Computer-Mediated Communication Magazine / Volume 1, Number 8 / November 1, 1994 / Page 7
[This article is a chapter in the book, The World Wide Web Unleashed (Sams Publishing, 1994).]
There are subtle, complex changes taking place in human communication, thought, and relationships within online communication and information communities. The Web is part of these changes, enabling new forms of communication, information delivery, and fostering new associations among people. One challenge for our society is to grapple with the questions raised by these changes. How might our culture, society, and communication patterns change as a result of widespread Web use?
In this chapter, I approach these questions by focusing on specific ways the Web alters communication, thought, and society, and on what issues arise from such changes. For people involved in the task of installing Web servers and for users trying to make sense of browsers and HTML, the Web may seem to consist only of a set of technical details, protocols, and network connections. However, communication on the Web, like human communication over computer networks for the past several decades, displays characteristically human qualities, including emotional, chaotic, surprising, and at times passionate or mundane exchanges. The Web illustrates how the inevitable pull of human beings toward each other in any communication system alters relationships, the way people think, and what they expect from communication.
So the idea that the Web is the technology that will transform our culture must be tempered by noting the hollow predictions about earlier technologies. Humans often utilize technology in far too complex and quirky ways for neat predictions to come true. While not always far-reaching in their effects on society, however, technologies have gradually and subtly changed communication patterns, relationships, and expectations. With 24-hour cable news, we expect to see a dramatic or important event as it happens. With global telecommunications, we expect to reach nearly anyone worldwide by telephone. Participants in global computer-mediated communication forums such as Usenet expect to communicate with other people interested in very specialized discussion topics. Like Marshall McLuhan's vision of a global village, the electronic landscape today binds us together with connectivity we expect to access instantly.
The Web fulfills several "niches" within the communications landscape like few technologies before it and offers a new set of expectations about information that break the traditions of linear print.
The Web fulfills Bush's dream of a memex in many respects. While a "universe" of knowledge is still evolving on the Web, the hypertext "trails" on Web pages are associative indexes that people save and share. The Web can link information in useful ways, giving rise to new insights--a transformation of information to knowledge that Bush described in terms of applications in law, medicine, chemistry, and history. An HTML version of Bush's article , developed by Denys Duchier, contains links to several applications that fulfill Bush's predictions.
The Web offers other correspondences to many features of Bush's memex. There are "trails" within the subject trees of information on the Web that connect extremely useful documents and resources. Web browser hotlists serve as "trails," where people record their stops of interest along paths through the Web. As Bush predicted for his memex, there are many people on the Web today "who find delight in the task of establishing useful trails through the enormous mass of the common record." The Web's basic structure rests on Bush's principle of associative indexing, and the flourishing of information on the Web in the last few years demonstrates its potential as a "universe of documents."”
In addition to fulfilling many needs identified by Bush for human intellectual activity, the Web also fills a "media gap" identified by Tetsuro Tomita. In his essay, "The New Electronic Media and Their Place in the Information Market of the Future," (in Newspapers and Democracy: International Essays on a Changing Medium, A. Smith, editor. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1980), Tomita observed a pattern in the way traditional communications methods were used to reach audiences. Methods such as letters, telegrams, and conversation reach a very small audience in amounts of time ranging from immediate (telephone) to several days (a letter). Mass media such as radio and television, newspapers, books and movies reach very large audiences in times ranging from immediate (radio, television) to weeks (magazines) to months (books). But the middle range--audiences of 10 to 10,000 people reached within times ranging from immediate to a day--is a gap filled by few traditional media. This is too small an audience for mass media and too large an audience for personally controlled (traditional) media. Yet this is the audience and time delay gap that many forms of computer-mediated communication fill, including the Web.
The Web offers immediate delivery of information to specialized audiences. There are many examples of webs that draw audiences in the range of Tomita's media gap--in fact, these audiences are what the Net seems to support in abundance. Specialized groups in Usenet and specialized webs do not necessarily appeal to massive audiences (in the 100,000 to millions range), but to quirky, specialized groups of hundreds or several thousand people. Before the invention of computer networks, an individual could not easily seek out several hundred others interested in a specialized hobby or area of interest, when those people were spread worldwide. No traditional media offered a personally available means to accomplish this. But the Web does fill this "media gap," and this feature is certainly a contributor to the Web's popularity and growth.
Associative linking fosters relationships among people in addition to relationships among information. Experts in a particular field create pools of knowledge on their home page. When other people link into these pages, cliques of experts form. These cliques might be based on information or on hobbies, interests, culture, or political leanings. The result is that "electronic tribes" can form that meld cooperatively linked people in associations that could not be possible any other way. For example, related information from a subject page in CERN's Virtual Library reveal collections of experts, institutions, and organizations all interested in a particular subject or topic.
Through these links, the Web reveals relationships among information and people. Unlike the linearism of text that integrates ideas in a single form, the Web relies on creating linked relationships among disparate pieces of information to build meaning. Unlike the ephemeral, synchronous communication spaces of Internet Relay Chat and MU*s, where text-based conversation flows and is usually never recorded, Web linking reveals relationships--and these links form a record of information relationships.
This issue is not yet a serious problem on the Web for several reasons. First, unlike a grazing commons for livestock, network bandwith is not consumed permanently, but only temporarily occupied. Second, advances in network technology have made more bandwidth available, and the bandwidth that exists is not needed all the time. Although popular Web servers are noted for their degraded performance during busy times, it is unlikely that all potential Web users will try access to any given Web server at the same time. In fact, the telephone system depends on this same principle: If everyone with a phone tried to make a call simultaneously, there would be "phone jams."
So while the aggregate behavior of users dispersed across a network often might not cause serious bandwidth problems today, widespread patterns of bandwidth-intensive individual behavior, in extreme cases, can. What about the user who heavily accesses graphics or movies on the Web? While there may be no laws to stop this user, an agreement between the user and the Internet service provider might restrict such activity. If the user violated this agreement, he or she could loose the account. However, on a much larger scale, enforcement and the definition of what is "overuse" is harder to pin down. Our society's emerging sense of "etiquette" has only begun to address this and other issues about behavior in a public network space. While Arlene H. Rinaldi's excellent Net Etiquette guide touches on many practical issues of personal behavior, larger questions remain that are not easily resolved or codified. For example, what about individuals who provide information that may be:
Can a society justify creating an elite information infrastructure, one that enriches only the privileged with the resources, skills, and knowledge to use it?
How will our society deal with a form of communication that requires such specialized knowledge on relatively expensive equipment? The U.S. Library of Congress has a Web server but whom does it serve? Can a society justify creating an elite information infrastructure, one that enriches only the privileged with the resources, skills, and knowledge to use it?
If network activity becomes a major form of human communication, people may associate more freely online because they are not slowed by geographical or temporal limits. How will our institutions (government, education, religious) change to accommodate these new associations? Institutions often act as a force to help people achieve a group identity, but if people can create their own group identity in the form of network-based alliances, how will this change offline institutions? What will happen to those institutions whose power and influence are usurped by groups performing the same function online?
Ultimately, the communication possibilities offered by the Web can't help but change human relationships. People no longer might identify with a physical neighborhood for companionship or advice; they can turn to a cyberspace neighborhood, based on mutual interests and association, as a source for support and information. (This has already happened for many people in many online communities). Will this continue to erode physical public space? In the long term, the relationships the Web fosters will certainly continue to raise more questions as well as open up new ways for people to associate.
Copyright © 1994 Sams Publishing. All rights reserved. Printed by Permission.