Computer-Mediated Communication Magazine / Volume 1, Number 8 / November 1, 1994 / Page 7


Challenges for a Webbed Society

by John December (john@december.com)

[This article is a chapter in the book, The World Wide Web Unleashed (Sams Publishing, 1994).]

There are subtle, complex changes taking place in human communication, thought, and relationships within online communication and information communities. The Web is part of these changes, enabling new forms of communication, information delivery, and fostering new associations among people. One challenge for our society is to grapple with the questions raised by these changes. How might our culture, society, and communication patterns change as a result of widespread Web use?

In this chapter, I approach these questions by focusing on specific ways the Web alters communication, thought, and society, and on what issues arise from such changes. For people involved in the task of installing Web servers and for users trying to make sense of browsers and HTML, the Web may seem to consist only of a set of technical details, protocols, and network connections. However, communication on the Web, like human communication over computer networks for the past several decades, displays characteristically human qualities, including emotional, chaotic, surprising, and at times passionate or mundane exchanges. The Web illustrates how the inevitable pull of human beings toward each other in any communication system alters relationships, the way people think, and what they expect from communication.

The Scope and Extent of Web Transformations

Although the Web has changed the face of networked information dissemination dramatically over the past years, it is a much larger question whether the Web has or will ever change our society and culture significantly. The use of any communication technology evolves in the context of broader societal change, in ways so subtle that we may never be able to detect them.

Predictions

Many inventions in human history were thought to be the ultimate catalysts for sweeping social change: The telegraph would eliminate wars, the telephone and television would bring democracy and education to the people, and computer-mediated communication would transform society as Hiltz and Turoff envisioned in The Network Nation: Human Communication via Computer.

So the idea that the Web is the technology that will transform our culture must be tempered by noting the hollow predictions about earlier technologies. Humans often utilize technology in far too complex and quirky ways for neat predictions to come true. While not always far-reaching in their effects on society, however, technologies have gradually and subtly changed communication patterns, relationships, and expectations. With 24-hour cable news, we expect to see a dramatic or important event as it happens. With global telecommunications, we expect to reach nearly anyone worldwide by telephone. Participants in global computer-mediated communication forums such as Usenet expect to communicate with other people interested in very specialized discussion topics. Like Marshall McLuhan's vision of a global village, the electronic landscape today binds us together with connectivity we expect to access instantly.


The Web fulfills several "niches" within the communications landscape like few technologies before it and offers a new set of expectations about information that break the traditions of linear print.

So while the Web may fail to live up to any prediction that it will radically alter our lives immediately, its qualities as a communication technology may have some effect on future expectations and communication patterns. Also, the Web already offers unique features--interactivity and one-to-many broadcasting capabilities--that set it apart from previous communication media. The Web fulfills several "niches" within the communications landscape like few technologies before it and offers a new set of expectations about information that break the traditions of linear print.

The Web Fulfills a Dream and a "Gap"

Vannevar Bush, in a landmark article called "As We May Think" in the July 1945 issue of The Atlantic Monthly, described his vision of a device for helping the human mind cope with information. Bush observed that previous inventions expanded human abilities to deal with the physical world, but not floods of information and knowledge. Observing that the human mind works by association through "some intricate web of trails carried by the cells of the brain," Bush proposed a device he called a "memex" which could augment the human mind through "associative indexing." Bush's vision was for a system of information which could link documents in "trails" that could be saved and shared with others.

The Web fulfills Bush's dream of a memex in many respects. While a "universe" of knowledge is still evolving on the Web, the hypertext "trails" on Web pages are associative indexes that people save and share. The Web can link information in useful ways, giving rise to new insights--a transformation of information to knowledge that Bush described in terms of applications in law, medicine, chemistry, and history. An HTML version of Bush's article , developed by Denys Duchier, contains links to several applications that fulfill Bush's predictions.

The Web offers other correspondences to many features of Bush's memex. There are "trails" within the subject trees of information on the Web that connect extremely useful documents and resources. Web browser hotlists serve as "trails," where people record their stops of interest along paths through the Web. As Bush predicted for his memex, there are many people on the Web today "who find delight in the task of establishing useful trails through the enormous mass of the common record." The Web's basic structure rests on Bush's principle of associative indexing, and the flourishing of information on the Web in the last few years demonstrates its potential as a "universe of documents."

In addition to fulfilling many needs identified by Bush for human intellectual activity, the Web also fills a "media gap" identified by Tetsuro Tomita. In his essay, "The New Electronic Media and Their Place in the Information Market of the Future," (in Newspapers and Democracy: International Essays on a Changing Medium, A. Smith, editor. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1980), Tomita observed a pattern in the way traditional communications methods were used to reach audiences. Methods such as letters, telegrams, and conversation reach a very small audience in amounts of time ranging from immediate (telephone) to several days (a letter). Mass media such as radio and television, newspapers, books and movies reach very large audiences in times ranging from immediate (radio, television) to weeks (magazines) to months (books). But the middle range--audiences of 10 to 10,000 people reached within times ranging from immediate to a day--is a gap filled by few traditional media. This is too small an audience for mass media and too large an audience for personally controlled (traditional) media. Yet this is the audience and time delay gap that many forms of computer-mediated communication fill, including the Web.

The Web offers immediate delivery of information to specialized audiences. There are many examples of webs that draw audiences in the range of Tomita's media gap--in fact, these audiences are what the Net seems to support in abundance. Specialized groups in Usenet and specialized webs do not necessarily appeal to massive audiences (in the 100,000 to millions range), but to quirky, specialized groups of hundreds or several thousand people. Before the invention of computer networks, an individual could not easily seek out several hundred others interested in a specialized hobby or area of interest, when those people were spread worldwide. No traditional media offered a personally available means to accomplish this. But the Web does fill this "media gap," and this feature is certainly a contributor to the Web's popularity and growth.

Changes in Communication Characteristics

As part of fulfilling the needs identified by Bush for a system of associative thought and by Tomita for reaching specialized audiences in the media gap, the Web alters many characteristics of communication:
  1. Time and space constraints. Like many forms of computer-mediated communication (CMC), the Web provides a way for users to create communication artifacts that can be accessed by anyone at any time. The benefits of this asynchronous communication are:

  2. Power and communication control. The power of the press lies with those who own a press. On the Web, everyone with the necessary skills owns a press. Dissemination of ideas on a mass and medium scale is no longer filtered through organizations and institutions but can come directly from individuals. Net and Web-based magazines (zines) can flourish rapidly or die quickly based on the ambition or interest of their publishers. Even without the label "zine," all web pages serve as "publications" that anyone can access. On the surface, this is a dramatic shift from institutions as holders of the publishing key. However, the cacophony of voices on the Net generates "noise," causing users to seek guidance according to signposts--institutionally sponsored or established commercial publishers, or web pages that have grown reputations for various purposes. The Web can shatter institutional control over knowledge (which relies on geographic proximity of members, and boundaries on knowledge dissemination) and give control to individuals and ad hoc, online groups.

  3. Expressive possibilities. The Web offers expressive possibilities that no other information space has provided before. The Web's text is unbounded--not constrained to a single artifact or work--but can include links deep into other works by other authors. Web text thus can be never-ending, finding continuing associations among texts through hypertext links.

  4. Relationships among people and information. Paper texts reference each other--in fact, this is the basis for scholarly works and the "great conversation" of literature. However, the association on paper is referential (in the form of a citation, excerpt, or summary of the other work) rather than associative (a live "link" directly to the other work). Moreover, a paper reference is bounded (cast in the medium and space of the referring text) rather than unbounded (changing the user's focus of attention entirely into the space of the referred text via a hypertext link).

    Associative linking fosters relationships among people in addition to relationships among information. Experts in a particular field create pools of knowledge on their home page. When other people link into these pages, cliques of experts form. These cliques might be based on information or on hobbies, interests, culture, or political leanings. The result is that "electronic tribes" can form that meld cooperatively linked people in associations that could not be possible any other way. For example, related information from a subject page in CERN's Virtual Library reveal collections of experts, institutions, and organizations all interested in a particular subject or topic.

    Through these links, the Web reveals relationships among information and people. Unlike the linearism of text that integrates ideas in a single form, the Web relies on creating linked relationships among disparate pieces of information to build meaning. Unlike the ephemeral, synchronous communication spaces of Internet Relay Chat and MU*s, where text-based conversation flows and is usually never recorded, Web linking reveals relationships--and these links form a record of information relationships.

Issues and Challenges

As the Web alters communication and information patterns, the resulting change raises issues our society must face for individual, group, and societal responsibility. Moral and legal issues will arise in the areas of individual behavior, societal responsibility for issues of access and information literacy, and the new relationships, communication, and thought patterns the Web fosters.

Individual Behavior: Packet Ethics

The current Internet/Web relies on an open-access model: anyone can follow a public link in a web page and call up a resource, whether it is a 300-byte HTML file or a 1.8 Megabyte MPEG movie. While the relatively limited number of Web users today and adequate network bandwidth make this model feasible, its future is threatened if there are far more Web users without a proportional increase in bandwidth. Essentially, the problem relates to the "tragedy of the commons" situation: a commonly held resource (network bandwidth), when made freely available to all, sometimes results in users abusing the resource.

This issue is not yet a serious problem on the Web for several reasons. First, unlike a grazing commons for livestock, network bandwith is not consumed permanently, but only temporarily occupied. Second, advances in network technology have made more bandwidth available, and the bandwidth that exists is not needed all the time. Although popular Web servers are noted for their degraded performance during busy times, it is unlikely that all potential Web users will try access to any given Web server at the same time. In fact, the telephone system depends on this same principle: If everyone with a phone tried to make a call simultaneously, there would be "phone jams."

So while the aggregate behavior of users dispersed across a network often might not cause serious bandwidth problems today, widespread patterns of bandwidth-intensive individual behavior, in extreme cases, can. What about the user who heavily accesses graphics or movies on the Web? While there may be no laws to stop this user, an agreement between the user and the Internet service provider might restrict such activity. If the user violated this agreement, he or she could loose the account. However, on a much larger scale, enforcement and the definition of what is "overuse" is harder to pin down. Our society's emerging sense of "etiquette" has only begun to address this and other issues about behavior in a public network space. While Arlene H. Rinaldi's excellent Net Etiquette guide touches on many practical issues of personal behavior, larger questions remain that are not easily resolved or codified. For example, what about individuals who provide information that may be:

Court cases may test these issues and prompt legislation. However, our laws and customs today aren't prepared to answer the issues these situations raise.

Societal Responsibility: Access Issues

If the Web becomes a major form of communication for government, commerce, and education, how can we assure that everyone has access to it? Access is more than just physical--it means not only having the ability to use the hardware and software to access the Web, but having the knowledge (information literacy) to make use of the content. Today, we struggle to teach print literacy to people. What will the world be like when information literacy skills are needed in addition? Experts in communication today would be hard-pressed to even define Web information literacy, much less be prepared to create curriculum for a variety of educational contexts. At the same time, Web communication is here, and those who are skilled can take advantage of it.


Can a society justify creating an elite information infrastructure, one that enriches only the privileged with the resources, skills, and knowledge to use it?

Moreover, many initiatives for providing skills in networked communication focus only on physical access to networks and tools. Skilled people to set up the equipment and train people in Web-based communication is another, perhaps scarcer, resource. Networked communication today requires a fairly specialized set of skills. While the Web masks the details of some communication activities (like FTP commands or the details of a telnet connection), it raises still more issues (for example, the fine points of HTML page design, how to create a working HTML Form).

How will our society deal with a form of communication that requires such specialized knowledge on relatively expensive equipment? The U.S. Library of Congress has a Web server but whom does it serve? Can a society justify creating an elite information infrastructure, one that enriches only the privileged with the resources, skills, and knowledge to use it?

Human Relationships: Balancing Online and Offline

If modern civilization obliterates safe public spaces for people to meet and freely interchange ideas, how will our society deal with such spaces formed only online? Will psychological dependence on networked communication create imbalances in offline relationships? Research in computer-mediated communication has not answered these questions with regard to Web-based communication, and answers won't necessarily come soon or easily (For example, the debate about television's impact on our society continues).

If network activity becomes a major form of human communication, people may associate more freely online because they are not slowed by geographical or temporal limits. How will our institutions (government, education, religious) change to accommodate these new associations? Institutions often act as a force to help people achieve a group identity, but if people can create their own group identity in the form of network-based alliances, how will this change offline institutions? What will happen to those institutions whose power and influence are usurped by groups performing the same function online?

Ultimately, the communication possibilities offered by the Web can't help but change human relationships. People no longer might identify with a physical neighborhood for companionship or advice; they can turn to a cyberspace neighborhood, based on mutual interests and association, as a source for support and information. (This has already happened for many people in many online communities). Will this continue to erode physical public space? In the long term, the relationships the Web fosters will certainly continue to raise more questions as well as open up new ways for people to associate.

Summary

Like failed urban planning and architecture schemes, technology developed to transform society often falls flat when given over to people to use. The Web, a technological invention that has spread through voluntary use, perhaps has an advantage over such inventions. Despite the rapid growth of Web traffic and activity, however, the significance of the impact of the Web on our society remains unknown. There are several characteristics of the Web that may indicate its power to change our lives. The Web very closely fits Vannevar Bush's description of a tool essential for extending human thought. Similarly, the Web fits very well into Tetsuro Tomita's "media gap" of audiences and time constraints that traditional media do not reach. As a means of communication, the Web transcends time and space constraints, alters power and control, makes possible new expressive styles, and creates new relationships among people and information. Our society is just beginning to face issues that may have more serious impacts if Web use becomes more widespread. Individual and societal responsibilities for Web use, access, and training have not been defined, and the way Web-based communication alters human relationships has not yet been examined in detail. In the long term, human interaction online can't be planned or predicated any more than the growth of vibrant, exciting cities. Our society is only beginning to identify the changes the Web may have already brought to communication. ¤

REFERENCES

This article appears as a chapter in the book, The World Wide Web Unleashed by John December, Neil Randall, and others (Sams Publishing, 1994).

Copyright © 1994 Sams Publishing. All rights reserved. Printed by Permission.


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