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Date: Wed, 14 Feb 1996 10:01:15 -0600
From: (Claire L. Benedikt)
Subject: WWW Design: Multi-Media Mediocrity

This article is from the e-journal NETFUTURE (no.6, Feb 96) hosted by O'Reilly and Associates. It was written by Stephen Talbott, author of "The Future Does Not Compute" and the editor of NETFUTURE. Everything in the issue is worth passing on, but this particular essay is directly usable for what we've been thinking about in class.

*** WWW or MMM? The Specter of Multi-media Mediocrity (71 lines)

According to T. Matthew Ciolek, "the unparalleled flowering and growth of the World Wide Web may ultimately prove to be a curse rather than a blessing." The problem, according to Ciolek, lies in the inherent, near-chaotic dynamics of the Web, combined with mismanagement. Examples of the latter include:

"[The] abysmal and wasteful replication of effort by different parties claiming to be the Internet's main site for a given field of specialization; lust and carelessness bordering on promiscuity with which maintainers of Web pages establish links to other related (and frequently unrelated) sites and pages; and labyrinthine circularity of links, forcing readers to jump for minutes on end from site to site in search of a server that publishes its own data instead of pointing to other catalogs."

Ciolek--who offers these observations in the IEEE's *Computer*, vol. 29, no. 1 (January, 1996)--speaks with some authority. He is the architect and administrator of the world's oldest and largest social science and humanities FTP site (, and also runs a massive web site.

It is no accident, Ciolek tells us, that a "self-referential" loop is formed in an environment that has paid little heed to questions of content, meaning, or value. "Good data is not readily forthcoming, hence the preoccupation with hypertext and multimedia techniques, and the `cool' appearance of pages. This motivates the WWW culture to revolve around the bigger and better `containers' for information and not around the information itself."

As a result, the information revolution of 1995 "proved to be mainly a tide of colorful snippets, advertising leaflets, cybermalls, tele-cafes, personal home pages, tedious corporate mission statements, and sporadic pages of unattributed and unreferenced data culled from paper sources. Whether this flood of cyber junk will ever be halted remains to be seen."

Check out for the full article.

All this has bearing on the question of my own responsibility as editor of this newsletter, and on yours as contributors. Personally, I find the fragmentation of the Net extremely oppressive, and unhealthy for the discipline of my own thought processes. Everywhere you go you find almost nothing but those snippets Ciolek referred to--in "discussion" groups as much as in hypertext Web sites. The fragments come in a relentless stream, jarringly unrelated, with almost no context (except for those little

> inserted clips > from other messages--yet more fragments, requiring a repeated shift > between half-known contexts).

Even when full content is given in one place, the ubiquitous links present a constant temptation to abandon the current activity for whatever surprise lies on the far side of the click. And if there are no links, but just a mass of text--well, who among us will any longer have patience with it? To sink oneself deeply into a text, reflecting upon it and perhaps coming back to it over a series of days or weeks--that is an occupation few of us are likely to cultivate in the era of the Web.

You will recall that NF-4 contained an addition to the NETFUTURE guidelines. The gist of it was that we should make our contributions to the newsletter self-contained, fully coherent, integral. What I had in mind was precisely the need for NETFUTURE to become an oasis of nonfragmentation. There are, of course, many other issues to keep in mind, and we certainly don't have the guidelines right yet, but I'm hoping we can take their continued evolution in hand as a matter of shared responsibility.

The flood of careless, unconsidered, cheap words is the greatest enemy of the profound word.

Claire Lisette Benedikt

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