[This document is a part of the Asia Web Watch: a Register of Statistical Data (est. 1 Oct 1997)]

Taming the Internet Wilderness:
Collaborative Strategies for the Southeast Asian Scholarly Networks

Dr T. Matthew Ciolek,
Research School of Pacific and Asian Studies,
Australian National University, Canberra ACT 0200, Australia

To appear in: Colloquium on Academic Library Information Resources for Southeast Asian Scholarship, 3-5 November 1997, Volume 2. University of Malaya Library, Kuala Lumpur.

Document created: 10 Nov 1997. Last revised: 1 March 1998

1. Introduction

Over the last few years one can observe a steadily growing interest in the South East Asian region in general (Svensson 1995, Mann 1996, Sexton 1996a) and its electronic information resources (Mitchell n.d., Sexton 1996b, Henchy 1997) in particular.

This paper belongs to the latter category, and there are three tasks to which it will apply itself. Firstly, the paper will look at statistical data on the numbers and the nature of Internet sites relevant to South East Asian research and teaching. Secondly, the article will summarise the main shortcomings of electronic information pertaining to that region. Thirdly, it will look at possible actions and strategies which may be used to remedy these shortcomings.

The paper will focus exclusively on free-of-charge, public access documents, directories, data bases, archives, maps, and newsletters available on the Internet through the www, ftp, telnet and gopher technologies.

This means that a wide range of excellent electronic resources published on internal or restricted-access or pay-by-view networks will be excluded from our analysis. Similarly, several dozens of impressive stand-alone resources available only in the hard-disk or CD-ROM formats will not be tackled here.

The limitations of space also preclude me from touching upon the complex and largely unresearched issues of the scholarly uses of email, email-based electronic forums, bulletin boards, USENET newsgroups and other types of one-to-one, one-to-many, and many-to-many online communication tools. It will suffice to note here that any study of these issues will need to take into account extensive catalogs of mailing lists compiled by Kovacs (1997), L-Soft International (1997), Walter Shelby Group (1997), da Silva (1997) and Southwick (1997). The last two of those catalogs offer details of some 63,000 and 71,000 mailing lists respectively.

2. Terminology

A number of special terms and concepts will be used here, some of which require an explanatory note.

a. Geography

This paper focuses on electronic resources pertaining to South East Asian studies, that is the research of social, economic, cultural and political phenomena and processes unfolding in a region comprised of Brunei Darussalam, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam.

In this work I shall use anglicised and simplified geographical names, following, as closely as possible, the naming conventions used in The Times Atlas of the World (1994). For instance, I shall talk about Burma, instead of Myanmar; and about Laos instead of the Lao People's Democratic Republic.

Also, in the paper I shall make occasional references to East Timor information resources. However, I combine statistical data pertaining to East Timor with those pertaining to Indonesia. Neither of these operations needs to be interpreted as an endorsement of any particular political stance.

b. Rating of the online resources

Networked information resources under discussion are ranked on a 5 point scale [Essential - V.Useful - Useful - Interesting - Marginal]. This ranking is done solely in terms of the resource's usefulness to online research on South East Asia. To put it differently, the rating offered in this document does not apply to the intellectual worthiness of a producer or publisher of a given resource, nor to the informational quality of the resource itself - but exclusively to the usefulness of the resource in question to the online studies of the South East Asian region and countries.

This point is best illustrated by a hypothetical example of a large, coherent and up-to-date online database dealing with data from China, Macao and Hong Kong, with a sprinkiling of materials dealing with Singapore. Such a database would rated, for the purposes of this article, as a Marginal resource. Conversely, a large, well organised and up-to-date online database or an archive with data from Singapore and Malaysia, which also includes some data on Hong Kong and Taiwan would be considered here as a research tool which is Essential to South East Asian online scholarship.

For a wider discussion of methodological issues involved in evaluation of Internet resources and in those of information quality in general please consult Smith (1997) and Ciolek (1996).

c. Objectives of a Networked Resource

Networked materials are created and placed online for a number of reasons. These reasons seem to fall into five basic categories: Reporting (systematic, periodic delivery of information to readers); Teaching (training, imparting wisdom, information and skills), Networking (contacts building, lobbying, moderating, politics and politicking), Research (investigation, data-collection, inquiry, analysis, model- and theory building), and finally, Documentation (cataloging, annotating and archiving).

d. Types of a Networked Resource

The networked materials appear to be of four types. The first of them are the sets of factual information about the South East Asian world. These materials are published in numeric, text and/or graphic formats. They will be known here as the data. The second group of resources is made of news, opinions, assessments, analyses of and commentaries on the factual information. Thirdly, there are corporate data, or descriptions, self-introductions and commentaries dealing not with the universe of the South East Asia but with organisations or institutions dealing with that universe. Finally, one can encounter on the web numerous Guides, or documents dedicated to keeping track of details of the location, content and overall nature of online data, news and corporate self-introductions.

e. Computer terms

It will be convenient here to draw a triple distinction between a host, which is a computer linked to the Internet (a world-wide network of networks) and a web-server (a specialist software produced for dishing out www-type of information), and, finally, aweb-resource (a purposeful collection of one or more web pages or www-based databases).

The Web-technology provides two important opportunities for information to be made available world-wide. Firstly, it helps to present documents as multimedia mosaics of text, numbers, sounds, still images, and - not infrequently - moving images and animations. Secondly, it enables the linkage of any element of the online publication (a word, a paragraph, an image) to any other element within the same or a different document, on the same or different web-server. This means that a web document always has a dual aspect. It is not only a convenient and rich repository for a given set of information, but is also a portal or a gateway for instantaneous access to other sets of online materials. While this ever-present duality of function is not immediately evident in the case of hypertext documents carrying news, data or corporate information, it becomes immediately apparent and is taken advantage of in the case of online guides to Internet resources.

For these two reasons, the World Wide Web can be viewed as one of the most important subsets of the Internet, as well as a finite but dramatically expanding universe of interlinked and intermeshed sets of information presented in multimedia formats.

3. Sources of Data and Methodological Issues

The paper makes the use of two groups of data. Firstly, there are data collected as a part of the highly acclaimed Internet Domain Survey (Network Wizards, 1997). Secondly, the paper discusses materials from the so-called "October Sample".

The "October Sample" are results of a statistical analysis of content, provenance, usefulness and other characteristics of a sample of scholarly or factual online information resources relevant to the South East Asian studies. A set of 270 web-sites has been extracted between the 23-26 October 1997 from a population of 3247 English language online documents known at the time of inquiry to the Altavista database (Digital Corporation, 1997). This relatively large population of potential links was generated through a query containing the string "South East Asian Studies". Altavista is the world's largest database of WWW links and in September 1997 carried information about 31 mln hypertext documents residing on 627,000 web-servers (Ciolek 1997b).

The "October Sample" was arrived at through the quick weeding-out from the list of 3247 web links any materials which appeared to be Details of each of the selected resources from the "October Sample" were entered into a small database running on a PC. This, in turn, expedited the necessary tabulations and cross-tabulations.

The final sample of 270 documents, or 8.3% of the initial population of "South East Asian Studies" web links is, in fact, an outcome of a compromise between the need to finish the data collection before an inflexible deadline and the need to make the sample as large and as diverse as possible. In other words, the "October Sample" data may be interesting but they do not come from a systematic and comprehensive census.

4. Asian Internet in the Context of the Global Internet

Data presented in Table 1 show that in 28 years since the initial establishment of the Internet system (consisting in September 1969 of the initial 2 interlinked hosts), the network has grown into a massive lattice of 19.5 million computers, the 64% of which are located in the North America and the 7% of which are deployed in Asia.
                                Table 1 
		      Number of Internet Hosts and 
                   Web Servers World-Wide, July 1997 * 
Region              	     Hosts       WWW Servers **     Comments 
ASIA                     1,433,856        398,290         7%  of the whole Internet 
Middle East                 92,487                      
Caucasus                       711                        
Central Asia                 1,399                        
South Asia                   6,582                        
South East Asia            129,422         35,950         9%  of the Asia's Internet 
East Asia                1,203,255    		         84%  of the Asia's Internet 
AFRICA & 		  
SOUTH AMERICA              299,119         83,090         1%        
AUSTRALASIA	           863,289        239,800         5%       
Australia                  707,611         
NZ                         155,678    
EUROPE                   4,424,604       1,229,060       23%     
NTH AMERICA             12,519,457       3,477,630       64% 
US        	        11,829,141 
Canada		           690,316     
World TOTAL	        19,540,325       5,427,870 **   100%   
*  Data from the Network Wizards (1997) 
** Assuming 3.6 host/server, rounded to the nearest 10 units (see Ciolek
As far as the Asian part of the Internet is concerned, Table 2 shows that the largest concentration of hosts occurs in East Asia which houses 84% of all Asian networked computers, mainly due to the proliferation of such equipment in Japan, South Korea and Taiwan. The South East Asian share of the `Internet cake' amounts to nearly 130,000 machines, or 9% of all Asian hosts, with the bulk of the hosts situated in Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand.
				Table 2
                Number of Internet Hosts in Asia, July 1997 *
MIDDLE EAST                  92,487  6.45% of Asia's hosts
Bahrain                         896
Iran                              1
Iraq 			          0
Israel 		             61,140
Jordan 		                170
Kuwait                        3,555
Lebanon 	              1,128
Oman                              0
Palestine                       n/a
Qatar                           345
Saudi Arabia                    293
Syria                             0
Turkey                       22,963
United Arab Emirates          1,994
Yemen                             2
CAUCASUS                        711   0.05% of Asia's hosts
Armenia                         332
Azerbaijan                       81
Chechnya                        n/a
Georgia                         298
CENTRAL ASIA                  1,399   0.1%  of Asia's hosts
Afghanistan                       0
Kazakhstan                    1,136
Kyrgyzstan                      108
Turkmenistan                      2
Uzbekistan                      153
SOUTH ASIA                    6,582   0.5% of Asia's hosts
Bangladesh                        0
Bhutan                            1
India                         4,794
Maldives                         52
Nepal                           165
Pakistan                        959
Sri Lanka                       611
SOUTH EAST ASIA             129,422   9.02%  of Asia's hosts
Brunei Darussalam               236
Cambodia 		          7
Vietnam 		          3
Burma 			          3
East Timor 		          1
Laos                              1
Thailand 	             12,794
Indonesia                    10,861
Singapore                    60,674
Malaysia                     40,533
Philippines                   4,309
EAST ASIA                 1,203,255  83.9%  of Asia's hosts
China                        25,594
Hong Kong                    48,660
Japan                       955,688
Korea N                           0
Korea S                     132,370
Macau                           220
Mongolia                         17
Russian Far East                n/a
Taiwan                       40,706
Tibet                           n/a
ASIA TOTAL          1,433,856
*  Data from the Network Wizards (1997)
If we assume that there is one web server for every 3.6 Internet hosts installed (see Table 1, Ciolek 1997b) we can deduce that in July 1997 there were nearly 17,000 web servers in Singapore, about 11,000 in Malaysia, approximately 3,500 in Thailand and about 3000 in Indonesia. However, this is not so say that these figures are indicative of the overall total size of the South East Asian cyberspace, because the total volume of the networked information subsumes information systems located both inisde and outside the geographical boundaries of the SE Asian countries.

The data on the scholarly Web resources specialising in South East Asian studies (see Table 3) suggest that about three quarters of such electronic materials is published outside the SE Asian region, with the overwhelming bulk of them being created and published in North America, Australasia and Europe.
                              Table 3
                          The provenance of 
            scholarly Web resources dealing with SE Asia *
Country                     No of resources
AUSTRALASIA                          65   24%
Australia 		             63
New Zealand                           2
EAST ASIA			      7    3%
Hong Kong 		              3
Japan                                 4
EUROPE 				     49   18%
Austria 		              1
Denmark 		              3
France 			              6
Germany 		              8
Italy 			              2
Netherlands 		             16
Portugal 		              2
Sweden 			              4
Switzerland 		              2
UK 			              5
NORTH AMERICA                        87   32%
Canada 			              8
US 			             79
SOUTH EAST ASIA                      62   23%
Brunei        	                      1                  
Burma                                 0         
Cambodia                              1             
Indonesia                            15         
Laos                                  0           
Malaysia                              7          
Philippines                           8           
Singapore                             6         
Thailand                             19           
Vietnam                               5        
GRAND TOTAL                         270  100%
* Data from the "October Sample"

5. Usefulness and Geographical Focus of Networked Resources for South East Asian Studies

About two thirds of electronic materials identified in the "October Sample" tended to be of high and very high usefulness (see Table 4) to the online social sciences research work focused on South East Asia
			      Table 4
		  Usefulness to online research of
            scholarly Web resources dealing with SE Asia *
Rating                     No of resources

Essential		      39    14%
V.Useful		      44    16%
Useful		              97    36%
Interesting		      53    20%
Marginal		      37    14%
TOTAL                        270   100%
* Data from the "October Sample"
An additional (and not presented here) check of these data suggested that the research usefulness of the resource seems to be unaffected by its geographical provenance. In other words, resources originating in Australasia, East Asia, Europe, North America and South East Asia are roughly of similar research value. An annotated list of 39 essential online resources , that is ones which were found to be of special relevance and value to the scholarly work on South East Asia and its countries is provided in Ciolek (1997d).

As Table 5 indicates, the primary focus of those resources tends to be on the South East Asia region and Asian continent in general, followed by online attention directed to Indonesia, Vietnam and the Philippines.
                               Table 5
	            Primary geographical focus of
             scholarly Web resources dealing with SE Asia * 
World in general                     9
Asia in general                     71
South East Asia in general          85
Brunei        	                     2                   
Burma                                6         
Cambodia                             6 
East Timor                           1
Irian Jaya		             1
Indonesia                           26         
Laos                                 1           
Malaysia                            11          
Philippines                         15           
Singapore                            2         
Thailand                            12           
Vietnam                             22        
TOTAL                              270   100%
* Data from the "October Sample"
These figures seem to imply that the online scholarship in South East Asian studies is still in its infancy and that the complex and multifaceted issues of the region continue to be addressed online in very general terms.

The existence of relatively larger numbers of resources dealing with Indonesia, Vietnam, the Philippines, Thailand and Malaysia can be attributed to three parallel processes.

Firstly, there is a large amount of research work carried out in the Netherlands on historical links, and in Australia on political links with Indonesia. Similarly, there is a strong US interest in America's historical contacts with the Philippines, and more recently with Vietnam. Secondly, there is the issue of Vietnamese and Filipino diasporas in the USA, and Moluccan diaspora in the Netherlands. Thirdly, there is the energy with which the nationals of SE Asian countries promote online their electronic materials. As the editor of the Asian Studies WWW Monitor online newsletter (Ciolek 1997a) I have noticed over the last 3 years that Vietnam-, Indonesia- and Thailand-related web sites are advertised online more energetically than those which are related to Singapore, Burma or Brunei.

6. Types and Raison d'etre of Networked Resources for South East Asian Studies

Table 6 shows that the three largest categories of SE Asia-related information published online are the corporate details of organisations, guides to the SE Asian online resources and the research data.
		             Table 6
      Types of scholarly Web resources dealing with SE Asia *
Type                           No of resources
News, opinions, analyses         26    10%
Data (numbers,texts, images)     75    28%
Guides, catalogs                 84    31%
Corporate Information	         85    31%
TOTAL                           270   100%
* Data from the "October Sample"
Table 7 reveals another pattern. Institutions and organisations developing online resources most actively are those concerned with management of documents and publications (libraries and archives), followed by those involved in scholarly research and those specialising in building organisational and/or political networks.
                         Table 7
Raison d'etre of scholarly Web resources dealing with SE Asia *
Chief Function                 No of resources
Reporting        		27   10%
Teaching      			32   12%
Networking 			48   18%
Research   			71   26%
Documentation             	92   34%
TOTAL                          270   100%
* Data from the "October Sample"

7. Types, Raison d'etre and the Geographical Location of Networked Resources for South East Asian Studies

Data contained in Table 8 hints at the existence of additional patterns. The bulk of resources originating from Australasia seem to be dedicated to presentation of corporate information. The largest proportion of North American resources are those concerned with presentation of research data, while the South East Asian countries seem to be most busy with development of guides to the South East Asian web. Finally, Europe-based online resources seem to lean towards a roughly balanced mix of research data, corporate information and meta-data.
		             Table 8
                      Type and the provenance
            of scholarly Web resources dealing with SE Asia *
Region/Type	    NOA    Data	 Guides	  Corp.	  Total   
Australasia	     5     15     17      28         65
East Asia            2      2      1       2          7
Europe               5     13     14      17         49
Nth America          9     32     25      21         87
SE Asia              5     13     27      17         62
TOTAL                                               270    
* Data from the "October Sample"
The question `who is most visible in Southeast Asian cyberspace?' is answered by Table 9. The answer is contingent on the geographic location of the producer of information.

In Australasia and Europe the main actors on the Internet's scene are the research bodies and libraries. In North America and South East Asia it is mainly the libraries, followed in North America by research institutions and, in SE Asia, by the networking organisations.

How significant these trends are cannot be determined, of course, without an analysis of a much larger and better collected sample.
                                         Table 9
          Organisation's raison d'etre and the provenance
            of scholarly Web resources dealing with SE Asia *
Region/Function   Rprt  Teach	 Netw	 Rsrch	 Docum     Total   
Australasia	     4     6     12        20      23        65
East Asia            2     0      0         3       2         7
Europe               6     5      9        15      14        49
Nth America          9    15     11        19      33        87
SE Asia              6     6     16        14      20        62
TOTAL                                                       270    
* Data from the "October Sample"

8. The Untamed Wilderness of Southeast Asian Cyberspace

I must confess that even my cursory encounter with 3247 English language online documents on "South East Asian Studies" uncovered by the prodigious Altavista database was a harrowing experience. A seven-point complaint list directed at the online resources which were found useless has been already lodged in the Section 3 of this paper. But this is not the end of the story. There were many shortcoming with the 270 materials which formed the "October Sample".

Without attempting to reveal the actual identity of any of the culprits and under-achievers, I will attempt to enumerate these problems.

The inadequacies of scholarly web sites pertaining to South East Asia form three major clusters. The first of them is linked to the producer's lack of clear vision of, and real commitment to the establishment of a high quality web-based information system. The second group of problems revolves around the issue of poor informational architecture of many of the scholarly web-sites. The third group of shortcomings has its root in the producer's lack of interest in regular maintenance of the published electronic resources.

i. Problems with the resource's objectives

Since the popularization of the Web-technology in September 1993 there has been a veritable explosion in the number of Web sites dealing with every conceivable issue and topic. The situation with South East Asia scholarly cyberspace is as follows:

a. Replication of information - Table 6 reveals the astonishing fact that 31% of all web resources dealing with the Southeast Asian region are the guides to those web resources. It is an absolutely ridiculous situation. Imagine, just for a moment, a telephone system in city such as Kuala Lumpur or Sydney where every phone number in three would lead to a telephone directory assistance service. Undoubtedly, the current situation testifies to jealousies and lack of communication between various protagonists and to a corresponding spectacular waste of money, time, human skills and of the network bandwidth. Also, the replication of cataloging efforts creates additional problems of wasteful circularity of navigational paths across the Web. On the other hand, the figure of 31% is a great improvement over the figure of 65% redundancy observed two years earlier by Ciolek and Cathro (1995), but such improvement is still not large enough. More consolidation, pruning, specialisation and international division of cataloging responsibilities is needed here.

b. Lack of the sustained effort - Approximately 5% of visited web pages have been found to be totally abandoned by their creators.

c. Blurring of the purposes and functions - It has been said of the computer software that all programs are created in a classical style, then, they gradually turn baroque and rococo, and finally end up as a confused and tangled ruin. A similar process can be detected in the Asian Studies web-pages and web-information systems. At the outset, they attempt to accomplish one or two clear-cut objectives. However, typically they keep on accruing additional features and new functions. Eventually, they start resembling a big and all-purpose tool. Once this phase is reached, an informational `Swiss-Army knife' starts to replicate, willy-nilly, functionalities already offered by several tens, if not hundreds of similarly cancerous and general-purpose information systems.

ii. Problems with the resource's structure

All these failings are further compounded by the havoc in the informational architecture of web-pages, web-sites and web-servers.

a. Lack of standardized page layouts - It is a common experience for a researcher to visit 10 or 20 specialist web pages and be confronted by no less than 10 or 20 different ways with which roughly comparable sets of information are structured and displayed across an electronic page.

b. Lack of electronic citation standards - Despite the serious work already done on design of standardized citation and referencing systems for electronic sources of information - summarized so efficiently by Greenhill (1997), ISO/TC Secretariat (1997), and Li and Crane (1997) - authors and editors of various pages continue to refer to their sources in a bewildering variety of styles. Additionally, these styles vary not only from author to author, but from one page to another.

d. Lack of selection, rating and evaluation - Links to online resources continue to be accumulated in web pages in a highly promiscuous fashion. Additionally, links are pasted onto an electronic page hurriedly and unreflectively, and without any attempt to provide an initial (let alone periodically repeated) assessment (Smith, 1997) of the link's relevance and trustworthiness to the page's mission.

e. Lack of meta-data tags - Despite the plethora of convincing arguments in favour of electronic labels, annotations and meta-data tags (Sperberg and Burnard 1991, Crossley 1994, Text Encoding Initiative 1996) which would simplify machine-processing of a wide range of types of electronic information, and encourage the sharing of electronic texts, the world of WWW is still largely oblivious to these new methodologies. So far, it is only a handful of resources (for instance, Ciolek 1997a, 1997c) which seem to take any notice of the work done by the Dublin Core group (Hakala 1977, Koch 1997). The prospects that these innovative solutions might be adopted on a wide scale are not too encouraging.

f. Lack of meta-comments - Another problem undermining the quality of the online information in general - not just the one pertaining to the Asian studies - is the continuing lack of interest in assuring that a small set of meta-comments is placed on every page of every online resource. All electronic scholarly documents need to be attributable to a given author; traceable to a given source of data; easy to locate among other pages available from a given information system; easy to refer to in subsequent communications and publications, and finally, easy to print, as well as to copy into reader's notebook or a computer file. Therefore, one would hope that the scholarly web sites will be first to incorporate into all of their files of the following set of annotations:

g. Empty structures - Several information systems were found to be built in the form of a nested set of subdirectories, which may or may not contain any data. This practice forces a reader to progress through several layers of screens only to discover by the end of the electronic meandering, that the desperately hoped for kernel of data is not there.

h. Excessive use of technology - the use of new technologies, such as of the Java programming language, frames technology, PDF Adobe Acrobat file formats, often done merely for the sake of an experiment has two consequences. Firstly, it takes more time to download a large and complicated page. Secondly, there is a backward incompatibility with the earlier versions of the client software, which means that a given set of information becomes simply invisible or inaccessible to those readers who have a PC with small memories and who use older (simpler, `thinner') software. As far as the frames are concerned, they should be avoided in scholarly resources as energetically as possible. Such presentation techniques rarely enhance the overall ergonomics of a web-page and almost invariably wreck the normal navigation process across the WWW.

i. Lack of bi-lingual navigations signage - Another issue in this group of problems is the lack of the language conventions in sites originating from bi-lingual or multi-lingual communities. A possible solution can be worked out by taking example for the signage systems at international airports world-wide. There major traffic routes, arrival/departure information, meeting places, offices, facilities and shops are marked in three ways: (1) in the vernacular, (2) in English (which is an international language of aviation and telecommunications) and, finally (3) by the means of legible and unambiguous icons which are standardized across the airport, or a group of airports within a given country.

iii. Problems with the maintenance

The third set of shortcomings of online information systems has to do with the fact that the producers frequently forget about a basic rule that while the design and implementation of a web-based information system can be quite costly, then the established information system itself requires even more costly regular and continuing maintenance procedures. Typically maintenance involves the daily attention of about the same number of people who were employed to set the system up and it costs annually approximately twice as much as the initial set-up.

a. Nonexistent or incomplete annotations - the most common form of neglect of a web-based site is the absent or incomplete information it offers about the links (gateways) to other online resources. All hypertext links need to be named and annotated in such a way that the reader knows not only what kind of material he or she is likely to encounter (numeric data, text, graphics, databases), but also where (institution, country) the hyperlinked information actually resides, and how big (in Kilobytes) it is likely to be.

b. Linkrot - links, which were once correct and useful, may, after a while, lead to obsolete or nonexistent web-pages. Therefore, it is a sacrosanct duty of anyone who establishes a hypertext link to periodically re-check its validity. Similarly, it is a sacrosanct duty of an author or page maintainer, should the document be re-located to a new address, to replace it for an extended period of time (say, 3 months or longer), with an appropriate redirection page.

c. Lack of frequent updates - the world of the WWW is highly dynamic. It is not only that

the existing resources change their locations or permanently disappear from the Net but also new ones appear on the digital firmament on a weekly if not daily basis. A good web site is like a good weather map - both need to be systematically and frequently updated.

d. Errors - another failing of many electronic resources is the persistent presence of typographical and spelling errors. For some strange reasons these blunders which are scandalising if seen in paper-based publication, tend to be tolerated or even ignored if they appear on an electronic screen. This is not a satisfactory state of affairs and expectations of the general public towards the formal quality of online information need to be greatly raised.

e. Lack of response to reader's comments and feedback - the final item in this litany of online problems is the commonly occurring lack of communication between users of a given web-resource and their authors, producers and maintainers. Errors of presentation, formatting and linking need to be promptly brought to the attention of the page-maintainer. Factual errors need to be communicated to the page's author or editor. Finally, the shortcomings in the publishing policies need to be delivered to the producers themselves. In all three cases every web-page must have easy to find and easy to use channels of e-mail communication. Also, all communications from the readers need to be acknowledged, and, wherever appropriate, acted on.

9. Collaborative Taming of the Southeast Asian Cyberspace

There is no doubt, that the best metaphor for the current universe of online informational resources dealing with South East Asian studies would be that of a tropical jungle.

It is a huge and fantastically fertile ground for all sorts of projects, tools, data and facilities. Also, it is a tangled and bewildering place which is crowded with colourful flowers, potent medicinal plants, precious spices, outcrops of rare minerals as well as poisonous lianas and countless dead trees.

He/she is a brave explorer who dares, in search of useful and scholarly information, to venture into an electronic territory of ever-shifting riverbanks, abandoned villages and bottomless swamps. If he/she has to return from the quest within a short time, the chances are that the explorer may return empty handed or the materials which are brought back will be largely incomplete and dated. On the other hand, if an intrepid data-miner embarks on a comprehensive and systematic exploration of that vast (and growing) territory he/she risks travelling though the info-jungle for many days and weeks.

So, the question is - how are we to cope with the situation in which we find ourselves after the 4 years of the untamed and unpredictable proliferation and growth of the World Wide Web? We need to remember that what we witness today is but a small fragment of that which we shall be seeing in a year or two. Neither the explosion in the amount of material becoming available online, nor humanity's passionate love affair with new telecommunication technologies are going to be brought to a halt, even a brief and temporary one, only because we as the students, scholars and librarians have difficulty with locating valid and accurate navigation routes across the ever-changing informational landscape.

Therefore, there seem to be three possible knowledge management strategies for the networked South East Asian studies, in fact for any set of Internet-based studies.

Firstly, we can leave the things as they are, that is - explored, charted, and annotated on ad-hoc basis by an array of individuals, each going his /her way, each minding his/her own business and each being largely oblivious to, or jealous of, the work and achievements of other individuals. This is a path which has been traveled - so far - by most of us and the one which results in the proliferation of standards, approaches and terminologies, not to mention the horrendous replication of effort and duplication of web-pages. However, the great advantage of such a strategy is that no coherent plan of action needs to be developed and no long-term organisational effort needs to be put in motion.

Secondly, we can abdicate most of our intellectual responsibilities, our data indexing- and data-organising skills in favour of one or two energetic and well resourced institutions, who would provide the necessary high quality, well managed, frequently updated informational infrastructure for all interested parties. Such a central service could be offered world-wide either free of charge or on the pay-by-view or annual subscription basis. Such a Web-clearinghouse and Web-indexing facility could be hosted by one of the universities, or a publishing business, or some learned society or by a telecommunication company. This strategy is quite attractive as it frees most of us from the worry about the ever growing numbers of web-sites and leaves this hard and repetitive cataloging and organising work 'to the professionals'. Reassuringly, this is the way the work on compiling and maintaining reliable telephone directories and railway-timetables has been traditionally handled for the last hundred years. However, the drawback is the enormous power and influence a provider of the central scholarly information services would have over those who would depend on the regular, inexpensive and timely access to online meta-information.

Thirdly, we could try to tame the prevailing chaos, methodological shortcomings and scattering of effort through energetic and 'competitive cooperation' (Rutkowski 1994). Such competitive cooperation would involve various individuals and institutions with a stake in the online scholarly resources for South East Asian Studies. The good-natured competitiveness among the players would be assured and reinforced by the unwavering adherence to the heterogeneous, distributed and polycentric model of our online activities. Cooperation, on the other hand, would be founded on our voluntary agreement to share and circulate relevant information and to delineate spheres of activity in order to avoid any major encroachment on a colleagues' field of expertise.

This approach draws on the notion of the Special Interest Networks (SINs), which were first proposed by Green and Croft (1994) and subsequently elaborated in Green (1995). This is an intriguing idea. I can easily visualize a widely cast network of expert sites that would collaborate to provide a complete range of information activities for the discipline of South East Asian Studies. These sites could be located everywhere on the globe, in Asia and in Europe, in North America as well as in the Oceania. Such coalition of collaborating sites would combine the three roles, that is those of (a) information suppliers, (b) information distributors and (c) information users.

Individuals, groups and institutions taking part in an archipelago of peer web-sites would provide each other with the badly needed: The coordination between the multitude of distributed activities of the collegial sites comprising the South East Asian Studies Knowledge Web could be achieved in several ways. Firstly, and most importantly, through careful delineation and multilateral and mutually binding agreements with regard to the division of responsibilities and areas of expertise. Secondly, such network of collaborating expert sites would need to make frequent and energetic use of dedicated email-based discussion groups and one-way communication channels. Thirdly, all participating sites would need to adhere to jointly developed standards, conventions, data-collection- and data-presentation templates and the uniform quality control measures. The success of such a collaborative venture would depend on the commitment of all parties to do the job well and honour not only the letter but also the spirit of the collaborative project.

It will be, perhaps, useful to mention here the 'traffic rules' underlying the daily activities of the 36 editors from 15 countries who jointly manage no less than 59 information modules comprising Asian Studies WWW Virtual Library (Ciolek 1997c). This web-based resource is a large-scale, distributed, collaborative project providing an up-to-date, subject-oriented guide to networked scholarly documents, resources and information systems concerned with social sciences research on Asia.

The Asian Studies voluntary coalition of self-governing web sites subscribes to a handful, in fact seventeen, "golden", common sense rules (Ciolek 1997e). The first three of them are:
  1. Asian Studies virtual librarians are colleagues and partners, with no-one among them playing a central or a subordinate role.
  2. They strive to be unique and worthwhile. They do not replicate work already done elsewhere, and, especially, do not replicate work done by other virtual libraries. At the same time, however, they try not to leave gaps in activities that need to be undertaken.
  3. They concentrate on factual, high quality, attributable information of relevance to social sciences research.

10. Conclusions

Establishment of such an expert constellation of networked knowledge sites may not be an easy and straightforward task. This is so because for many centuries we have been taught to choose between either the strongly individual but chaotic, or the strongly centralised but restrictive modes of work. Simply, for many centuries the idea of a cooperative, non-hierarchical and distributed system of work has not been logistically and organisationally feasible. Fortunately, the advent of the Internet, with all its prodigious offspring such as electronic mail and the hypertext publications has dramatically re-defined the situation and expanded and enhanced the overall ecology of our minds.

Also, for many centuries the network of peers were difficult to establish. No wonder, we have been very good in learning to mistrust each other, and to take part in the various coalitions and associations only on the grounds of self-interest and only for as long as a collaborative project provided us with profits, influence and advantages.

And yet, it is perfectly obvious that the truly worthwhile and the truly long-lasting collaborative associations are formed only by those who firmly and genuinely share the same values and ideals, and who take a deep joy and profound delight in bringing them forth.

11. Acknowledgments

I am grateful to Mrs Rita Coles for critical comments on the first draft of this article.

12. About the Author

Dr. T. Matthew Ciolek, a social scientist, heads the Internet Publications Bureau, Research School Pacific and Asian Studies, The Australian National University, Canberra, Australia. Since 1991 he has been responsible for making the RSPAS' electronic research materials available to the Internet community via ftp-, wais-, gopher-, web- and email-based technologies and is one of the world's pioneers in electronic communication regarding the Asia-Pacific region. He is a designer and editor of an electronic journal "Asian Studies WWW Monitor" (http://coombs.anu.edu.au/asia-www-monitor.html) and a number of online guides to the Internet, including the influential Asian Studies WWW Virtual Library (http://coombs.anu.edu.au/WWWVL-AsianStudies.html). His work and contact details can be found online at http://www.ciolek.com/PEOPLE/ciolek-tm.html

13. References

[The great volatility of online information means that some of the URLs listed below may change by the time this article is printed. For current pointers please consult the online copy of this paper at http://www.ciolek.com/PAPERS/AsiaCyberspace-97.html

Site Meter
visitors to www.ciolek.com since 08 May 1997.

Maintainer: Dr T.Matthew Ciolek (tmciolek@ciolek.com)

Copyright (c) 1997 by T.Matthew Ciolek. All rights reserved. This Web page may be freely linked to other Web pages. Contents may not be republished, altered or plagiarized.

URL http://www.ciolek.com/PAPERS/SEAsianCyberspace-97.html

[ Asian Studies WWW VL ] [ www.ciolek.com ] [ Buddhist Studies WWW VL ]