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Way back in the Pleistocene era of online services – say 1994 – I could forgive America Online for a multiple of sins, both technical and editorial. Back then the service was a frontier community of 712,000 and quite often one got the feeling the town was run by a bright but very unbalanced and over-caffeinated cadre of computer aficionados.

Enthusiasm for the service – enthusiasm for the geek-newcomer lifestyle, really – was the order of the day. Every improvement in the AOL software, no matter how arcane, was punctuated by an exclamation point – or three. Every quip, no matter how droll or labored, was received like the second coming of Oscar Wilde. In retrospect, I guess we all spent a disproportionate amount of our early online days ROFL. (That’s “rolling on the floor laughing” to those of you who never went through a chat-room phase).

As the wired world went from being a novelty to a ubiquitous presence in our lives, most of us tempered that early unbridled enthusiasm. So why is AOL’s welcome screen – the one page seen umpteen times a day by tens of millions of users – still a showcase for the kind of insipid happy-talk babble that would insult the intelligence of a 10-year-old?

AOL’s prime marketing message since the early days has always been this: “We’re a big online community – big enough for everyone and every lifestyle.” Yet the tone of the daily promotional links on the welcome screen seems consistently written to appeal to a particular demographic slice – the hopelessly daft. Day after day, without fail, it’s the kind of chirpy, ding-dong discourse that could make the level of patter on “Live with Regis and Kelly” sound like “60 Minutes.”

A recent sampling:

“Here kitty, kitty / 7 things that bug cats”

“What’s a mac daddy? / urban slang tips”

“After death / brain continues to think?”

They should be so concerned about premature brain-death – among their editorial corps. Pardon my rant, but does the cotton candy on the welcome screen truly reflect the breadth of content available from the world’s dominant online service? It certainly doesn’t reflect the breadth of interests held by 30 million subscribers.

Confidentially speakingYahoo and the market-research powerhouse ACNielsen recently teamed to create the Yahoo/ACNielsen Internet Confidence Index, a barometer of consumer attitudes toward all things Internet. The first index report, on e-commerce (based on a survey of 1,000 adults) found, among other things: 42 percent of American Net users intend to make a purchase online during the next three months; their purchases are estimated to total $9.9 billion during that period.

To nobody’s great surprise, younger consumers (ages 18 to 24) showed the highest comfort levels with online transactions and those over 45 the lowest. Male Internet users tended to have greater confidence in e-commerce than women (123 points vs. 113, with 100 points as the neutral baseline for the study). College-educated respondents were much more likely than their high-school-only counterparts to be comfortable with buying online (116 points vs. 84).

An unsung heroThe mainstream press spends a lot of time alternately celebrating and vilifying those who made – and, in some cases, lost – bazillions off the Net. There is comparatively little written about those who gave back the most.

Susan Calcari, founder and executive director of the Internet Scout Project at University of Wisconsin-Madison, guided untold thousands of Internet travelers each week. For the last seven years, Calcari and her small staff of researchers have published a weekly Scout Report, an e-mail and Web tip-sheet spotlighting the most useful resources on the Net, with an emphasis on academic, government and reference sites.

Last week’s dispatch broke the terrible news: Calcari had lost her battle with breast cancer.

Calcari believed the Internet was a global community and devoted her career to making sure the wonders of te Net were available to all. She will be greatly missed. Read more about her at

For the Scout Report see