Tangled Webs
Our Own Private Internet
Jun 17, 1996
Issue 1.2
Nine months ago people were still getting wired, and I was asked daily for the URLs of cool sites. Things change a lot in a few months, and now only the greenest newbie asks where he can find cool sites. The question on everyone's mind today seems to be "What bookmark organizer should I use?"

Just a Little Sip

Finding information on the Internet has become like drinking from a firehose. A few of the Net old-timers speak fondly of the days when this font of information was just a trickle and when people would actually take the time to explain things to newbies. When squeezed, however, the old-timers admit that nostalgia aside, the Net has become more useful than anyone imagined back in those carefree Unix days. As the publishers of the Encyclopedia Britannica are finding out, but only grudgingly admitting, the Internet is becoming the repository for all of mankind's knowledge.

The explosion of information available on the Net has changed the way we use it. People are relying more and more on search engines to find what they want, and they are doing much less surfing at random. Ironically, as the amount of information on the web grows, our current generation of search engines become less useful. The following Alta-Vista searches illustrate the point.

Search TermURLs Found
President Clinton60,000
travel agents10,000

Although I find the last to be extremely flattering, this is simply too much information for a human being to process. And even if you tried, 80% of the sites would likely be along the lines of "Bob's Cool Dromedary Links." Those who can, create. Those who can't, sort.

The Dog-Eared Web
Once the creative outlet for artists who couldn't make it on the hotel-room paining circuit, bookmarks have become the tool that most shapes our Web experience. Search engines and directories make great starting points, but we increasingly rely on our own bookmarks to navigate the Web. The GVU study found that the average Web user has 36 sites bookmarked, and I believe that the recent boom in bookmark organizers represents something much more significant that the cyber-equivalent of sorting baseball cards.

Bookmarks do far more than remind us where we've been, they put us in control of what we see on the Net. We can go directly to the information that interests us. There is no longer a need to wade through the 99.99% of the Web that we deem irrelevant to our lives.

The next step is to apply agent technology to the procedure. A search agent is a small computer program that would search out sites that fit your profile and report back to you. You could then visit the sites, bookmark the ones you like for further reference, and let your agent know what you thought of each site. In this way, the agent would increase it's understanding of your tastes, and be able to make more and more accurate recommendations. This will certainly cut down on the time spent looking for sites, but creating your own private Internet is not without its side effects.

Peace, Love and Understanding
Back when people were still asking me about cool sites, the pundits were telling us how the Internet would fundamentally change our lives and enrich our understanding of other cultures. We would be in daily contact with people from all walks of life and from all over the globe. The world would shrink to a global village, and a truly global culture would emerge. It hasn't happened yet, and it's not going to anytime soon.

Media pundits seem to have very short memories. Actually, we've been through all this before. Fifty years ago, television was hailed as the technology that would open our minds, deepen our understanding of others cultures, and bring Shakespeare and symphony into rural homes. Things did not turn out exactly as planned.

The effects of bringing the world on-line will be equally significant, but the idea of technology exposing people to new ideas is nonsense. In any free society, people who want their horizons broadened can do so by opening a book. It's not the nature of technology that limits our exposure to new ideas. It's the nature of humanity. Life is complicated enough without having to question our core beliefs on a daily basis.

We are told that technology should make our lives easier, and that is indeed how we use it. We find people that think like we do and who reinforce our beliefs. The huge number of people on the Internet gives even those with the most unpopular or absurd beliefs the ability to do this. Bookmarks and agents can, and to some extent must, ensure that we are only exposed to information and ideas we deem worthwhile.

Collecting and presenting information in this way is nothing new, of course, and it is certainly not unique to the Net. Before the myth of objectivity took over modern journalism, newspapers were highly opinionated and proud of it. The idea was that people would choose to have their own opinions reinforced and subscribe to a newspaper with a like-minded editorial policy. It worked, and it still does.

Bookmarks allow us to create an Internet tailored to our own beliefs and tastes. Unfortunately, going straight to the information we think we want and filtering out what we consider to be unimportant reduces our exposure to new ideas and increases our intellectual isolation.

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© Copyright 1996, Tim Romero, t3@t3y.com
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