Web Rings as Computer-Mediated Communication
by Greg Elmer
As recently as 1994, academic journals such as Communication Education were continuing to define "computer-mediated communication" as a decidedly dialogic or conversational phenomenon. Focusing on such technologies as electronic bulletin boards, the Usenet and email, the journal's articles attempted to come to grips with the "virtual" dimension of text-based, computerized communication. Four short years later, the Internet has become a much more complex, commercialized, politicized and increasingly networked environment, to the extent that web-based resources--particularly home page addresses-- have become fully integrated and hypertextually linked into "traditional" CMC dialogic technologies. The widespread use of email and usenet interfaces from Netscape and Microsoft, for instance, have enabled the linking of web addresses within the body of posts. In addition to conversing one-on one, users now increasingly refer, via an automated link, to web-based resources. Granted, users don't communicate with each other directly through the web--they must always return to a communication (email) program to exchange comments. One might say then that the on-line communication environment has undergone a fundamental change--one that increasingly incorporates archival processes of retrieving and storing information. In this new networked, hypertextual environment, the index has taken center stage. And unlike previous makeshift, individuated "shareware" CMC technologies, on-line information services have obviously become a hot consumer commodity. The on-line search and index industry, led by Yahoo, Excite, Lycos and others, have consequently not only begun to make alot of money (particular for their shareholders), they have successfully--in conjunction with Microsoft and Netscape's browser default net-search pages--established a near universal point of departures on the information superhighway.
Searching for specialized or obscure on-line resources through search engines and net guides, however, often results in a limitless number of "hits," an overwhelming number of which prove completely useless. One would probably have better luck finding such information by posting a request for web addresses on a specialized usenet or listserv. More importantly, in centering information on the web, search engine and net guides have overshadowed the more community-based networking possibilities of a hypertextual environment. To become networked in such an economy, a web site must literally "register" within a net guide or search engine's previously established categories.
Over the past couple years, however, "Web rings" have seemingly begun to provide an alternative to the monopolistic and hierarchical nature of search engines, in so doing providing an avenue for linking together, in a relatively "autonomous" fashion, common web-based interests. Webrings consequently provide those of us interested in issues of usability with a much broader template from which to think through, critique and deconstruct various architectures, designs and platforms. Internet "applications" such as webrings help us bring together two broad yet distinct approaches to the study of Internet usability, namely, 1), the ease and effectivity of information searches on the net , and 2), the limitations of sharing resources within specialized on-line "communities."
While the origins of linking together web sites into virtual communities can be traced back to Britain's EUROPa (Expanding Unidirectional Ring Of Pages) and its offshoot STRANDS (Special Threads Assorted Netters Discussing), its most widespread use today was popularized by a California high school student who later sold the software to the Oregon based software corporation Starseed. The most significant transformation of the concept of webrings can be found at Starseed's homepage (www.webring.org) where users are faced with strikingly familiar search tools and index headings (e.g. Business and Economy, Arts and Humanities, Society and Culture, etc.) . Unlike Yahoo or Excite, though, the webring guide offers a subject-based index and search function for communities of web sites that are hypertexually linked and "governed" by an individual web master. Numerically speaking, Webring claims over 40,000 rings, containing some 500,000 individual web sites, the most popular of which (measured by hits) include the "Monica Lewinsky Webring," the "Vast Right Wing Conspiracy Web Ring" and the "Weather Ring."
According to the webring homepage, any individual can set up and oversee their own web ring. Individuals looking to add their own homepage to a particular ring are, however, more or less at the mercy of the ring-master, who often maintains a ring homepage listing its acceptance (or membership) policies and an index of its member sites. The web master for a serial killer and true crime web ring, for instance, writes:
...This ring is for educational purposes and sites must show good taste, so only serious sites need apply. I reserve the right to remove your site if I feel it is inappropriate for this ring.
It is at the level of the individual homepage web ring "member," moreover, that the unique navigational possibilities and more focused concerns with usability of web rings emerge. Members of particular web rings typically include a navigational function on the bottom of their respective home pages. From such links users can click on to the "next," "previous" or "random" site on the ring. As the number of web sites on the ring increases and the theme becomes less focused and fragmented, the rings navigational use obviously becomes less user-friendly, customized and efficient. The inconsistent placement of links on each and every web ring "member" homepage to their respective ring's "membership" home page and/or to the webring homepage itself (www.webring.org) also problematizes access to complimentary indexical tools/guides. As a "grassroots" navigational tool, then, web rings can--at the worst of times--offer little more than a long browse/surf through loosely related web sites.
As a form of computer-mediated communication, web rings nevertheless provide a platform to challenge the registration driven commercial and indexical interests on the web. Therefore to the extent that webrings offer a complimentary search/browse function without the absolute need to return to an indexical center, individual web sites become much more powerful (networked) stops on the information superhighway. The future possibilities for grassroots networking and effecient communit-based, content-driven browsing-- whereupon users come to inhabit indexes with their own interests and resources -- therein lies in the future of the role of "web ring master" and their ability to freely access and construct webrings through sites such as www.webring.org.
Greg Elmer (firstname.lastname@example.org) is with the Department of Communication of the University of Massachusetts--Amherst.
Copyright © 1999 by Greg Elmer. All Rights Reserved.