Please step to the back of the online

January 20, 1997

Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist.

My sense of timing has always been impeccable.

I'd just resolved to get a modem and go online, because my favorite activity is wasting time, and for wasting time the Internet is pure space-age.

I love the idea of taking 18 hours to look up a fact I could find in 10 minutes in the Washington County Free Library.

Besides, it wouldn't cost much.

That's because every third day for the past three years, America Online has sent me by mail a computer disk good for 20 free hours of online service.


I have a stack of these things that, added together, could keep me plugged in until the year 2067.

But that was before America Online became America Onhold.

A story in Tuesday's Herald-Mail said some customers have waited four hours just to get connected. Imagine, four hours worth of busy signals. If I want that, I can call Ticketmaster when they announce the next Springsteen concert.

This actually happened: I was trying to get Jimmy Buffett tickets once, so I dialed the ticket office, which, of course, was busy. So I hit redial about 40,000 times and after two hours finally got through - to a little old lady in Upper Marlboro. The danger of redial is that if you don't dial the number correctly to begin with you're lost.

AOL's problem is that the company began offering unlimited Internet time, which Americans, being Americans, immediately began taking advantage of. People in this country would line up for amputations if they were free.

The difference being that amputations are slightly less painful than negotiating the Internet once you're finally connected.

Last week I tried to find a bootlegged transcript of Newt Gingrich's now-famous cell phone conversation where he plotted political strategy for ducking fallout from his ethics violations.

So I typed in Newt+phone+transcript and hit "search."

The network responded with "2,193,053 matches found."

I didn't have time to paw through two million documents, so I narrowed the search to Newt+phone+transcript+Florida.

I waited. Then, "2,193,051 matches found."

Ninety minutes later I was typing in something like Newt+phone+cellular+transcript+Florida highway+police scanner+nosycouple+ethics+Congress+Gingrich+sleaze-ball+collegecourse+GOPAC+taxdodge+windbag+violation+FCC+eaves-dropping+all-around childish behavior, and I was still getting matches well into six figures.

I found out everything about Newt that there was to find out (did you know that as a child he used to hang upside down in a tree by his knees while tying dandelion stems in knots and singing "wingy wingy wingy"?) except for what I wanted to find out.

And now, thanks to the 'Net, I am perpetuating the problem. Since these columns go online this will now be included in the congealed, oozing pool of verbiage that turns up whenever some poor goof does his own Newt Gingrich search.

Can you imagine a fellow out in Tacoma looking to do a little scholarly research on our House Speaker and stumbling across this?

Trembling, he will shake his head in disdain and quietly sign off, wondering how in the wwwdotcom the Internet could have gone so horribly wrong.

False and misleading information. Four-hour waits to be connected. Serious research unable to be performed because too many six-year-olds are downloading photos of naked dinosaurs.

The Internet is suffocating in its own success.

But fear not. America Online is planning a $350 million expansion. That, coupled with the nation's short attention span, ought to solve the problem.

Remember, it was less than 20 short years ago that CB radios were so popular they had to expand the network to 40 channels.

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