As the surveys always reveal, the citizens of cyberspace are, in the main, male, Caucasian twenty-somethings with a college education. They love IT, aren't intimidated by the attendant gobbledygook and can't imagine a more pleasant way of spending their time than being hunched over a VDU twiddling with a mouse.
They don't mind being called nerds - in fact, they regard it as something of an honour. They even have sites on the World Wide Web where they hold theological debates on such things as the subtle differences between nerds and gimps. They sometimes hark back to those halcyon days when the virtual world was virtually exclusively theirs. But things are changing rapidly - other groups are staking a claim.
Visit BlokeNet home page, for instance, and you'll find an "emphasis on Girls or Beer, or Girls Beer at the same time". You'll read that there are plans afoot to make 1996 the International Year of the Bloke, although they still can't find anyone willing to leave the pub for long enough to set it up. At the other extreme, Aletheia is a site "devoted to helping men of integrity, devoted husbands, successful fathers to do their best - from a Judeo-Christian point of view".
Women are also making a point of making their presence felt. The Web, for instance, is host (hostess) to Herspace, WomWeb, Websisters, "A Net for Moms with Modems" and XX (named in honour of the crucial chromosomes) which includes an article on "how to make your man behave in 21 days or less, using the secrets of professional dog trainers". And then, of course, there is that group who can happily use the Internet without ever having to worry about paying a telephone bill: increasingly, children are using the World Wide Web as a worldwide playground.
There are hundreds of sites devoted to them with new ones coming on-line every day. The problem facing anxious parents and harassed teachers is how to ensure that youngsters can get to them quickly without straying down any dubious pathways or being bewitched, bothered and bewildered by material which is beyond them. The successful American software house, Yahoo, has come up with a solution. Its search engine - indispensable for adults trying to find their way around the Web - has spawned a junior version.
Yahooligans! offers an ideal launching pad for eight to 14-year-olds who want to make the most of their time on-line. They simply visit the colourful home page where they can use an impressive keyword search facility or select from eight general categories that include a range of interests from science to showbiz.
Clicking on these conjures up long lists of relevant sites. Every listed item is a hypertext "hot spot" so all that children have to do is point-and-click and they are transported directly to their chosen site.
From this one - free - home page they can explore the solar system, join the Beverly Hills 90210 fan club, participate in discussion groups with their peers, find electronic penpals, e-mail their worries to numerous agony aunts, download Postman Pat colouring sheets or anything else that happens to take their fancy. Much of the material, although aimed at children, is unashamedly erudite, and would provide an excellent resource for the classroom. But the most appealing sites are those in which obvious enthusiasts encourage children to take up an amazing range of pastimes and hobbies.
They can, for instance, "find out how to cloud watch"; "have fun with covered buttons"; "learn how to breed your own amphibians and reptiles - your parents will love you". It's a sure sign of the times that the one thing they aren't encouraged to do is spend their time hunched over a VDU twiddling with a mouse.
Yahooligans! Web address: http:www.yahooligans.com Arnold Evans's e-mail address is email@example.com