Nina Brown can zip around the Internet as easily as she zooms around the Beltway. Her friends do the same. It's their parents who are clueless when it comes to the information superhighway. So Nina Brown has become their tour guide.
At 21, she is the founder and president of her own business, GenX Internet Training Services. She's got an office in Towson, her own training materials and a growing clientele of people willing to pay her almost $40 an hour to find their way through cyberspace. Most are at least twice her age.
"I never get 20- to 30-year-olds -- I would be shocked -- we all had it at college, even high school," Ms. Brown says.
What she serves up is a way for people who didn't grow up with a computer in the den to learn how to get on the Internet, a sprawling computer network that reaches all over the world.
She takes her training classes to people's homes or businesses and teaches them on their own computers. It makes them more comfortable, and at least the equipment they are learning on is familiar when the road gets a little bumpy.
Even Ms. Brown's father, Bill, hires her to give him and three co-workers some pointers. They crowd into a construction trailer in the parking lot of the Clarksville Elementary School in western Howard County one morning for a two-hour class: "Basic Internet Skills: Getting Started."
jTC Ms. Brown is coaching: "We connected at 1200 baud. It's slow, but we're on, that's good." She pauses. "Now we're at terminal access. . . . Choose the 'Hamlet' server. . . . Go to the annex screen. . . . Enter vt 100."
She points to the computer screen. "See there, the blinking percent sign." Now all four are ready to go exploring. They take turns using the computer keyboard, though one student, Cathleen Young, refuses to touch it. She'd rather watch the others.
Ms. Brown is standing behind her students, lecturing. She's a small woman with blond hair down to her shoulders. She's wearing khakis and a black shirt, neatly dressed but casual. Her voice is soothing and encouraging as she teaches her students how to use e-mail.
"She doesn't come across like, 'I know everything about the Internet, and you don't know anything,' " says one of her former students, E. J. Woznicki, a Baltimore County librarian.
He felt more comfortable working one-on-one with Ms. Brown than he did in a computer class, "where asking stupid questions can make you look stupid."
Ms. Brown grew up in Perry Hall in Baltimore County. When she was 10, her father brought home the family's first computer, a TRS-80 from Radio Shack. She spent plenty of time playing around with it.
But the defining moment of her life, she says, was at 16: "My then-boyfriend and now-fiance took me to the basement to show me his new Prodigy system." This was an early prototype of what the Prodigy on-line service is today, but Ms. Brown was fascinated. The two of them began spending more and more time on-line.
Ms. Brown majored in anthropology at the Johns Hopkins University. But instead of studying Third World tribes, she studied cyberspace cultures, including America Online, Prodigy and the Internet. Her thesis compared the explosion of technology in the 1890s with the information revolution of the 1990s. It was titled "In the Belly of the Beast: Technological Change at the Edge of Two Decades."
After graduating in 1994, Ms. Brown found herself at loose ends. The only thing she was doing was answering family and friends' questions about on-line jargon, and how to get onto the Internet. Then it dawned on her that she could sell what she knows.
Though she is unwilling to talk about her income, she says the business is "doing pretty well." She is making enough to support herself.
So far, Ms. Brown has had more than 130 customers. Her prices depend on what you want: The "Getting Connected Packet" is $10. "Basic Internet Skills: Getting Started" is $75 for a two-hour session. For "Advance Internet Skills: The Power User," the charge is $55. Classes come with GenX textbook materials that she created, and she gives students her e-mail address in case )) they have questions after the training session.
Ms. Brown says her students are often people who have played with the Internet and gotten frustrated, "and now they just want it fixed." She thinks a lot of the interest in the Internet is driven by the relentless media attention it has gotten. "They think they must be missing something big that Prodigy doesn't have."
She and other Internet aficionados say commercial on-line servers, like America Online and Prodigy, just aren't comparable to what's available on the Internet in terms of specialized information. "It's a matter of size," Ms. Brown says.
Commercial providers offer "interface systems." For example, America Online allows access only to a fraction of the Internet, but one that is much easier for the uninitiated to use than going into cyberspace alone.
Ms. Brown also finds people in their 40s and 50s are anxious to avoid being left in the dust as everyone else leaps onto the information superhighway.
"The No. 1 fear is that everyone else knows it, and they are going to be left behind," Ms. Brown says.
Judy Miller, a 54-year-old Baltimorean, is a fairly typical client. She wanted to communicate with her 27-year-old son, a computer programmer.
"He thinks I'm a basic stupid," says Ms. Miller, who wanted to prove him wrong.
Ms. Brown helped her get onto the Internet. In the process, she says, she has discovered the 'Net for herself. As an avid gardener, she subscribes to "Virtual Garden."
"I love the Internet," she says.
Back in the Clarksville trailer, Ms. Brown's father, Bill, Jan Sadowski, Cathleen Young and Walter Schneider have finished their e-mail tour and are now learning how to use "Gophers," menus that allow them to search, by location or subject, libraries and information sources. They go into the gopher menu at the University of Pisa.
"Everything is leaning," quips Mr. Sadowski.
Bill Brown, a Howard County school administrator responsible for construction, is visibly proud of his daughter and her computer smarts. She has not missed a question yet at this session.
He and the others at the training session have all been involved in the construction of the new River Hill High School in Clarksville.
"We designed the building with a fiber-optic spine," Mr. Brown says. "They don't need it now, but by the turn of the century they may."
The need for Internet skills is already apparent to Mr. Brown and his co-workers. The Internet is a place they can go to keep up with the latest advances in building materials or electrical wiring methods. They can post problems on the Internet to see if anyone has a solution.
At the end of a second two-hour session, these four are on the highway, and halfway in the driver's seat.