From the Boidem - 
an occasional column on computers and information technologies in everyday life

February 28, 2008*: Inventing wheels in cyberspace

With billions of pages, and, I guess, hundreds of millions of web sites, it's hard not to develop a "been there, done that" feeling toward much of the internet. If we encounter a tool that we're convinced is very useful, chances are good we'll soon find two or three others that do pretty much the same thing. If we find a web site that performs the much-needed function of concentrating information on a particular topic, there's probably another, similar, site that does pretty much the same thing that we simply haven't yet stumbled upon. Though blogs are supposed to reflect a personal voice, a surprisingly large number of them seem to be almost interchangeable - one person's confessions seem depressingly like those of someone on the other side of the continent. If, on the one hand, the internet is forever amazing us with its ability to prove Koheleth wrong, on the other, we seem to be continually realizing that by the time we actually encounter something new, it won't be one thing, but instead, many.

That being the case, and considering that preparing material for posting to the web can be a time-consuming task, it would seem advisable for us to check out the territory before we post anything new - in order to make sure that our contribution is actually going to fill a still empty niche before devoting the effort necessary to filling it. This is what (in a different context) Richard Nantel was suggesting when, at the beginning of this year, he resolved not to waste time preparing tutorials for procedures that are already available on the web. As Nantel noted:

In an era where answers are ubiquitous, being action-oriented can be a waste of time.
Nantel's reminder to himself rang true. And yet, even as I found myself nodding my head up and down in agreement with his level-headed, and time saving, approach, that same head seemed also to be shaking from side to side. I agreed ... but. The web is, no doubt, overflowing with materials amazingly similar to other materials. There are so many of these that often "unnecessary" seems an almost overly polite way of describing them. But should that be a reason for someone to not post his or her own personal take on something? There's certainly more than enough space available to house yet another tutorial, not to mention many more Mentos-in-cola-bottles videos. There's no law that sets a limit on how many of these can, or should, be posted. The tension between the feeling that so much of what's there is unnecessary, and the feeling that everyone should be able to post their own, even slightly different, take on things is a function of contradictory perceptions of why we want/need the web.

Though a decade ago many of us might have thought that the web should function as a vast online library that offered us access to whatever we might need, it was also clear, even then, that no librarian was stationed at the entrance with the job of determining what was still lacking, and thus needed, and what was redundant and was better left out. The approach that claims that we're not in need of additional tutorials assumes that the web is a repository for finished products, when, actually, a better description would be that it's simply an ongoing work in progress. A polished product is the result of a guiding hand, while a work in progress doesn't impose order, doesn't pronounce on what's needed and what isn't. It's simply an accumulation.

And of course I repeat myself here. One of the problems with this particular column is that to a certain extent it's a rehashing. But why shouldn't it be? After all, the issue I'm trying to examine is the desirability, or lack of desirability, of so much repetition on the web. And as is often the case, the purpose of this particular rehashing isn't simply to post a column but to clarify my thoughts, to make sense to myself. It's yet another example of thinking onto the page, and as such it celebrates the web as a repository of clutter. Others can, and often do, use the web to establish order. I prefer, this time at least, to perhaps achieve some degree of clarity by sidestepping order. Perhaps it's a case of repetition generating contradiction.

Instead of writing this particular column, it might have been easier for me to link to a previous one. If I'm repeating myself, then why not quote myself, and save myself the effort? But that would be true only if I had a distinct "point" that begged to be made. Instead, it's the details, the specifics, that justify my writing. And what's true for repeating myself, should also be true about repeating others. If someone, somewhere, has already made the point we want to make, is there any value in our making the effort to make that same point again by ourselves? Should we require ourselves to run some sort of cost-efficiency test that would measure the relative investment needed in order to find something that already exists that's suitable to our needs and compare that to the time needed to prepare something by ourselves?

When we pass information on to others, we make sense of it to ourselves. That, and the fact that when we prepare something we have a picture in our minds of the people toward whom it's directed, are for me the most convincing reasons for making the effort to create something new rather than find something ready-made. Chances are good that we're going to have to invest more time and effort into preparing something from scratch, than we would if we simply searched for something that's already available, but there's a much greater probability that what we've prepared is actually going to fit a clear and well-defined need. In traditional page-rank fashion, the tutorials that rise to the top of a list of search results stand a good chance of also being the best, but "best" in this case can too often be a euphemism for "generic". They may do a good job of answering somebody's need, but not the need of the specific individuals whom we want to help.

One of the most appealing qualities of the web is the fact that it's both a mass and a personal medium. Perhaps paradoxically, the two complement and enrich each other. Redundancy doesn't only generate quantity - it also creates the basis upon which individual differences can come to the fore. We may feel that we're inundated with the superfluous, but within that mass the distinct and the personal also reside. It's often the only-slightly-different iterations of materials that we encounter that make the web the fascinating place that it is. If we're looking for efficiency it might make sense to get an immense broom and sweep out much of what's presently cluttering the web. But cluttered can often be more desirable than efficient. We no longer live in an age of craftsmanship - "made-to-order" no longer necessarily carries connotations of quality. Today, when anybody and everybody can try their hand at preparing something, quality, more often than not, gets pushed aside by amateurishness. We realize that perhaps everybody can, but that not everybody should. And yet, it's the idiosyncratic qualities of the distinct, of the personalized, of the material that's prepared with a well-defined audience in mind that grab our interest. Nantel is no doubt right that with so much already available to us, it makes sense to make use of what others have prepared. Doing this saves both time and effort, and probably also brings us a product of higher quality than what we might be able to prepare by ourselves. But it also brings about a loss of voice which is at the essence of the web.

That's it for this edition. Reactions and suggestions can be sent to:

Jay Hurvitz

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