A befuddled bookstore manager sends out this plea for help on the Internet:

"Is it okay to post general ads for businesses here? If not, is there ANYWHERE on the net where this is now acceptable? No flames, please!"

Such queries are showing up more and more on the Internet as commerce tries to gain entry to that monstrous electronic marketplace. But "flaming" (attacking another member via electronic mail) is a common response to even the tamest sales approach. Tensions run high among the Internet's 20 million academic and commercial users.

The Internet -- a giant network of networks comprising E-mail connections, bulletin boards, and institutional libraries -- began as a way to exchange research and ideas among academic and government institutions. Commercial users began joining in 1991 and today are the fastest-growing population on the network.

The "marketing mailing list" is a popular forum that academics and businesspeople use to swap notes on marketing studies, resources, and tactics. But E-mail messages that tout products also pop up regularly, irritating almost everyone. (The same E-mail messages go to everyone on a mailing list.)

Sometimes, even research queries get "flamed" when they come from a commercial user. Recently, a consultant tapped the marketing mailing list to gather opinions about the Internet's marketplace potential, noting that he planned to use the information at a trade-show presentation. After a marketing professor rebuked him for his commercial intentions, other members joined the lively debate, weighing in equally on each side. The consultant messaged an apology to the professor, and harmony was restored.

Even navigating "the Net" is difficult. There are no menus or icons -- just an inscrutable "%" prompt. Users can't go anywhere without knowing exactly what to ask for, and how. However, using a graphical interface (one popular version is called Mosaic) makes getting onto the Net easier.

With no universal guidelines, marketing on the Internet is messy. But stay tuned. The Net is becoming more commercial every day as business and academic users hammer out the issues. To answer the bookstore manager: there already is a place for general ads -- it's on the "misc.forsale" bulletin board.

Resources: The Whole Internet User's Guide and Catalog, by Ed Kroll (O'Reilly & Associates, 800-998-9938, 1994, $24.95), is the book that explains the Internet. At 736 pages, The Internet Directory, by Eric Braun (Fawcett, 1993, $25), is the most comprehensive collection of what's where. -- Phaedra Hise

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Newbie: new Internet user.

Gateway: on-line service offering Internet access.

FAQ: frequently asked question, posted with answers on bulletin boards.

Newsgroups: bulletin boards of collected messages on a particular topic.

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