News From Terre Haute, Indiana

Stephanie Salter

September 30, 2010

STEPHANIE SALTER: We are poor cyber lambs, who have lost our way, bah, bah, bah

TERRE HAUTE — For months now, Verizon and Frontier Communications have alternately assured some four million Verizon Internet customers that a 16-state transition to Frontier will be a piece of cake. The changeover occurred here in Indiana Sept. 25, when actual e-accounts were transferred from Verizon to Frontier. By Dec. 31, Verizon.net will disappear forever for Frontier.com customers.

No doubt, hundreds of thousands of Hoosier Verizon-Frontier users have done just fine. They probably opened the very first e-mail notice, clicked on the “let’s get started” link, zipped through the instructions, knew exactly how to send out a “contact all” e-mail to their friends, and got themselves tidily transferred from one mega communications corporation to another.

I am not one of those hundreds of thousands of Hoosiers.

Typical of the computer phobic, I read that first e-mail about the changeover, and my fingers seized above my keyboard. That the news landed right after I had gone around and around for weeks with AT&T and Visa over an automatic payment snafu did nothing to improve my attitude. That the news also coincided with a notice from Time Warner promising a change in that auto-billing set-up, plunged me into total victim mode.  

Now, I can’t even figure out how to make messages I’ve killed out stay down and dead, let alone use e-mail to pay bills.

Like many working people my age, I acquired my computer “skills” in drips and drabs. I put quotation marks around skills because the unadorned word connotes some sort of proficiency. From the moment, sometime in the 1980s, when I was forced to switch from a terrible newsroom copy delivery system called “scanner ready” to a computer, I have maintained the same absurd relationship with all things cyber.

My longtime metaphor: Each new p.c. or laptop is like a Boeing 747 that I have been given — to drive back and forth to the grocery store.

I am not proud of this. It’s pathetic. If I were a Gen X-er or Y-er, I would harbor fantasies of putting me and everyone like me on a barge headed for the Bermuda Triangle. It would be a big barge, as evidenced by more than five million hits on one of my favorite You Tube videos, known as “middle ages tech support” or “medieval help desk.” Two Danish comedians nail it from both sides of the dilemma.

This past weekend, as promised, the home e-mail system that had become second-nature was replaced by a very different one. I went from a comfy pair of shearling slippers to 40-hole, lace-up combat boots.

Once again, I find myself longing for an enterprising Internet provider that recognizes there are severely computer-challenged people in the United States, and that most of us would dip into our 401(k) if it meant a human being would (a) answer an 800 telephone help line and (b) stay with us on the phone while we struggle through what is always, erroneously billed as “a few easy steps.”

(Does anyone comprehend how ridiculous it is to keep encouraging a help line caller on hold to go to the Internet site of the very entity that made the person phone for help in the first place because she was close to digging out her own eyeballs?)

The dream provider would be like the Geek Squad, but with emphasis on phone and in-person help for people who look at the Geeks’ multi-category, many-selection home page and feel faint. The founders of the new provider could call it “CyberIdiotsRUs.com.” I would welcome the candor.

Every online selection would start with “I can’t get my —— to ——.” If the remedy required more than three clicks, the customer would be told, “Hey, give us a call this minute at 800-FIX IT NOW.” No problem would be beneath them, either, not even tasks that have zero to do with Internet access, like helping a person change the ink cartridge on her printer — especially a cartridge that was replaced only a few weeks ago, has barely been used but now registers “LOW INK.”

Never would someone from CyberIdiotsRUs say, “Oh, that’s simple,” or “Check our FAQ section, which can be accessed through the Help link.” All customer service representatives — who could not be called “Justin” or “Megan” even if that’s their name — would begin each conversation with, “I am so sorry you’re having trouble. These things can really drive you nuts, can’t they? So, let’s see … do you have your p.c. or laptop powered on?”

CyberIdiotsRUs policy also would forbid any helper from ever, ever responding to “Thank you” with “No problem.”

Look, I know I compounded my e-mail problems by not responding to the very first message that offered me the opportunity to start the transfer process. I told you I’m cyberphobic. The thing is, I actually opened that message and made it to Step 2 before I froze in confusion and fear.

Now, I’m in deep trouble. I waited until Frontier sucked up more than 7,000 e-mails in my Verizon box — including hundreds I swear I had deleted — marked them as “unread” and piled them up in the new account.

So, until I can discover a way out of the hole, dear friends and associates, consider this column a message informing you that my new home e-mail is the same as the old one except for what follows the @. Also, you might not get messages from me until 2012.

Everyone else, I give you the idea for CyberIdiotsRUs — for free. I checked, no one has that domain name and, I am telling you, there’s a market out there that’s bigger than any barge.

Stephanie Salter can be reached at (812) 231-4229 or stephanie.salter@tribstar.com.

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