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

May 24, 1999*: Only a pawn in their game

What is the purpose of the internet? I may be reflecting only my own small corner of internet involvement, but I tend to think that were someone to ask that question of the internet community of about three years ago, the answer would be something along the lines of "to facilitate easy access to immense quantities of information and to allow interaction between users. Sure, that's an idealized statement of purpose, but I tend to think that it fairly accurately reflects the ethos of a time long gone.

And today? I doubt that few would argue: the purpose of the internet is to make money.

Internet related news invariably deals with company mergers or buy-outs, with stock prices and with market value. New products are always hitting the market, and many of these are great tools for enhancing the "internet experience" (whatever that is). On the whole they seem to be speed enhancers and compression tools. But it's hard to remember when the last time a true improvement on either search engines or indexing systems was announced. Quite the opposite. Since the portalization of sites that were once the leading search tools, it seems as though the search capabilities of these tools have waned, rather than improved.

Precisely what information people search for on the internet is still somewhat unclear. Sex still seems to be the favorite word typed into search engines, though my guess is that the intention here is finding photographs. And since most probably which photograph gets found isn't of particular significance, I suppose that improvements in search tools aren't exactly called for on this count. It's very easy to find CPR emergency information, though I admit that it's hard to envision someone logging on to the internet to find this information.

So instead of improving search engines and making indexes more intuitive, the internet biggies are giving us more of the same. Though that's an understatement when it comes to AltaVista's short-lived venture into the realm of advertising = information.

There was a time not too long ago, when if you clicked over to Yahoo! your computer screen would fill up with two columns of blue links that represented a very useful catalog. Those two blue columns are still there, but you have to be an experienced user in order to find them. The main Yahoo! page is cluttered with so much "information" that it's hard to find the real meat and potatoes. It's easy to get the feeling that the index is only a minor part of the Yahoo! enterprise, and from experience I can testify that inexperienced users can't tell the trees for the forest.

Today, if you're trying to find information on a particular subject and you decide to click over to the Yahoo! catalog in order to help you find it, you'll find links to a plethora of items: news, weather, sports, stock prices, web-based mail, chat, online auctions, and lots more. I'm not claiming that these "services" aren't information, nor that they don't have a place in what's developing into an online life-style. But I will claim that they're not what I need when I want to find the specific information I want to find. What's more, apparently in order not to help the competition, meaningful sites that should be in the Yahoo! catalog aren't listed. Comparing the Yahoo! site of today with that of a couple of years ago shows how the site has changed and grown, but it also shows that the original objective toward which Yahoo! was established has at the best undergone only minimal improvements.

The same, alas, must also be said about AltaVista. The main Search window of AltaVista is still the center of the main AltaVista page, but instead of standing alone, as it did in the past, it now competes with numerous other services (not necessarily as questionable as the aforementioned advertising scheme). (Those interested can compare AltaVista then and now as well.) True, improvements have been made in how the search engine works. Some of these are even very useful. But all too often the results we get are far from satisfying, no matter how well we construct our search requests. I for one would be much more satisfied if, instead of finding a link to "books about" what my search request was at that only tells me that no books are available on the subject, I'd find link to the information I requested that I know is out there.

But what's all this complaining about how inadequate internet search tools are have to do with being only a pawn in their game? The answer is actually rather simple. Those of us who see the purpose of the internet as being something like a vast public library which gives us access to the information which is posted to it aren't having our needs met. Instead, the internet giants pay lip service to us as "netizens", telling us what a special breed of people we are, how our lives are easier through our use of the web, and who knows what else. What they want, however, has very little to do with our needs as information consumers, as seekers of knowledge. What they want is for us to spend time at their sites and to get richer as a result of that. New needs are continually being defined for us, while our real information needs fall more and more into neglect. Some of us may think that we benefit from all the new services we've been offered, but ultimately the losers are those of us who still believe that the internet can offer real and useful information to everyone who seeks it.

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

Jay Hurvitz

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