Personal Computers

Reflections on the Internet

by Carter B. Horsley

The Internet has dramatically changed lives: people who rarely if ever wrote letters, now use E-Mail often; people who never dreamt of being publishers have their own websites; artists now have new means of communication; researchers now have vast new resources; consumers can check out other consumers' experience with products in usergroups; junk mailers have cut their costs dramatically; advertisers have new venues; cheaper long-distance telephone calls are possible; television's cultural dominance is being eroded; educational possibilities are expanding.

Despite such startling achievements in just the past couple of years, the Internet's growth and potential may not match all the hype surrounding it, at least in the short term.  Electronic commerce over the internet is still in its infancy and concerns over security still inhibit many from making transactions.  Advertisers have been slow to embrace all but the most heavily trafficked sites with rare exceptions, perhaps because of continuing debates over methodology of counting "hits" and "visits" and "click-throughs" and a widespread antipathy of surfers to visual clutter and time-consuming downloads.  After sensational growth, the Internet community may be reaching a plateau, at least in the United States, reflecting possibly the sad fact that only a small fraction of the general population is "computer literate" enough and intellectually interested in its offerings.

Such growing pains, of course, are understandable and there is little doubt among the more sophisticated observers that the Internet will definitely continue to grow and become more and more important and that advertisers will come to realize that sites of good content will provide beneficial venues for them.

The following are the observations of a 57-year-old, white, male, New York-born webmeister:

The  major search engines, such as Yahoo, Alta Vista, Excite, HotBot, Infoseek and Lycos, are woefully behind in their cataloging of the Internet and nowhere near being comprehensive with the result that most power users must search through several search engines and must also seek out individual sites with good listings in specific fields.  Given the fantastic size and growth of the Internet, this is not so much a criticism as a fact of life.

Despite the dominance of the World Wide Web on the Internet, at least in terms of media coverage, the usergroups are a wonderful source of information for many users, particularly for new products, many of which are introduced with quite horrific bugs, or problems that are not always picked up in the trade press.  The usergroups also are often an excellent source of technical advice and help and for sales of used equipment.  The usergroups, however, often are cluttered with junk and need to be further refined to narrow their focus.  More usergroups need to be created on the Usernet part of the Internet.  

A February 16, 1988 article in The New York Times by Saul Hansell on "America OnLine's Triumvirate in Cyberspace" indicated, surprisingly, that 40 percent of the service's consumers' time spent on line was on "AOL Content," 20 percent in its "chat rooms," 23 percent on E-Mail and only 17 percent on the World Wide Web.  Furthermore, it indicated that as of January, 1988, the average AOL customer was only spending 23 hours a month online.

I am an AOL customer and I spent a great deal more time, perhaps 150 hours a month, on line.  I find that much of its own content is not at all bad, but spend very little time on it, a reflection perhaps of my own interests and the fact that much of its content is available in some form on the World Wide Web.  I indulged in the "chat rooms" initially, but fairly quickly decided I did not have enough time for them.  The concept and the implementation are excellent, but the content tended to be pretty puerile, silly and adolescent.  Nevertheless, I did get hooked for a bit as I discovered one "room" that was hilarious and brilliant and far above my meager intellectual capabilities and I also discovered two very, very "chatmates" and for several months we would "meet" in a "private room" we easily arranged every Friday at 1AM for about two hours of delicious repartee, or should I type, repartype.  What is extraordinary about the Internet is its ability to bring together people of similar and often esoteric interests and such "penpalmanship" may well be its greatest contribution to world civilization. My favorite instrument, example, is the Rhodes Chroma, a polyphonic analog/digital electronic music instrument (synthesizer) introduced in 1982 and I never found another user in New York for 15 years after I bought but communicated with about 20  across the country and in Europe in my first year on the Internet!

Next to Microsoft, AOL has certainly been the best American company of the last couple of decades even though both have had their shares of bad marketing decisions that they have not hesitated too long to admit to and redress.  They have proven themselves to be alert and adaptable and intelligent in the face of amazing fast technological changes.

The same Feb. 16, 1998 issue of The New York Times had an article by Laurie J. Flynn, "Push, the Hot Technology of  '97, Gets a Cold Shoulder in '98," that suggested that the concept of customized delivery of content from the Internet to the user was not living up to its hype.  One of the premises of that concept was that the proliferation of content on the Internet was too overwhelming for most users and that a service could find the needed information and also filter out the junk.  Artificial intelligence being what it is at the moment, the problem is that even if the finder worked well it returns too much material and that the filter needs a great deal of serendipity to not filter some of the non-junk.  The article pointed out that many of the leading "push" companies were having, or foreseeing, problems although some, like Pointcast, were still viable.  

It is way too early to write the obituary on "push" technology.  Indeed, its potential, like much on the Internet, is enormous.

There is a lot of pornography on the Internet, but there is a lot openly displayed on newstands as well.  There is too much junk mail on the Internet, but there is a lot in my mailbox as well.  There are a lot of frivolous and not very valuable websites on the Internet, but there are a lot of trashy novels and films and the like.  

Despite the frustrations of slow downloads, vacant sites, and worthless sites, I continue to be astounded at the wonderful information that is available on the Internet and the marvelous new opportunities and surprises it affords to everyone for learning, communicating and being entertained.  It is democracy at its best.

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