Click once to watch a 30-second music video from MTV's band-du-jour? Boy, those little 5MB transfers are sure a great use of scarce resources. There must be some gems out there worth clicking on. After all, in December 1994 the monthly NSFnet backbone traffic consumed by WWW users was greater than the total NSFnet traffic for January 1994. It can't all be wasted, can it?
Perhaps not. We do have a long way to go and there is some hope. The Web is still a baby, perhaps even as advanced as a toddler. My three-year-old niece Samantha has a lot in common with the Web: egregiously self-centered, prone to tantrums, incapable of admitting error, and preoccupied with form over content. Watching her change clothes three times on Christmas day showed striking similarities to those up-and-coming Web authors who change their home page daily with a frenetic "What's New" section announcing each microscopic update. As Samantha grows up, hopefully the Web will follow.
Another parallel with babies: the Web's immature skeleton. The technologies that make up the Web's infrastructure--HTML (Hypertext Markup Language), HTTP (Hypertext Transfer Protocol), and URLs (Uniform Resource Locators)--form a precarious house of cards. A great deal of concentrated effort will be required to harden their soft spots and make them strong enough to reach adolescence. We'll leave this maturation to the tech-gnomes. The Web may be shaky, but we do have enough of an infrastructure on which to drape some content, and content is what we need to start concentrating on.
To improve content, work must be done in two areas: applications and links. There are a small number of good applications running on the Web (send me e-mail if you think you know of a really good one). My favorite (and not just because I helped create it) is the legislative information system of the California State Senate (http://www.sen.ca.gov). These folks don't care about the pabulum you get from Bill Clinton (http://www.whitehouse.gov) or the raw data available from the Federal Register (telnet to locis.loc.gov). They are sincerely interested in helping people participate in the legislative process.
Use this legislation information-filled Web page to search for pending bills on a particular topic. When you find one of interest, you can view it in a useful way (with strikeouts and underlines to show what's being proposed) and see the complete picture: current status, history, votes, committee, and legislative counsel analyses. Then, you can leave your e-mail address and be notified every time something changes in the status of the bill.
Want to provide feedback? The Senate e-mail system is also linked to the Internet. It involves complex database operations on gigabytes of data and it looks oh-so-easy. No other government agency comes close to giving that kind of power to the people.
Hypertext links are another major source of content on the Web, which, after all, was originally planned as a hypertext system. In theory, you can click from caffeine to Marilyn Monroe with only brief stops at Joe DiMaggio and Some Like it Hot. The hypertext links between documents are the key to realizing the power of the Web.
If your main surf system means constantly bouncing back and forth between one of the Web indices (try http://home.mcom.com/home/internet-search.html or http://cui_www.unige.ch/metaidex.html to get started) and some random page, you're not getting the point. Rather, whomever is providing the information you're using isn't getting the point. The power of the Web, the real chance it has to go from thumb candy to useful tool, is locked in the links between pages.
We're All Connected
Bill McHenry and Kevin Lynch, two of the most brilliant researchers working in the area of MIS (management information systems), started wondering about this problem in the late 1980s when they asked, "How do we link intelligently?"
In answering this question, McHenry and Lynch described two successful techniques--and if we learn from their work, we can build a better Web. The first technique is the most obvious: Experts who know the knowledge base spend lots of time making the links manually. They know the sources; they know the information; they know each other; and they use all of this knowledge to build intelligent hypertext links. The world of the Internet is filled by those researchers who spend the time making subject-oriented indices to Internet resources. We need a lot more of this brute-force work, and we need to find ways of helping folks who do this work do a better job.
One important way of solving this problem is by freeing Internet information providers from the bounds of HTML. Information providers need to be given tools that let them think conceptually, drawing links between bits of information flotsam and jetsam and building structures that represent their knowledge. Few tools of this type have been written, unfortunately, and none of them work with the Web. We need to encourage a lot more work on this if we want a better Web.
The second technique for making intelligent links depends on lots and lots of CPU cycles. Basically, you grind up all of the data and seek out relationships based on matching concepts, not just matching words. This is a powerful system.
To use this technique, however, you've got to have a lot of data to munch on. The Internet culture makes this a problem. People who have volumes of data to contribute to the Web usually aren't willing to form consortia to combine the data so that it can be properly indexed. Because half the reason we see data on the Web is to serve as an ego boost for the information provider, anything that dilutes this gratification is going to face an uphill battle.
How can we improve this? I suspect that money would be an effective lubricant. However the idea of paying for the improved information runs counter to the current trend of development on the Internet. This is a good place for the goverment to move its Internet dollars--into improving content--since private industry is ready to pick up all the cost for the bandwidth. Do your part. Give a hoot and don't pollute. Work on building better applications and links to make this the glory of the Internet.
Joel Snyder (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a senior partner at Opus One, specializing in telecommunications and information technology.
Copyright (c) 1995 by Mecklermedia Corporation. All rights reserved. Material may not be reproduced or distributed in any form without permission.