Cybershock: Stuck on the Web

We were going to meet in the local library, but then it occurred to us that the library didn't serve any local microbrews and we moved the venue to Clancy's Public House. Olympia, Wash., is behind the times in several ways. Long the home of the Olympia Brewing Company, it only recently acquired a topflight local brewery like the ones that have been spilling across the Northwest for years. And although Seattle, just 60 miles to the north, has had its Seattle Community Network up for years, it is only in the last few months that Olympia has begun planning for a free or low-cost community-based computer network of its own. At the meeting with me were two Web-site designers, two local bulletin-board operators, the person who manages the regional library system's computer network, and an information-services person from the Thurston County government. The community group that brought us together had proposed a model very similar to most "freenets" around the country -- a bulletin board system, or BBS, that allowed for E-mail, conferences, and access to information about community resources. But within a few minutes it was clear that almost everybody, including me to an extent, wanted to talk about something very different -- a site on the WorldWide Web. Across the country, many small networks just starting out are facing the same choice -- a BBS system or a Web site? And established systems are trying to decide where to direct their limited resources -- better BBS software or a Web server? The Web's hot. The Web's sexy. The Web is the future. But what the Web is not -- at least not yet -- is a true community-building tool. The problem is that it works more like a television than a telephone. Traditional on-line systems and Web sites are fundamentally different. BBS-type on-line systems, whether as big as Prodigy or as small as Tri-Cities Free-Net in Kennewick, Wash., allow for E-mail and discussion groups. There's a lot of top-down information on them, files and data that content providers put on-line for people to look at, but the content is constantly being changed by the people who use it. Someone might, say, ask a conference host from the local garage what an axle boot is. Another person might send out E -mail notices about a neighborhood-association meeting. Chatting in real time is a huge draw for larger networks. Whether in real time or no, BBS users can and do interact with other users. The content of Web sites, however, is generally controlled by the Web-site manager. Web browsers basically pull down pages and documents without changing them. And there's no easy way for users to interact with one another. So when communities decide to put their resources into a Web site instead of creating or upgrading a local on-line network, they sacrifice many of the strongest features, like E-mail, that help build communities by encouraging discourse. At the same time they opt for a technology that requires more powerful -- and more expensive -- computer systems, so fewer people have access. That's not to say that the Web's capabilities aren't rapidly expanding. It's possible, for example, to send an E-mail message from a Web page. People are doing increasingly sophisticated things with scripts attached to hypertext links. Silicon Graphics has a new language that allows 3-D images to be posted on the Web, and Sun Microsystems' new HotJava software allows Web users to download and run small applications with a mouse click. The potential of these systems is astounding. If at some point in the future Web browsers can manipulate the contents of 3-D images, for example, surfers could meet in virtual space, or tack messages on virtual bulletin boards. But these solutions may be years off. America Online apparently understands this conflict, although its resolution isn't fully satisfying. As AOL is developing its integrated Web browser, it is setting up something called Road Trips. People can organize tours of AOL and Web sites and take a group of people along with them. Their screens will show two windows -- one featuring the site at which everyone is looking, the other a real-time discussion among the participants. This gets around the isolated nature of Web surfing. AOL spokesperson Pam McGraw told me AOL users clearly want to interact with other users. "A lot of our popularity has been the real-time chat features and the community building that goes along with this," she said. Rather than adding human interactivity to the Web, though, AOL is simply setting up a parallel system: people can look at the Web and use the traditional on-line system at the same time, but they're not really interacting across the Web itself. As software engineers continue to improve the Web's capabilities, they need to steer it away from being a one-way system for spoon-feeding us information and advertising. They need to find a way to use it to encourage two-way -- or better yet, many-to-many -- human interactions. I have no doubt they will. Recently, Prospero System, Inc., a San Franciscosoftware form, announced that it was giving away new software called Global Chat over the Web ( Although I haven'ttried it, Global Chat reportedly will open an Internet chat box while people are accessing the Web, allowing people to, say, talk to a salesperson in real time about sizes while ordering a pair of shoes. The Web is on its way to where it needs to be, but until I'm convince it is fully interactive -- people to people, not computer to computer -- you'll find me down at Clancy's, sipping on a local porter, talking to real people, and arguing the importance of E-mail.

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