Bottom Line

Finding It on Your Own

by Joel Snyder

The Internet can be a valuable research tool, but you have to learn how to work it.

You can get anything you want at Alice's Restaurant.--Arlo Guthrie

One of the great things about writing for Internet World is that people aren't shy about sending e-mail and telling me just what they think. Occasionally I get notes asking for help. These range from the mundane ("What do I need to make Mosaic work on my PC?") to the sublime ("Does the permafrost in Siberia impede well-boring operations?"). As Dave Barry says, I am not making this up.

Over the years, I've acquired some valuable methods to help me find answers to questions. This month, I'll pass them on as Joel's Top Ten Hints for Finding What You Want.

Don't Focus On A Single Information Source.

The information you find is never complete. Once you think you have an answer, don't stop looking. You may find more details or a different answer to the same question.

For example, lets say you're looking for information on new computer networks. You might start by cruising by the comp.dcom and comp.protocols newsgroups. But that gets you the viewpoints of engineers and implementors. If you want to hear what managers have to say about these new technologies, you may need to read the archives of the campus-wide network mailing lists. Check Gopher and World-Wide Web servers to see what manufacturers and vendors have to say.

In any case, don't stop just because you found one source that seems to have an answer. The Internet seems large, but it's really composed of relatively tiny communities that don't always communicate and cross-pollinate. You have to do the cross-pollination yourself.

Don't Be Lazy.

As a potential information source, there's nothing I hate more than getting an e-mail message that reads something like, "I'm doing a semester project on the civil war in Russia and I see that you're the postmaster of a system that has a mailing list on Soviet foreign policy. Can you give me piles of information so I can write my report?" One of my colleagues recently told me that she received an entire Ph.D. thesis that the author wanted her to critique.

The send-a-lot-of-e-mail-messages approach to information gathering gets you poor-quality information and a lot of angry correspondents. The best metaphor for Internet culture is a cocktail party. People are willing to talk about themselves and their experiences, but only if the exchange is an interesting one. If you look like you've done your homework and are trying to get answers to some final questions, you're likely to get a better reception than if it looks like you're too lazy to go to a library.

Use The Right Tool For The Job.

There's an old saying, "To a man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail." That's just as true on the Internet. If you're all excited about your World-Wide Web browser, you may forget that there are enormous parts of the Internet completely unconnected to the Web.

If you're serious about getting good information, you've got to follow the same line of research through newsgroups, mailing list archives, Gopher servers, FTP servers, WWW servers, and online databases. You should also have a subscription to an online service such as CompuServe, which offers a great deal of information completely unavailable on the Internet. Omit any one of these when you're looking for information and you're going to get low-quality data.

Keep Your Own Databases.

Web browsers such as Netscape and most Gopher clients allow you to add bookmarks when you find a particularly tasty spot. But you have to go far beyond that if you want to be able to find information all over the Internet.

I keep a directory tree on my workstation that is nothing more than pointers to Web sites, FTP servers, Gopher servers, mailing lists, and other information resources. The tree occupies about 9MB and has hundreds of files in it. From there, I can use my operating system's search command to find pointers to useful information.

Building a database of useful pointers is a constant and difficult effort, but a vital one. You simply cannot depend on indices that other people have built to be good enough for your needs.

Change Your Perspective As You Search.

Although you start out expressing your question or project one way, you must be able to shift directions to accommodate different viewpoints.

For example, suppose you're trying to match the best scanner for performing optical character recognition (OCR) to your PC. You might decide to look first in the PC newsgroups, mailing lists, and Web sites. That's OK for a start. But scanners are used by Mac folk as well, so you should ask the question from the Mac point of view. Scanners are also tools of graphic artists, so you might have to hunt down some of them to see what experiences they can share. Don't forget that OCR is a kind of artificial intelligence problem, so you could query AI-related groups. And perhaps you could find a project at some university where they're doing a lot of scanning and see what advice they can offer.

If You Need To Ask For Help, Ask The Right Person.

Because I'm the wrong person for so many questions, this is a particular pet peeve of mine. The logic (if you can call it that) seems to go like this: "Snyder writes about networks, and the information I'm looking for may be found on the network. Let's see if Snyder knows anything about it." This means I get queries about everything from how to install DOS software (I'm a die-hard Mac man) to the best university to go to if you want to major in the Internet.

Mailing list moderators seem to get a lot of this kind of e-mail, as do postmasters of systems that happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. There's nothing wrong with sending e-mail to someone asking for help, but you need to find the right person. That means doing some research.

If you're interested in French literature, for instance, find out who the important people are in the field and send them e-mail. If you can't find their e-mail addresses, call them on the phone or write letters. If anyone knows about the appropriate Internet resources you seek, it's going to be someone active in that field, not someone who happens to be standing by when you swing through a newsgroup, mailing list, or Web site.

Give It Some Time.

The night before you need an answer is not the time to start looking for data. If you're in a hurry, go to the library--not the Internet. Any in-depth search on the Internet takes time. It takes time for people to answer your questions, time for you to read through mailing list or newsgroup archives, and time for things to filter their way around the world. Sometimes you have to let a week or two pass and ask the same questions or retrace the same paths through the Web. With the immense overcrowding of newsgroups, this can be vital. The person who has your answer may only check in once every few weeks, or your message might have been missed or gotten lost the first time it was sent.

For any serious research effort, plan to spend at least two weeks and preferably a month. There's nothing ruder (nor more useless) than diving into a mailing list in which you don't normally participate and demanding that a query be satisfied ASAP. It's a double sin if your question happens to appear in the archives or, even worse, the FAQ.

Be Critical.

The Internet is full of misinformation. If someone steps up to the microphone and announces that the Holocaust never happened or that CDs sound better if you color them with a green marker, don't immediately accept that information as fact. Just because something is available on the Internet doesn't mean it's true. Newsgroup FAQs are notorious for being wildly incorrect and misleading. It's not that people typically intend to be wrong; it's just that they often are.

If you're going to gather facts on the Internet, make sure you can back them up with additional research from other sources (especially non-Internet ones). This is particularly true if you're going to use the data for something important.

Be Grateful.

I get about a message a day from total strangers asking for information, advice, or help. I answer every one, even if just to say, "I can't help you." I only get a "Thank You" once a week, if that often. My colleagues report about the same rate of return.

When I think I'm dealing with a friendly and pleasant human being on the other end of the wire, I'm more likely to take time to keep looking for answers and to forward information as it comes in. When I send back an answer and get no reply, I'm certainly not going to continue dumping matter into what looks like a black hole.

Give Up, If Necessary.

Everything you ever wanted to know is not on the Internet. It's not even close. If you make a good, honest effort and can't find what you need, don't be hardheaded and insist it has to be there. It doesn't. Things show up and disappear for no rational reason and you can't do anything about it. So don't waste too much time looking for something that just isn't there.

Joel Snyder ( is a senior partner at Opus One, specializing in telecommunications and information technology.

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