If 'surfing the net' conjures up images of anorak-wearing cyber- punks talking incessant techno-babble then you might be better of joining a conference. Avril Jones stays indoors and keeps her feet dry
THE INTERNET, aka the Information Superhighway, is a subject we should all know lots about. It has, after all, been the subject of as many media inches as Charles and Diana. Unfortunately, though, the whole subject is still obscured by nerdy jargon and salacious natter about cybersex.

Any novice might be forgiven for thinking the whole thing is only for anoraky types who want to head for the virtual pub to meet some passing Panamanian fish farmers and compare notes about newt breeding. In fact there's far more to be gained from being on-line than just "net surfing".

To begin with, "The Internet" is a much over used generic term for being on-line. Take me, for example. I have access to the Internet but I don't need to use it. This is because I subscribe to things called conferencing systems that provide all the information and communication possibilities I could wish for.

A conferencing system is just a tiny corner of the on-line world, though it is huge in its own right. It gives me an e-mail address for private correspondence, a vast choice of "conferences" or "forums" for discussion of every imaginable subject, or for buying and selling, and the means to search through most of the world's collected knowledge, all without stepping outdoors.

Commercial conferencing systems such as CiX and CompuServe provide so much that few people need venture further.

All this, according to some, is certain to turn me into a PC-bound zombie who never actually meets other people. This is rubbish; I've made many new friends and business contacts. The Net is not a substitute for real life; it complements it - much as the telephone always has, but with the added advantage that it can put you in touch with many people simultaneously.

I started to realise this about two years ago when a good friend tried to explain how a conferencing system account would enable me to socialise on those solitary evenings at home. He showed me how it works and eventually enlisted help from the Bikers' conference on UK service provider, CiX, to persuade me to join the on-line community.

My (then) learner motorcyclist status prompted immediate conscription. My protests of technical incompetence were cheerfully demolished and a widespread search of their sheds and skips enabled the construction of a primitive computer and modem. And so it began.

I was advised to acquire Off-Line Reader software. This automatically dials up the conferencing system, sends and receives all waiting information, then hangs up - all in just seconds, so I can browse at leisure without running up the telephone bill.

It didn't prove difficult to send my first, cautious messages and I quickly discovered that, on-line, you are judged by what you write, unhindered by distractions such as appearance. Soon I was hooked. Two conferences, both on CiX, became firm favourites: Bikers, for its warmth, intelligence and variety; and Girls New, which is closed (you must apply to join) and strictly for women. (Men think it's closed so we can talk about them. In fact, its closed so we can talk without them.)

Driven by the desire to explore further, I invested in a powerful PC and rapid fax modem (all purchased, naturally, from an on-line vendor). No longer need I trek to the library for my research, or to help my children with their homework. All the information we might need is at our fingertips, still without voyaging beyond CompuServe.

Meanwhile, my social life is not neglected. My virtual friends materialise in the flesh, like fairy godmothers, whenever needed. Last summer I hosted a barbecue and bring-a-chainsaw party. Text screen heroes leapt into action, transforming dense jungle into garden. Another cyber-Samaritan helped me with DIY jobs and improved my computer literacy. When an uninsured youth trashed the side of my car, qualified legal advice streamed in.

And, within hours of posting a ranting message about the death of my gas boiler and the gas fitters wanting pounds 50 for the five minute repair, my screen revealed detailed instructions on replacing the thermocouple. I spent half an hour and saved pounds 45, without even breaking a fingernail.

I now regularly meet these "ASCII characters" in the flesh, through heavily attended events hosted by the service providers, or gatherings arranged by conference members themselves. For newcomers who won't recognise anyone, we dispense advice such as "spot the leather jackets" or "stand at the bar, hands on head, and we'll rescue you when we stop laughing". Identification is rarely a problem. And I first met the man in my life when rescuing him from the bar at one of these get-togethers.

For more information you can call CiX on 0181 296 9666, and CompuServe on 0800 000200.