists have a "moderator", who reads all the postings before they are e-mailed to subscribers. This is normally the person running the list, although some are chosen by the subscribers. It may sound like censorship, but the main role of these shadowy cyber-guardians is to weed out irrelevant material. Nevertheless, even with moderators, some discussion groups get out of hand, leading to a mailbox clogged with angry "flame" mail.
Some can also generate vast quantities of mail that you may never have time to read. If you sign up to the African National Congress news list, for instance, you could find yourself downloading at least 150 kilobytes of text a day.
But where should you look to find a list for you? Several Internet books, such as Adam Engst's Internet Starter Kit, give comprehensive lists of mailing lists. But site addresses do change. The best way to keep abreast of what is available is to search the Indiana University mailing list archive on the World Wide Web (at http://www.ucssc. indiana.edu/mlarchive/). This claims to hold details of more than 11,000 lists in more than 300 sites. Type in the subject area that interests you and it will search through while you are on line. If you have a Web browser with e-mail capability, such as Netscape, you can subscribe there and then.
Joining a mailing list usually takes one simple e-mail request (often just < SUBSCRIBE listname your full name > in the body of the message). A computer program at the receiving address automatically notes your e- mail address and adds that to the mailing list. Usually it will automatically reply by e-mail with instructions on how to use the list, including how to find out who else is on it, and how to send messages to individuals or everyone on it.
It will also tell you how to "unsubscribe" from the list - which can be very useful when a list has, for you, exhausted its usefulness. File those instructions somewhere accessible. You must unsubscribe in the correct way - usually a message saying .
In the real world, getting off a mailing list is far harder. Even if you cancel your subscription, your name will probably have been passed to other organisations, guaranteeing you a lifetime's supply of junk mail.
But the culture is changing. Junk e-mail is already becoming a plague for some people and it surely will not be long before mailing-list owners start selling their subscription lists to other publishers. So be careful who you give your e-mail address to. You have been warned.