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Commentaries and Criticisms with Attitute

Insights on the Evolution of Communication and Community

by Ted Coltman

At 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.)

These 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!"

Now, 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!

The 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.

Let 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.

Good 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 easy.

Another 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 Four11 Directory 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.

Identifying 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, as well.

The 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.
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