To be presented at the
Document created: 4 Jan 1999. Last revised: 26 Jan 1999
This paper is offered in the spirit of Frederick's memorandum. It is written by a man who has not led any armed troops. Instead, for the last seven and half years, he has immersed himself in the Internet. It aims to provide practical advice on the nature of the networked environment and on the ways of taking sustainable advantage of it.
In August 1991, the Internet comprised some 550,000 hosts and was used approximately by 5 mln people (Zakon 1988). Seven and half years later the Internet has grown into the global network of networks linking some 36,740,000 machines (in July 1998) and over 160 millions of people world-wide (Euro-Marketing 1998, Network Wizards 1999). Moreover, the Internet has become very rich as well. In December 1998, the Net comprised approximately 5,000 Gopher sites, 10,000 anonymous FTP sites, 30,000 USENET discussion groups, 39,000 IRC channels, over 210,000 mailing lists, and 3.7 mln web servers with some 420 mln online documents (Kahle 1996, Bharat and Broder 1998, L-Soft 1999, Southwick 1998).
Previous advice on how to create and manage online information resources (in the form of "The Seven Golden Rules of the Asian Studies WWW Virtual Library") did not say (Ciolek 1998a) why certain lines of electronic conduct should be favoured, whereas others should be shunned.
Therefore, a set of strategic-level, general-purpose notes is presented here to my online colleagues. I think especially of those who work on such projects as the Electronic Buddhist Text Initiative (EBTI) (www.human.toyogakuen-u.ac.jp/~acmuller/ebti.htm), the H-Net electronic forum for Asian History and Culture (H-ASIA@h-net.msu.edu), Scholars Engaged in Electronic Resources (SEER) (titus.uni-frankfurt.de/seer/index.htm), and the Electronic Cultural Atlas Initiative (ECAI) (http://www.ias.berkeley.edu/ecai).
When I think about the future I can sense plenty of online "battles" which await all of us. Some of the skirmishes will be about particular formats for our data, others will be fought to secure funds and necessary resources, still others will be about the quality of our products. The main battle, however, is inevitably that for global online acceptance of our work and a strong networked presence.
The starting assumptions of this paper are simple:
The Internet, as we know it, is made up of networked data and tools for their manipulation. Regardless of its specific application, each tool has a number of structural (i.e. technical), functional and, finally, social characteristics. If these characteristics are consonant with the prevailing (both tacit and overt) expectations and needs of its users, the tool gets accepted and proliferates. If not, it struggles briefly for public attention and then fades away. The most visible parts of today's Internet are, therefore, the successful products. Their very success forms the catalytic, self-referential milieu into which new products and ideas are constantly being born. The emergence and flow of networked inventions and activities inevitably establishes precedents, the elaborate patterns of relationships and expectations, which are then followed, more or less deliberately, by most of the subsequent inventions and events.
Uncovering such archetypal patterns (Jacobi 1971:38-39) is a rewarding exercise.
The Internet is a dynamic and mercurial system endowed with a number of traits. These are:
2. Built-in piecemeal change and evolution. The Internet is not a one-off development. It is an energetic, polycentric, complex, growing, and self-refining system. It is a network which is geared to expansion and growth. It is a system which scales up extremely well. In December 1969 it comprised four interconnected machines. Exactly ten years later, in December 1979 it spanned 188 hosts. In October 1989 it linked 159,000 machines. In July 1998, it did the same for 36,739,000 machines (Zakon 1998). The Internet is, to borrow a phrase from Gabriel (1996:93) "a set of communicating components that work together to provide a comprehensive set of capabilities." The Net harnesses the energies of four distinct but mutually reinforcing and catalytic processes:
(b) The creativity of the Net's culture. This creativity is the necessary consequence (Rutkowski 1994) of a very large-scale, unregulated and polycentric archipelago of people and their data sets, machines for managing the data, and tools for instantaneous communication;
(c) The vanity of humans. Major technical discoveries and implementations are frequently carried out for no other reason than to give its inventors a spate of online fame (Dodd 1992, Rheingold 1994);
(d) Human greed. New technologies provide new financial vistas to entrepreneurs who put inventions to daily commercial use (Gabriel 1996). Some new technologies reduce the cost of routine operations (i.e. to use an Internet telephone costs less than to use a traditional telephone network). Also, new technologies create totally new products, services and markets. The emergence of online advertising, network connectivity services, web hosting and cyberstores illustrates this point (Reid 1997, Yesil 1997).
4. Low cost. The Internet makes new uses of old technologies (standalone computers, operating systems, telecommunication networks). Whenever possible, Internet operations piggyback on already existing solutions. They rely on modularised, configurable, easy-to-replace, and easy-to-upgrade off-the-shelf software and hardware. The Internet not only creates new tools and resources, but also it recycles and rejuvenates several of the old ones (Levinson 1997).
5. Ubiquity. The robustness, modularisation and low cost of the system is coupled with the growing densities of dedicated computer lines, network backbones, as well as wired and wireless phone networks. This means that Internet-enabled tools are deployed in ever growing numbers in an ever widening range of environments (Gilster 1997, Kelly and Reiss 1998). The history of the Internet is that of a long-term move from experimental laboratories to university computing centres, and then to offices and business, schools, homes, museums, taxis, supermarkets and, finally, street-based consoles, kiosks and hand-held devices.
It always worth remembering that the Internet is simply a man-made infrastructure for handling the data supplied by the people themselves. In other words, all networked information resources are like biscuit-tins: what's in them is no more and no less than that which has been put into them by a concrete person. The type of digital materials placed on the Net, their trustworthiness and accuracy, the frequency of updates, the data formats and page layouts are always the outcome of human action. Such action may be thoughtful and deliberate, or spontaneous and irrational, but it always remains a prerogative of one, or a couple of individuals. The networked information tools are always a product of human work. Likewise, all the information galloping across the Net is a product of the daily habits, fashions, and politics of people who make daily use of those tools.
Table 1 The timeline of some major Internet and non-Internet e-publishing/e-communication tools ------------------------------------------------------------- Date Tool ------------------------------------------------------------- 1969 Unix operating system# (a) 1972 Email (b) 1977 UUCP Unix messaging and file-transfer tool# (c) 1978 Jan 16 Computer Bulletin Board System# (d) 1979 Usenet news groups# (b) 1980 Jun Telnet (e) 1981 Listserv mailing list software (b) 1984 Unix OS supports Internet connectivity (t) 1985 Oct File Transfer Protocol (FTP) (f) 1986 Hypercard (Macintosh) software# (w) 1987 NNTP (Network News Transfer Protocol) links Usenet and the Internet (x) 1988 Internet Relay Chat (IRC) (b) 1990 Archie FTP semi-crawler search engine (b) 1990 Dec WWW server (prototype) (g) 1991 Apr WAIS publisher-fed search engine + full text databases (h) 1991 Apr Gopher (i) 1991 May 17 WWW server (production version) (g) 1992 Veronica crawler search engine (b) 1992 Jul Lynx ascii WWW browser (j) 1993 Oct Mosaic graphic WWW browser (g) 1993 fall Jughead Gopher crawler search engine (b) 1994 Feb 14 Labyrinth graphic 3-D (vrml) WWW browser (k) 1994 Apr Aliweb WWW semi-crawler search engine (l) 1994 Oct 13 Netscape WWW browser (m) 1995 Apr RealAudio narrowcasting (n) 1995 May 23 Java programming language (o) 1995 Dec Altavista WWW crawler search engine (p) 1995 Jun Metacrawler WWW meta-search engine (q) 1996 Apr Alexa WWW intelligent navigation adviser (u) 1996 Jun Internet Archive full text database (r) 1998 Apr Google WWW crawler intelligent search engine (s) ------------------------------------------------------------- Note: This table is based on Table 1 in Ciolek 1998b and supplementary data from Ciolek 1999b. Non-Internet technologies are marked with "#." Sources: (a) Hauben and Hauben (1995); (b) Zakon (1998); (c) Rheingold (1994:116); (d) Rheingold (1994:133); (e) Postel (1980);(f) Barnes (1997); (g) Cailliau (1995); (h) St.Pierre (1994); (i) La Tour (1995); (j) Grobe (1997); (k) Reid (1997:175); (l) Koster (1994); (m) Reid (1997:33); (n) Reid (1997:69); (o) (Harold 1997); (p) Compaq (1998); (q) Selberg (1997); (r) Kahle (1996); (s) (Google 1998); (t) Severance (nd); (u) Kahle & Gilliat (1996); (w) Goodman (1987); (x) Laursen (1997)
The review of major aspects of these tools will be carried out briefly. Basic information on the history as well as the scale of their contribution to the growth of the Net has already been provided elsewhere (Ciolek 1998b).
Unix is not a product of Internet culture. It is its catalyst and cornerstone. Internet culture owes Unix a major debt in the four areas. These conceptual and procedural debts are: multitasking, community fostering, openness and extensibility, and public access to the source code. Let's briefly look at each of these debts.
Unix was one of the first operating systems which embodied the principle of multitasking (time-sharing). In most general terms it means that several users could simultaneously operate within a single environment and that the system as a whole coped well with this complicated situation. Unix was the first operating system which demonstrated in practical terms robustness and tolerance for the variety of it's users simultaneous activities.
The phenomenon of multitasking also had another important consequence. It facilitated the emergence of a self-aware community of computer users. People no longer competed with one other for precious time on the system. Their work was no longer handled in a sequence of discrete batch operations. With the advent of Unix, people making use of the operating system started sharing the same activity space. They could browse through all parts of the machine's file structure and they could invoke all available commands. They were simultaneously affected by the strengths and limitations of Unix. Unix users thus constituted a group which had a reason to argue and lobby for the further growth and extension of their jointly used work platform.
The evolving sense of the community received a further boost in 1977 (Rheingold 1994:116) with another of AT&T's inventions, the Unix-to-Unix-Copy (UUCP) utility. This software was made available world-wide along with new versions of the operating system. UUCP made possible for any computer running Unix to automatically connect via modem with any other computer using Unix and to ship messages and document files from one machine to another. This means that from 1977 onwards the Unix users were encouraged by the UUCP software to start forming professional contacts with other Unix users, regardless where they might reside. The UUCP was the stimulus which led to the establishment of Usenet (see below).
Another influential characteristic of Unix is the public-domain status of its source code. The code was made available by its AT&T creators to anyone, anywhere, practically free of charge. This was a key strategic decision. It meant that Unix's universal availability broke a spell which hitherto kept innovation proprietary and chained to the company coffers. The free status of the basic Unix software (but not of the specialist data which could be managed by that system, an important distinction) meant that consecutive refinements could now be easily embarked upon (Xenix, Berkeley Unix (BSD), SunOS, System V) and improvements could flow spontaneously from one laboratory to another. This revolutionary approach was soon adopted by a number of other software developers. Its strategic value for capturing the major share of the installed base, hence of the user base, and hence of the market for related products and data, was obvious. This new strategy has been vindicated several times, most recently in 1998 by decisions to publicise source codes for the Linux operating system (the latest incarnation of Unix) (Raymond 1998), Netscape's WWW Navigator browser (Netscape 1998), and the Sun Microsystem's Java language (Effinger and Mangalidan 1998).
The fourth key feature of Unix is its structural openness and amenability to piecemeal improvement. Unix was deliberately designed to foster "a professional community of programmers who used the Unix toolbox to create new tools that all the other Unix toolbuilders could use" (Rheingold 1994:117-118). From the very outset anybody could contribute a variation to any of the Unix component software modules. In this way several tens of hundreds of UNIX modifications were implemented all over the world. In this way the University of Berkeley version of Unix (version 4.2BSD) was augmented in 1984 so that it could handle the TCP/IP protocol suite, the language of all Internet operations. The original networking support included remote login (Telnet), file transfer, and electronic mail (Rheingold 1994:83, Severance nd).
The incremental modifications to the software meant, on one hand, a state of anarchy and confusion. On the other, it was the beginning of a culture of individualistic creativity. A Unix programmer with an idea and skill could now try out a gamut of technical solutions, without asking anyone's permission. If she failed in her projects, she would do so in the privacy of her local system. Yet, if she succeeded, she could report the new invention to all who cared to hear about it. The free distribution of Unix source code meant the onset of a culture of public success (naturally, only the effective patches and modules would be announced) and that of parallel private tinkering, blundering and messing up. This was a liberating development. All sorts of generally useful utilities and applications were now written within the larger constraints of the Unix framework. Unix, therefore, is an early champion of the principles of natural selection within the competitive/cooperative world of computer software.
Email is the first of the Internet's tools dedicated to the provision of fast, simple and global communication between people. This revolutionary client/server software implied for the first time that individuals (both as persons and roles) could have their unique electronic addresses. Within this framework messages were now able to chase their individual recipients anywhere in the world. The recipients, in turn, were brought in close contact with each other and could form one-to-one communication links and friendships, independently of the official relations between their respective employers. This was a momentous development, for frequent and intensive communication forms social groups, and the groups, in turn, form an environment in which innovative products are considered and created.
The initial format of email communication was that of a one-to-one exchange of electronic messages. This simple function was subsequently augmented by email's ability to handle various attachments, such as documents with complex formatting, numbers and graphic files. Later, with the use of multi-recipient mailing lists (a development which prompted the development of the Listserv software, see below) electronic mail could be used for simple multicasting of messages in the form of one-to-many transmissions.
Finally, email is important because it has disseminated and popularised an awareness that each networked computer has, in fact, a unique address, a world-wide recognisable digital identity. This identity was constructed according to a set of simple, and generally accepted rules. Hence the hitherto amorphous and anonymous mass of digital devices became a consciously recognisable and visible lattice divided into international and country-specific domains. Moreover, each domain was further sub-divided into subsets of specialised networks, which in turn were comprised of numerous lower-level networks of computers associated with the activities of such entities as hospitals, research institutes, media, business corporations, universities, and so forth.
In short, email is important not only as a tool for interpersonal communication, but also as a tool which stressed the notion of unambiguous and explicit targeting between entities involved in online transactions. This notion received a further boost in the form of hypertext linkages (see section on WWW systems below).
Usenet newsgroups taught the Internet three major lessons.
Firstly, the newsgroups proved the practical usefulness of distributed systems for the production of large volumes of online information. In 1992, when the WWW comprised no more than 26 servers and a few hundred documents (Ciolek 1998b) Usenet already had 4,300 groups exchanging some 17.5 thousands messages a day from 63,000 participating sites (Zakon 1998). Usenet was the first large-scale system where information could be created locally, by anybody who had the freely available client software and an interest in a given topic.
Secondly, like email, IRC groups and Listserv electronic agoras, the Usenet proved itself a great tool for promoting the growth of online communities. Again, the emerging pattern was clear: a valid topic prompts ample electronic communication about it. Spontaneous electronic communication leads to the formation of an invisible college of people with a vested interest in the issue, as well as an ingrained interest in informing and impressing one another.
Thirdly, Usenet also demonstrated, like the 100,000 conferences of the BBSers (Allen 1998) before it, that once a certain level of user participation is reached, public messaging systems require for their very survival some form of moderation of transactions. However, this was difficult to achieve since the Usenet, originally a professionals' forum for Unix troubleshooting, was intentionally designed as an "anarchic, unkillable, censorship-resistant" (Rheingold 1994:118) electronic meeting place for millions of people in dozens of countries. In terms of its capacity to cope with the flood of data the Usenet has gone through a series of crises and restructurings (Bumgarner 1995). It also had several upgrades made to the logic of its operations and to the networking technology. However, it continues to suffer from inability to handle adequately the uneven content of swapped news (all sorts of messages including drivel, flame-wars, spoofs, and deliberate spams are regularly posted on Usenet). This failure suggests that larger (say 20+) and quasi-anonymous online groups do not rely on commonsense and are not subject to self-regulatory processes.
This means that in order to be viable and productive, online resources require filtering of all publicly generated information before such information is fed-back into the communication loop.
Experiences with the use of mailing lists (in late 1998 there were approximately 210,000 email-based communication loops) (Southwick 1998) confirm a lesson learned already from Usenet and BBS operations. That lesson is simple. People who receive regular feedback from each other tend to form lasting communities. Communities foster quicker development of products, in the form of data and tools. Tangible products further stimulate the flow of ideas and commentaries. However, information needs to be closely adjudicated and edited if a computer-mediated communication system is to function properly.
Firstly, the FTP was a first widely-accepted tool for systematic permanent storage and world-wide transmission of substantial electronic information (e.g. programs, text files, image files). Secondly, FTP archives promoted the use of anonymous login (i.e. limited public access) techniques as a way of coping with the mounting general requests for access to the archived information. That novel technique placed electronic visitors in a strictly circumscribed work environment. There they could browse through data subdirectories, copy relevant files, as well as deposit (within the context of a dedicated area) new digital material. However, the FTP software would not let them wander across other parts of the host, nor did the visitors have the right to change any component part of the accessed electronic archive.
Thirdly, the rapid proliferation in the number of public access FTP archives all over the world necessitated techniques for keeping an authoritative, up-to-date catalogue of their contents. This was accomplished through the Archie database (Deutsch et al. 1995) and its many mirrors. Archie used an automated process which periodically scanned the entire contents of all known "anonymous FTP" sites and report findings back to its central database. This approach, albeit encumbered by the need to give explicit instructions as to which of the FTP systems need to be monitored, nevertheless integrated a motley collection of online resources into a single, cohesive, distributed information system.
The popularity of the IRC systems confirms the Internauts' hunger for for interpersonal communication where each party has complete control over details of their real-life situation and identities. Also, the IRC confirms a principle already encountered in the context of Listservs, Usenet and FTP systems - anonymous Internauts if they are given a chance, will vandalise the very resource whose integrity attracted them to visit in the first place.
Firstly, it made intensive and sustained use of the already mentioned concept of distributed, that is locally published of data. Secondly, like FTP Archie before it, it made use of a central register of contents for those distributed data sets. Thirdly, WAIS was the first widely accepted information resource which made deliberate and explicit use of the meta-data. These were machine-readable electronic notes with summaries of the each of the published digital documents. Such meta-data had to be manually provided by the publishers of online databases. Also, these identifiers had to be explicitly supplied (via email) to the WAIS central register of resources. In practice this meant that a number of WAIS databases might spring into existence in various parts of the globe, without the WAIS headquarters (and thus the rest of the Internet community) having any knowledge of their whereabouts and contents.
Due to innovative programming, WAIS client server (unlike Usenet, BBS and FTP before it) enabled users to quickly locate and display on their PC screens any piece of required information, regardless of how big or how small it was. Meaningful and pertinent data could be now promptly retrieved regardless of where exactly they were stored. This was possible as long as the local WAIS database was up and running, and as long as the central register was kept up-to-date. In other words, WAIS was the first working example of global data findability and of their transparent and hassle-free accessibility.
Firstly, the WWW server introduced to the Internet the powerful point-and-click hypertext capabilities. The hypertext notions of a home page and links spanning the entire body of data was first successfully employed on a small, standalone scale in 1986 in the Macintosh software called Hypercard (Goodman 1987). The WWW however, was the first hypertext technology applied to distributed online information. This invention was previously theoretically anticipated by a number of writers, including in the 1945 by Vannevar Bush of the Memex fame, and again in the 1965 by Theodor Nelson who embarked on the never-completed Project Xanadu (Nielsen 1995, Gilster 1997:267). Hypertext itself is not an new idea. It is already implicitly present (albeit in an imperfect because a paper-based form) in the first alphabetically ordered dictionaries such as Grand dictionnaire historique, compiled in 1674 by Louis Moreriego; or John Harris' Lexicon Technicum which was published in 1704 (PWN 1964). It is also evident in the apparatus, such as footnotes, commentaries, appendices and references, of a 19th century scholarly monograph.
The hypertext principle as employed by the WWW server meant that any part of any text (and subsequently, image) document could act as a portal leading directly to any other nominated segment of any other document anywhere in the world.
Secondly, the WWW server introduced an explicit address for subsets of information. Common and simple addressing methodology (Universal Resource Locater [URL] scheme) enabled users to uniquely identify AND access any piece of networked information anywhere in the document, or anywhere on one's computer, or - with the same ease - anywhere in the world.
Thirdly, the WWW provided a common, simple, effective and extendable language for document markup. The HTML language could be used in three different yet complementary ways: (a) as a tool for establishing the logical structure of a document (e.g. Introduction, Chapter 1, .... Conclusions, References); (b) as a tool for shaping the size, appearance and layout of lines of text on the page; (c) as a tool for building the internal (i.e. within the same document) and external (to a different document residing on the same or totally different server) hypertext connections.
The interlocking features of the hypertext, URLs and the markup language, have laid foundations for today's global, blindingly fast and infinitely complex cyberspace.
Moreover, the World Wide Web, like gopher before it, was also a powerful electronic glue which smoothly integrated not only most of the existing Internet tools (Email, Usenet, Telnet, Listservs FTP, IRC, and Gopher (but, surprisingly, not WAIS), but also the whole body of online information which could accessed by all those tools.
However, the revolutionary strengths of the Web have not been immediately obvious to the most of the Internet community, who initially regarded the WWW as a mere (and possibly clumsy) variant of the then popular Gopher technology. This situation has changed only with the introduction of PC-based Web browsers with user-friendly, graphics-interfaces.
These are: (a) an ability to handle multi-format, or multimedia (numbers, text, images, animations, video, sound) data within the framework of a single online document; (b) the ability to configure and modify the appearance of received information in a manner which best suits the preferences of the reader; (c) the ability to use the browser as a WYSIWYG ("what you see is what you get") tool for crafting and proofreading of the locally created HTML pages on a user's PC; (d) ability to acquire, save and display the full HTML source code for any and all of the published web documents.
The fact that one could simply copy and modify somebody else's promising HTML design, and incorporate it into one's own WWW-styled information system, and then to have the whole thing checked and double-checked through a Web-browser running in a local mode set-off a two-pronged explosion. Firstly, the volume of the Web-based information started growing exponentially, from a base of couple of tens of WWW pages in early 1991 (Ciolek 1998b) to approximately 420 mln pages in early 1999. Secondly, the great habitability (Gabriel 1996) of Web-based information resources meant that all of a sudden the Internet transformed itself from an elitist domain for sporadic email-mediated interpersonal contacts into a popular domain for continuous and large scale multimedia information storage and distribution.
The first software agents which started 'crawling' the web along the multitude of its hypertext paths, collecting data on the encountered web documents and reporting them back to a central database were introduced in 1995 (Selberg 1997; Lawrence and Giles 1998). In the late 1990s there were several hundreds of such systems, with the most prominent role being played by the simple (first-generation) search engines such Altavista, HotBot, Lycos, Infoseek, Excite and the NorthernLights, as well as the host of meta-databases living off the data collected by the first-generation systems (Ciolek 1999a).
The Web crawling databases of Internet links signal a number of new and important developments.
The first of them is the introduction of pro-active data acquisition and cataloguing. A typical Web-search engine, unlike a static Yahoo catalogue, does not wait to be briefed or updated by a cooperative user. Instead, it takes, so to speak 'the reins of the Internet into its hands' and acts as its own supplier and evaluator of data.
The second development is the emergence of very large, but, nevertheless speedy and robust information service. For instance, in May 1998, Altavista (Compaq 1998) kept track of some 140 mln web documents, or 30-50% of the entire cyberspace (Bharat and Broder 1998). Major search engines such as Altavista or Infoseek are capable of handling several millions of accesses and data-queries a day. The exact nature of queries (a keyword-, a string-, and a boolean-query) and the subsection of the cyberspace to be searched (data from a particular server, or data from a particular domain, or those in a particular language) can be precisely tailored to the needs of the user.
There is also a third development. The overall content of the located documents can be estimated on the basis of the meta-data generated by the search engine itself. The reliance on the good will and skill of the data-producers, which was characteristic of the FTP and WAIS approaches, is thus eliminated. Admittedly, the machine generated meta-data are at present incomplete and rudimentary. They consist of details of the document's language and size, its title, the first 30-50 words of its content, the URL (which is quite effective for establishing particulars of the e-publisher) as well as the document's relevancy rank relative to the employed search terminology.
The fourth feature offered by some major search engines (e.g. Altavista) is their ability to provide free and real-time translations of the texts from one natural language to another.
The fifth capability is the incipient online search for non-text information. For instance, Altavista can scout subsections of the Web for a piece of static graphics, or even (since September 1998 and the Clinton/Lewinsky affair being documented on the Internet) for a keyword-referenced section of a full length online video.
Finally, web-crawling search engines are very effective in popularising the idea of virtual web-pages. The new technology enables the information to be deposited on a hard disk in a simplified and generic form. This generic information is subsequently used for creation of more complex, one-time-only, on-the-fly documents. This means that detailed online information, together with all corresponding layouts and structures, is assembled each time afresh. It does not need to be treated as a snap-frozen whole any longer. On the contrary, it may consist of dozens of individually packaged and individually updated info-nuggets. These kernels of information are put together only on demand, so that they generate a synthetic document. This document is shipped according to requirements of a particular reader. Moreover, such information is highly configurable. It can be customised according to reader's identity, address, interests and other situational criteria.
Despite the ability to track and catalogue of up to several million documents a day, the traditional search engines had to, volens nolens, aim either at the completeness of their coverage, or the freshness of the gleaned data. Moreover, the sheer size of the Web-based information and the speed with which new materials were put into circulation made these databases increasingly unwieldy devices. In a situation where a single question such as "Asian Studies" can generate (in mid December 1998) up to 20,300 of possibly relevant answers, even the most comprehensive and most up to date register of links ceases to be a useful resource. Increasingly often online research would become a two-step procedure. Firstly, within a second or two the contacted database would dump hundreds of leads to materials containing the matching keywords onto the PC's screen. Secondly, an investigator would spend endless minutes trying to filter out the irrelevant information, zoom on and finally check out the most promising links. In short, the crawler's strategy of brute-force does not scale-up well in the world where the volume of available information grows at an exponential rate.
This embarrassment of riches has been skilfully avoided by the Google search engine. Instead of treating the web's cyberspace as a homogeneous mass of online pages, Google treats it as an archipelago of interlinked communities of documents. Each such group deals with a specific topic or a theme. Naturally, topical communities of pages are formed by the Internauts themselves, as they establish and cross-link their web documents. There are in existence many hundreds and thousands of such clusters. Some of them are distinct from each other, others may partially overlap. However, they all share a common pattern: a handful of high-quality documents are inevitably cross-referenced and linked-to by other sites. The high-quality sites are those which are regarded by the rest of the Web as the major clearing houses for a given subject matter.
A site which attracts a large number of hypertext links inevitably functions as an online authority which makes and unmakes the reputation of related sites. The most important resource for a given area of specialisation is the one which gains the greatest attention, in the form of web links, of other important (i.e. heavily linked-to) resources. The Google's algorithm for coping with the Web's size and complexity is, therefore, simple. First, the database actively collects online intelligence. Next, it subjects the data to an iterative mathematical analysis. This analysis quickly and almost always reliably uncovers which materials, according to their informed peers, are the best source on a given topic.
Google's arrival on the Internet scene is significant for two reasons. Firstly, it points out that while small volumes of information can be handled manually reasonably well, and the intermediate volumes need to go through an automated keyword search; the large volumes of data and meta-data need the assistance of intelligent and scalable search programs.
Secondly, the operation of the Google search engine suggests that even the uncoordinated, anarchic and free-wheeling environment of the cyberspace is in fact a self-organising environment. This unregulated and unmanageable system seems to be, surprisingly, hierarchically ordered on the basis of merit and hard work of its authors. However, an Internaut's greatest asset, her/his online presence and visibility as well as the corresponding stature and prestige, is earned slowly. The visibility and prestige arise only if a site wins the confidence and approval of its peers. If that happens, the quality of information, and the quality of its online organisation are - in the long term - recognisable (via ample hypertext linkage) even by the dumbest member of the milling online crowds.
Google analyses indicate that online links and cross-references act as an online currency with which debts of gratitude are settled. Moreover, these links act as electronic citations and recommendations. Therefore, one may conclude, that the whole structure appears to observe a simplified version of the peer review principle, the very one which forms the methodological foundations of modern science (Popper 1969, Tarnas 1996).
These principles, or archetypes, form three broad clusters.
Firstly, there are social archetypes. A tool for the work on the Internet, or a data set thrives on visibility. In the case of software, it is the size of the user base which matters. In the case of information, it is the number of permanent electronic links, or connections, which are made to such data. Therefore, in the light of our review of the Internet tools, it can be postulated that successful networked resources are those which are:
(2) Freely accessible and inexpensive to use. Profit, or cost recovery, if any, is to be made from provision of the supplementary tools, functionalities and services which arise in response to the mass demand for the free-of-charge primary ones;
(3) Have a clear electronic identity. They have short, simple and easy to remember (and if possible, eponymous) electronic address;
(4) Foster the establishment and growth of a community of users;
(5) Have visible and frequent bi-lateral contacts with that community. These contacts are open to the members of the public. However, all transactions are moderated;
(6) Have a clearly defined team of maintainers who receive, process and acknowledge inputs from users;
(7) Are easily copyable, replicable and modifiable by their users. Users are regarded as partners vitally interested in the resource's success.
(9) The client/server principle of division of labour;
(10) The served data is fully configurable, customisable at both the publishing and consumption ends. The user's view of the data can be made as simplistic and as detailed as required;
(11) The server supports the presence of virtual documents, created on-the-fly in response to a particular query.
(12) The client supports the use of additional tools for the purpose of local data manipulation and analysis;
(13) Robustness, sturdiness and reliability. If the product collapses, it does so gracefully, so that the afflicted user can recover from the disaster with minimum fuss and damage to his work;
(14) Endless improvement. The information resource can grow and evolve. All improvements can be carried out in an ad-hoc, incremental fashion;
(15) Meta-data are generated through an automatic process. Whenever possible meta-data are extracted from the resources themselves and from the patterns of its use. The manual input of metadata information should be possible but not indispensable;
(16) Authoritative and frequently updated catalogue of resources forms the hub for a an archipelago of distributed data sets;
(17) Scalability. The system is able to cope with its own growth and popularity;
(19) Each piece of information has a unique address. This address helps to identify it in the universe of other related and unrelated pieces of information, to repair it and to make a hypertext link to it;
(20) Each piece of information can be easily marked up to represent its internal structure as well as semantic content;
(21) The system handles all varieties of information (numbers, text, vectors, graphics, sound, moving images, virtual realities and simulations);
(22) All data sets have secure, backed-up and permanent online storage;
(23) All data sets are quickly and globally findable;
(24) All data sets can be accessed in a simple, intuitive and 'transparent' manner;
(25) All data sets can be transposed in real time, from one format to another. Texts can be automatically translated from one language to another;
The first one, which he calls "Worse is Better", is founded on the idea that the main objective of the developers' team is the early capture of the large user-base. For this to happen they have to move quickly. They have to deliver results of their work as early as possible; capture the attention as well as loyalty of the potential users; and thus pre-empt and block any possible competitors.
The second strategy is called "The Right Thing". This strategy is founded on the idea that the main objective of the developers' team is the construction of a superior product, something that then can be truly proud of. If the product is well designed and provides a good service, people sooner or later will learn about it, start using it and, eventually, start loving it too. For this to happen, the developers must design their product carefully; they should make it available to the online community only when all the work is fully completed, and release it to the accompaniment of testimonials from experts.
Products developed according to "Worse is Better" philosophy have, accordingly, the following characteristics (listed in order of importance):
In contrast, products informed by "The Right Thing" design philosophy display the following characteristics:
Here the key assumption is that the world is populated by knowledgeable, discriminating and rational people, who will not fail to notice the arrival of the truly good, nay, advanced product and who will, moreover, change the existing working routines and habits, abandon any previous investment (both monetary and emotional) in systems they depended on so far, and will switch to "The Right Thing" software or data (or metadata) format.
However, there is a problem with such patient, sensible, and "one-shot-only" philosophy. As the sad outcome of the competition between the superb Mac (Apple) and mediocre Windows (Microsoft) operating systems eloquently testify, "The Right Thing" strategy does not happen to work for the realm of standalone computers.
It will not work for the Internet, either. As our review of the networking tools has demonstrated, the Internet is not about superior technology. It's about superior relationships.
Copyright (c) 1999 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.
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