The World Wide Web is a beguiling place where the fun is free. But unless it can become more efficient, disillusionment could set in, warns Andrew North
I have been travelling the Internet for some 18 months now, and most of that time it has been a lonely road. I have talked with all sorts of people, via e-mail or in chat forums. But until recently, none have been "real people" with interests and concerns outside the Net.

Admittedly, there is plenty of non-Internet talk among the 14,000-plus newsgroups and not only of the bizarre sexual kind. But the sad truth is that despite the wonderfully libertarian atmosphere - as if all 5.7 billion of us are getting our say - a lot of it is just froth. No one pays much attention to what is being said in the newsgroups, unless it is about the Internet. It is Speakers' Corner in cyberspace, full of doom- is-nigh merchants who can talk until they drop, but no one will care if they do.

When I first joined, the Net was still peopled by computer experts, which was a little demoralising. I used a computer but knew nothing about its innards. But in the past six months my spirits have started to rise because several "real" friends are now on e-mail. Several more are considering it. Suddenly, I have found the Net has a purpose for talking about things other than the Net.

From Bolivia, I have regular e-mail missives from an obsessive climbing friend. The only contact I had with him before was the odd battered postcard. Now he regales me every few weeks with tales of his latest 5,000m conquest, or reports of riots and tear gas in La Paz. Then there are friends in Europe, America and South Africa. Here, I use e-mail to swap gossip with journalist friends who I often do not see for weeks at a time. It is far more reliable than leaving messages on their answerphone.

Don't get me wrong. E-mail is not a substitute for a phone call or face- to-face contact. Nor is it as good as a real letter, but most of my friends never put pen to paper. E-mail makes it easier to write - no need to find a stamp and a 99 per cent chance that it will get to the right place within a couple of hours. It is an information source for me, too: I subscribe to several free e-mail newsletters. I have even used it to send radio sound files to a producer for editing.

E-mail may be the Internet's least glamorous feature, but for me it is the best thing about it by far. Moreover, it is surely the embodiment of the Internet's core ethos: cheap, worldwide communication which even the most basic computer can handle. In the same vein is the Net tradition of shareware, providing software for a nominal charge. Where else do people provide such sophisticated services for almost nothing?

The answer, of course, is nowhere. Because the Net is in effect a new state that has invented its own, almost utopian, laws. But revolutionary projects have an unfortunate habit of collapsing under the weight of their own good intentions, particularly when the original believers are no longer in the driving seat. I increasingly wonder if this is going to happen to the Net's most revolutionary feature, the World Wide Web. It still has definite potential - the foundation for on-demand multi-media and all that jazz. But in its current form and at its current speed - like the M25 in the rush hour - what is the Web really good for?

I do find some of the vast array of Web travel and news services useful. But most of the time it is still easier to read the paper, browse through Teletext and Ceefax, or pick up the telephone. Listening to crackly real- time sound or watching short videos over the Web is exciting, but will not replace my radio or TV. Neither do I buy anything via the Web - I would rather go to the shops.

Disillusionment will set in if it does not start to fulfil more real needs and a lot of people will give up on it. So, too, will all those companies that have rushed to set up their own Web sites over the past two years. Cyberspace will become a ghost town.

Or perhaps not. However frustrating it may be, there is something so unusual, so beguiling about the Web and the Internet that it just cannot be ignored. It is the excitement of watching this new state taking shape. So I know I will continue my travels on the Internet, even if all my friends give up on it, because I want to see what happens next.

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