Author surfs the new wave of Internet

April 25, 1995|By Vernon Silver | Vernon Silver,New York Times News Service

J. C. Herz was giving an on-line party for her new book when an Internet denizen named Digitalman demanded to know what made her cybertome so special.

"Picture Hunter S. Thompson in cyberspace," Ms. Herz replied. "Except he's a girl, and he eats Cocoa Krispies."

Ms. Herz, 23, is a chronicler of computer pop culture for Wired and other magazines. Her book, "Surfing on the Internet: A Nethead's Adventures on Line" ($19.95; Little, Brown), details her antics on the vast computer network. Now, she is periodically enjoying the perquisites of a book tour and relishing comparisons to writers of an older generation, like Mr. Thompson and Jack Kerouac, who actually had to leave the house to encounter fear or loathing.

"I'm flattered," she said, off line, at a cafe near her Art Deco apartment in Miami Beach's South Beach section. "Besides, I look a lot better than Hunter S. Thompson in a bustier."

Not that it matters, since Ms. Herz didn't actually see anyone face to face while reporting her Internet tales with a modem and a Macintosh Powerbook. Instead, she cultivated a pallor rarely maintained in sunny Miami Beach and let her cascading brown curls grow even longer.

Having moved here after graduating from Harvard University in 1993, she spent her days and late nights alone at home in front of a glowing screen, with bowls of teeth-rotting breakfast cereal by her side. "Most of the time it was Lucky Charms," Ms. Herz said.

The cereal references are deliberate. Kiddie junk foods are cultural symbols held dear by hackers and slackers, the two worlds she bridges in "Surfing on the Internet" and the audiences she is most likely to reach.

Ms. Herz's surfing safari takes her to such diverse places as the wilds of cyberdrag ("the Net isn't just a scientific research tool -- it's an outlet for gorgeous women trapped in the bodies of male computer programmers") and a virtual frat party with topless cheerleaders run from a Rutgers University computer ("I wonder whether the women's studies department of Rutgers has any idea what's going on in their basement").

It seems inevitable that someone such as Ms. Herz (both well traveled on the Internet and articulate about the nostalgia-driven pop culture of her generation) would put it all together in a book that filters out the technical talk.

The result somehow squeezes Usenet and MUD's between the same covers as Pez, Saturday morning cartoons and Dynamite magazine. With a similar take, she is already at work on her next book, a history of computer games, also for Little, Brown.

Ms. Herz's urge to observe and write came, she said, from always feeling like an outsider. She was born in South Africa to British parents and at age 5 moved to Houston, where her father is still a physician.

At Harvard, she wrote record and band reviews for the alternative weekly Boston Phoenix "to meet cute guitar players," she said, but spent only a little time at the Harvard Crimson. It was at the Crimson, however, that she wrote a profile of the writer Mark Leyner, who put Ms. Herz in touch with an editor who eventually gave her a book deal.

Her Internet addiction began one night on campus at the Science Center when she test-drove her student computer account and encountered cyberspace. "It just seemed like such a bizarre little subculture," she said.

She quickly learned that subculture and joined Wired's Net Surf Squad, which reports the latest happenings on the Internet's nooks and crannies. She also sent copies of her book proposal to two editors Mr. Leyner had recommended, but forgot about it when neither editor replied.

After graduating with a combined concentration in the sciences and the humanities, she took a summer internship as a reporter with the Miami Herald. Before the summer was out, the forgotten proposal had turned into a surprise book contract. She logged on to the Internet and started taking notes.

A year and a half later, she has had her Doc Marten combat boots shined by room service at a Chicago hotel, and has been thrilled when a bookstore in Chapel Hill, N.C., put "Surfing" in its rock and roll section. Her next step is to move from South Beach ("this little disco inferno," she calls it) to New York, which she can now afford.

As for the name, J. C., she says it's a Texas thing, like J. R., but she won't reveal what it stands for, not wanting her readers to find out. "It would breed a false sense of familiarity," she said.

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