October 1997


On the Idea of Order on the World Wide Web

by John December

I had selected a hypertext sandwich (fresh mozzarella, basil & sun-dried tomatoes with greens & internet vinaigrette on baguette) from the menu in the Internet Cafe at 82 East Third Street in New York City when I read what I consider a myth perpetuated in the New York Times. In an article entitled, "Nynex and Tribune Company Buy Stakes in Internet Ventures," the April 9th Times quoted Gary Arlen, of a Bethesda, Maryland, research firm, as saying, "The Web has 200,000 sites and no one can find anything."

My response to this claim about the Web's apparent chaos can be summed up in one word: hyperhockey! I normally trust the New York Times and admire its thorough coverage of issues of national and world importance. But this is just another example of the Times' mediocre and sometimes ill-informed coverage of the online world, despite the spate of stories that it publishes nearly daily about the Internet.

The idea that the Web is a chaotic place that no one can fathom is a myth. This myth is perpetuated best by the ignorant or those who perhaps see the Web as some sort of threat (to old media, like the New York Times, perhaps). Like many falsehoods based in ignorance, the idea that there is no order to the Web is hard to dispel. This myth perhaps arises from beliefs about the Web based on anxiety after all, the Internet is full of weirdos and pornographers, right? It therefore must be a chaotic place.

There is no doubt the Web as an information space is complex and dynamic. It is not like a set of encyclopedias. Can you locate everything on the Web? No. Can you locate exactly what you want? Not always. And when you do locate information, can you trust its accuracy and authority? Not necessarily. But it is extremely naive to approach the Web with the same expectations that you would the information in an academic journal, book, or government publication. Some information in the Web is scrupulously put together and extremely timely and accurate. A lot of information on the Web is pure dreck. Perhaps the complexity that this diversity implies is too much for simple minds to grasp, so that they throw up their hands, dismiss the entire Web as pure chaos, and perpetuate the myth that you just canšt find anything in it.

But can you really find things in the Web? Yes, most easily. I will give you three resources which I think can help you locate nearly anything you would like to on the Web. These resources help you search the Web by subject, keyword, or geographic space.

The Yahoo subject tree at can guide you to almost any subject topic imaginable. Yahoo is the project of two dissertation-avoiding Stanford Ph.D. candidates, and it has grown into the most complete subject index on the Web. And Yahoo, Inc. is one of the latest Internet initial public offerings.

The Alta Vista Web spider at can take you directly to pages containing key words describing what you are searching for. By intelligently using Alta Vista's advanced searching features, you can find the needle in a haystack, rather than just finding more haystacks.

If you think the real world of physical space is really what matters most, the Virtual Tourist at is your view. The Virtual Tourist lists information servers based on their geographic location, in an attractive interactive forms interface which includes maps of locations. These three styles of searching by subject, keyword, or geographic space are as basic to searching on the Web as subject, author, and title searching are to making sense of a library.

No doubt, you'll have to use your Web smarts to sift the wheat from the chaff in the information you'll find with these tools, but you should be able to locate much information on nearly every human pursuit on the Web. So the next time someone asks you, tell them the Web isn't chaos, but has a pattern to it as understandable yet as flavorful as the layers of a well-done hypertext sandwich.

John December ( is editor of CMC Magazine.

Copyright © 1997 by John December. All Rights Reserved.

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