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

February 22, 2000*: Homeless in Cyberspace
It used to be that the basic element of internet usage was the homepage. To put things quite simply, without a homepage you were a nobody. An examination of this phenomenon was one of the first topics the Boidem examined. And of course it wasn't only me who did the examining. The literature on homepages and their use is immense.

I don't want to identify myself as a trends analyst, but I think I've begun to identify a new trend - away from the homepage as the identity defining element that it was once considered to be.

There really isn't much to do with a homepage other than to open it by yourself and gaze at it as though at a mirror, and hope that perhaps someone else is going to take a look and move your counter one more step toward stardom. A homepage may be an identity, but it doesn't really have much use. Today it seems that what's becoming more and more popular (and, in a logical fashion, more and more possible) is actually making use of the various tools that exist on the web. Home is, after all, not only the place that you return to at the end of the day. For many people it has also become a place where you accomplish many of your tasks. Once again, a home page isn't the place to do much other than to make known your opinions, report on your activities, list the books you've read or the pages you've visited, and more than offering us an opportunity to accomplish tasks, maintaining a home page (not to mention an entire site) probably hinders the accomplishment of more tasks than it facilitates.

But if, for convincing and legitimate reasons, the home page no longer seems to have the magnetic attraction it once did to the individual web surfer, a new conception of the web as a natural environment for work is growing into a convincing replacement.

Perhaps it's not really such a new thing. At least three years ago, if not earlier, it was possible to "make your own" newspaper, which was essentially a series of links to the columns and issues that most interested you from a wide range of possible newspapers. Though Yahoo! wasn't the first with this service, it because among the best known. It seems to me that back then few people saw this as a nascent example of the web as work-space. After all, all we really had here was a collection of links. But they were "my" links, and if I chose them carefully and made that page my opening browser page, I would always be reminded of the basic tasks I wanted to accomplish while I was online. I don't have any statistics on the success of this sort of service. I know that I enjoyed the service at Crayon for a number of weeks, but in the end moved on to something else. I think that most of us still hadn't internalized the possibilities of the web as work-space, and thus didn't see the value in a page such as this.

Personal calendars on the web were also a relatively early service. I think that this sort of service first became available on web-based e-mail sites, but they have bloomed into an independent service. The logic of web-based calendars is, to my mind, a little bit shaky. Most of the successful web services available grow out of the (continually more and more accurate) assumption that many people who access the web do so from more than one computer. That being the case, making a service available via the web, and not on the desktop of only one computer, makes a great deal of sense. But most people that I know keep their personal calendars in hand-written, non-bit, form. They don't use the numerous calendar assistants that for years already have been available for the individual PC and thus don't really feel the need for a web calendar.

But for those of us who find ourselves in front of at least two or three different computers throughout the week, certain services can be incredibly useful. At least two sites that I'm familiar with permit us to post our bookmarks straight to a personalized web page. This rather simple service seems to have become quite popular, and that suggests that it is filling an actual need. At first it's a bit confusing, or more precisely, it's difficult to decide where to place a bookmark, and I've found myself using both options: posting it to my Backflip page, but also marking it on my PC. Thus in the first stages of the use of a tool such as this we're probably doing double the work for about half the outcome. But I suppose that over time we'll discover whether or not we really make use of what it offers, and when we do that we'll be able to decide whether to stop bookmarking or to forego the new tool.

And perhaps we'll discover previously unnoticed added value. Both Backflip and Blink, for instance, permit us to create public folders. This is a logical, though not necessarily obvious, leap in the right direction. The idea is fairly simple. Instead of only posting your own bookmarks to an easily accessible web page (thus making your own bookmarks available to you from whatever connected computer you happen to be in front of) you can invite friends to make use of the same folder. In this way we create a public tool - one that is not only accessible from multiple locations, but from multiple users as well. It's a rather simple leap, but one that suggests a rethinking of how we use the web. There's an interesting e-mail connection here as well. How do we know that someone has added to our online folder? When that happens, a message, sent via e-mail of course, goes out to all the subscribed users of the folder, and they can then view the new bookmark if they choose to do so.

Are there more possibilities in this basic direction? I like to think so. For a number of years I've tried to teach newbies to the web the basics of what I suppose should be called "digital thinking". I've continually suggested that they learn to work on the web with their word processor continually open as well. Whenever they come across a tidbit of information they'd like to save, I try to convince them to copy it and paste it into an open document, or to jot down their thoughts there. Frankly, I think I do a good job of teaching, but I've yet to see anyone really learn this sort of digital thinking behavior. But maybe we can go beyond this. Why shouldn't each web site, for instance, offer a Notes mode. When I click on the Notes button a mini-word processor would pop up which would permit me to jot down my thoughts on the particular page I'm visiting, while linking them to the place of my choosing on that page. Upon leaving the site in question one of a number of possibilities could take place: My notes could be forwarded to me via e-mail, a URL with a direct link to my notes could be forwarded to me via e-mail, or more simply, a link to the notes could be automatically placed in a Notes folder on my hard disk or on a pre-determined web page. Other people's notes could also be made available so that I could view their thinking as well.

And of course as much as this may seem to be science fiction, a service which almost does all of this is already available. UTOK isn't an integral part of each site that we visit. Instead it's a go-between, a mediator between a site and the viewer. But essentially it permits us to jot down notes (related, or unrelated, to the web page in question, as the case may be) and to earmark them as personal or for a group as we choose. And it works.

What works most, however, is the web, and our growing perception of it as a work-area. One of the most positive aspects of a home is the fact that we can always remember that it's there. The knowledge that it's there radiates a sense of security even when we're far away. In an earlier generation of internet use we were constantlyhomesteading, staking out our claim to a small piece of the cyberspace frontier. Perhaps it's a sign of maturity that the new web-based tools that have sprung up no longer ground us in our home space, but instead allow us to venture outside of the home, as they permit us to feel ever more comfortable in distant settings. Today we can remove our hats on a wide array of sites, and wherever I lay my hat, that's my home (& a sound snippet).

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

Jay Hurvitz

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