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ROBIN ABCARIAN

Boldly Going Where She's Never Been--Cyberspace

October 02, 1994|ROBIN ABCARIAN

Last year, at the end of a speech, a woman approached me at the lectern. We spoke for a few minutes, then she asked for my card.

"Oh," she said, sounding disappointed after reading it. "No Internet address?"

I felt vaguely chagrined.

I knew what an Internet address was, but hadn't realized until then that I needed one or was expected to have one. The idea of replacing letters, which I love, with E-mail saddens me. Letters are a source of great, if guilty, pleasure. (There is so little time to respond.) On the other hand, an Internet address would surely make contact easier for people averse to putting pen to paper.

Anyway, a newspaper as big as this one can seem monolithic, and if electronic mailboxes allow for easier communication between readers and writers, who but a few hundred of the most curmudgeonly writers or editors would object?

I put the idea out of my head, but a few weeks ago, it popped up again in a different context.

This time, I was bemoaning a lack of sources for a sodden column I was trying to levitate, a piece that was going to live and die by the quality of its anecdotes about authority figures who crush the spirits of others.

(Sometimes, you find a few adequate stories, publish your column, and are deluged afterward by people with superb tales of their own. The trick is to find the great stories before the column runs.)

A sympathetic colleague suggested I put out a call on the Internet. Having no access at my own terminal, I sought the help of a resourceful Times librarian, who took me where I wanted to boldly go: to cyberspace.

The information superhighway, it turns out, is a two-way street.

*

Print journalists are by nature primitive hunters and gatherers of information, not inclined to trust the false warmth of the electronic campfire.

We live by a lot of self-created myths, many having to do with our abject fearlessness at all times. And although the phone is an indispensable appendage, we like to think of ourselves as people who knock on doors, who get in faces, who bear witness.

We do not like to think of ourselves as wimps who eschew human contact, even if sometimes that is exactly what we are.

By using the Internet, therefore, I felt I was committing a revolutionary and somewhat sneaky act.

I couldn't shake the feeling that I was cheating: No desperate phone calls, no shoe leather lost, just a cool query to potentially kajillions of invisible sources.

But desperation does funny things to your standards.

As deadline loomed without any wonderful--let alone passable--anecdotes, I couldn't really come up with a single compelling objection to using the Internet.

The unthinkable suddenly became a fabulous avant-garde solution.

*

Before I tell you what happened, allow me to register a mild objection to the fatigued phrase "information superhighway." It seems dreadfully off the mark. A superhighway implies linear movement, getting from Point A to Point B, say, at previously inconceivable speed.

My foray was more like casting a net upon invisible, (hopefully) teeming waters.

But somehow, the "information superfishnet" just doesn't trill.

My request generated a steady trickle of responses almost immediately, although I was warned by the librarian that quoting people off the Internet without additional contact was not a good idea, since anybody can write anything.

So I asked for phone numbers and ended up calling the two people whose stories most neatly coincided with the points I was trying to make.

Some of the other responses only went to show that in cyberspace as well as everywhere else in life, there will always be people who refuse to follow directions.

One man sent word that he had nothing to offer on the topic at hand, but he was furious with me for previous columns in which I had reinforced incorrect stereotypes (his feeling) about violence in Los Angeles. I believe the expression he used was that he felt like "breaking (my) arm" for printing such garbage.

Another said he wasn't interested in my needs, but wondered if I might pass on his lengthy note of praise to a fellow columnist.

Yet another invited me to watch him discharge pyrotechnics at the Los Angeles County Fair, with the proviso that I not reveal the storage location of the fireworks.

That was a tempting proposition.

Another deadline was looming, you see, and I was getting desperate.

* Robin Abcarian's column is published Wednesdays and Sundays.

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