the advent of telegraphy, a friend is said to have told Ralph Waldo
Emerson, "Now Maine can talk to Texas," to which Emerson skeptically
asked, "But what does Maine have to say to Texas?" Maybe it took
a visionary like Emerson to underestimate so badly what the telegraph
could do for a young nation on a bender of expansionism. But maybe
not. The creators of almost every new medium of communication--and
often many early enthusiasts, too--have failed to "get it." Many
folks apparently thought band concerts piped right into the parlor
would be the pinnacle of what the telephone could offer people.
Other early users of the telephone were so high on the new device
that they imagined a day would come when every village would have
one. (Imagine that! And conveniently located right in the telegraph
office, of course.)
days we're hearing a lot of similarly strange takes on what the
Internet, and particularly the World Wide Web, "is for." Some of
the more interesting "misses" aren't even explicitly prescriptive,
just stated as obvious fact. These forecasts--in which media people
often focus on "interactive TV"--tend to take the form of "These
automobiles are going to make it so cheap and easy to get buggy-parts
to the factories, every single adult is going to be able to afford
a buckboard of his own before you know it!"
don't worry---I'm not going to bore you with another "my-vision-is-better-than-your-vision"
rant about right and wrong (or even likely and unlikely) uses of
the Internet. I'd just like to suggest a way of looking at some
possibly unique opportunities that the Web gives us when used in
tandem with other tools readily available on the Net. And I'll give
examples to check out for yourself. When you've had a chance to
take a look around, please
let me know if you think I'm all wet!
Web combines--almost seamlessly--opportunities for intimate socializing
and for a kind of public discourse that's almost vanished elsewhere.
It makes some of the trickier aspects of "water-cooler" conversation--particularly,
the vivid sharing of personal experiences--much easier. (Not effortless
yet, by a long shot, but much easier.) And it makes transitions
from "love-letter" to "water-cooler" to "cafe" to "soapbox" and
back again not just easy, but inviting. In short, it makes it convenient
for us all to re-visit the public spaces that we've mostly abandoned.
It's particularly sweet to be able to share these thoughts in the
context of an online "Media Mall," because the complex, semi-public/semi-private
social life of "mall-rats" is the most familiar example of what
the Web is re-opening for us all.
me describe what I'm talking about by focusing on some of the normal
components of social communications, and what I've seen of the state-of-the-art
in some key kinds of communication "tools" on the Net. One of the
really vital communication requirements of this public sphere is
quotation. At the water cooler, that's when you give somebody a
quick synopsis of the TV show they didn't see last night, but you
want to talk with them about it. In scholarly life, this is called
fair use. In correspondence with family and friends, it's sticking
a snapshot of the new baby in the letter.
e-mail software makes quoting text from a message to which you are
replying a breeze, but attaching a binary file with any confidence
that it will pass successfuly through many different mail gateways
is risky business. Take a look at The
Postcard Store that somebody's built at M.I.T. and think of
the service it offers as a humble start on making quotation vastly
more capable. Web browers have made èreadingî the quotations easy
across many different media and file formats. Now it's time to work
on making the process of giving a quotation to somebody just as
kind of communications tool we'll need in order to re-inhabit the
plaza is good introductions. We've got to be able to find our friends
and acquaintances easily, and we've got to be able to make new ones
easily. The content conventions of the typical personal home page
are quite good for letting a stranger size you up shrewdly and judge
quickly whether this is someone he'd like to know a little more.
But directory services are in their infancy. Take a look at what
I think is one big step in the right direction -- the SLED Corporation's
Services. Searchable keyword descriptions of interests and affiliations
help to abstract the kind of information that you get from a quick
scan of somebody's personal pages. The biographical profiles that
users of many BBS and online services can file in user registries
may be more or less useful to browers than the categories in Four11,
but the role they play is the same.
people whom you don't know but with whom you might like to communicate
is another aspect of what I'm calling ègood introductions. But it's
a somewhat different task from that of a directory. In the world
of BBSes, this is played by èmatchmakerî software that compares
users' answers to biographical questionnaires. Most of this software
is pretty primitive, and most of the intellectual value added by
the questionnaire construction is primitive, too. One of the more
interesting exceptions that I've seen also comes from M.I.T. (with
which I have no relationship, so I can promote them without hesitation).
It's HOMR (Helpful On-Line Music Recommendation Service), formerly
known as "Ringo." If you check it out, you'll see that it's not
presented as a matchmaker service. It's a fairly rudimentary service
that uses your---and other people's---evaluations of music you've
heard to suggest pieces that you haven't heard but might enjoy.
In fact, it's a matchmaker service turned inside out, and it would
be a fairly simple extension to make it an explicit matchmaker service,
pieces are coming together fast. C ya at the mall!
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Edward (Ted) Coltman is director of policy development and planning
for the Congressionally-tormented Corporation
for Public Broadcasting. There, he tries to domesticate a small
pack of Generation Y-ers who work and play on the Web, creating such
things as EdWeb, a resource
on educational technology for teachers and broadcasters). In former
lives, he reported on legal and labor topics for the Baltimore Sun
and advised public transportation agencies on finance and economics.