Save us from the wicked Web! What's needed is not hysteria, but discretion

Your computer

April 06, 1997|By Michael Himowitz

A COUPLE of weeks ago it was a pornographers' playground, a trap for the unwary and a sure passport to a life of unspeakable depravity. Before that it was a breeding ground for right-wing crazies trading recipes for fertilizer bombs guaranteed blow up government buildings or double your money back. This week it's a recruiting center for retooled hippies who worship Our Lady of the Flying Saucer and entice the emotionally challenged into taking other-world vacations courtesy of phenobarbital cocktails.

Welcome to the World Wide Web, folks. Sodom and Gomorrah only a mouse click away. At least that's what you'd believe if you listened to the chorus of Web-bashing that filled the airwaves and newspapers after 39 members of the Heaven's Gate cult killed themselves in a California mansion between March 23 and March 25.

As it turned out, the members of the cult supported themselves by designing Web pages. This, of course, made them a "computer cult," and according to the experts trotted out by the media, their deaths were only the latest piece of evidence that the Web is an evil and dangerous place indeed. Look no further than the April 7 issue of Newsweek, whose article on the suicide was titled "Web of Death."

This feeding frenzy angered more than a few of the 35 million folks who use the Web regularly but don't commune with flying saucers and chose not to commit suicide that week.

"If these people had supported themselves by doing construction work, would they have called them a 'construction' cult? What if they'd been plumbers? Would it be a 'plumbers' cult?" asked Tera Mugrage, who operates a Web site design firm called Internet Adventures in Fullerton, Calif., with her husband, Ken.

The Mugrages and a group of fellow Web designers who communicate through an Internet chat forum were so outraged by the beating the Web was taking that they struck back the way they knew best -- with a Web site that parodied the cult's business page (http: //

Their black humor borders on the tasteless, with images of toe-tags linking to other Web pages and a company logo with the motto, "We kill ourselves working for you." But the group hopes the attention the site has drawn from the public and press will help them spread a serious message -- that the Web is widely misunderstood and much maligned by reporters, editors and commentators who know almost nothing about it.

Here's what we do know. The Heaven's Gate cult made a living by setting up Web pages for legitimate businesses, most of whom were satisfied customers. The group promoted its bizarre brand of flying saucer Christianity and Gnosticism on a separate Heaven's Gate Web site. Its members routinely trolled the Web, looking for news of UFO sightings and spreading their message on Internet newsgroups that cater to the disaffected.

But there's no evidence that their electronic proselytizing was successful. In fact, the group's leader, Herff Applewhite, had been preaching the same quasi-theology since 1975, long before the Web was even a dream. Many of the members had known each other for 20 years.

Applewhite achieved his greatest notoriety and success in the 1970s, largely through low-tech methods such as town meetings and TV coverage. And when he sought public attention again in 1993, Applewhite did it by purchasing an ad in USA Today.

So, when you get past the hysteria, the Heaven's Gate cult used the Web the same way that thousands of other groups, businesses and religious organizations do. In fact, if you're looking for a message in cyberspace, you don't have to look far. Catholics, Jews, Protestants, Buddhists, Democrats, Republicans, Marxists, Libertarians, white supremacists and black nationalists are all out there selling, along with mutual fund companies, computer makers, music stores, tractor makers and porn merchants.

If nothing else, the Web may be the first real incarnation of what Jeffersonians called the "marketplace of ideas," that theoretical bazaar where everyone can shout at the top of his lungs and everyone else can listen and decide who's right and who's full of baloney.

The problem with marketplaces is that they're noisy, confusing and messy, and there's no guarantee that what you're getting is the real thing.

Most of us are used to shopping for ideas in convenience stores and malls, where everything on display is there because it met the standards of somebody in a marketing department. When we read about something in a newspaper or watch it on the TV news, we're seeing the result of a long filtering process carried out by professionals whose job it is to make sense of the world, tell us what's important and what it means.

Sometimes their judgment is good, sometimes it isn't.

The real issue on the Web isn't the lunatic cults that hang out there. It's whether we can regain the ability to sort things out for ourselves and help our children make sane decisions.

Basically, we have to pay more attention.

Pub Date: 4/06/97

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