What brave new world we’ve wrought

For a while now, people at NYU have been wondering when we, like students and staff at other universities, would be able to publish our own web pages.  Well the capability has just arrived.  As of September 14, anyone with an NYU-Internet account (one of those ACF IS/IS2 accounts) can publish web pages that would be available to anyone, anywhere inthe world, who is interested in reading them.  Yet what exactly does this mean?  Is this like hiring out a billboard on 42nd street with red and white lights, is it equivalent to having a page to yourself in the telephone directory, or is it like publishing a book?

Writing pages for the web is perhaps analogous to writing a book, yet not exactly, and as we will see, the web might just change the way we look at publishing itself.  The World Wide Web, like the global computer network we call WorldNet affords possibilities that have never existed before. Never has it been as easy to distribute information to people half-way across the globe, it has never been as easy to engage in discourse with individuals whom one has never met.  And for the first time, anyone with the will to do so and a little spare time can become a publisher.  Though these opportunities exist, one is often unaware of what is to be made of them.  How are we supposed to do this, and why?

Some people write web pages to inform, and many other to entertain. Your homepage is often the only chance you will get to describe yourself to people on the Net, this is where you indulge yourself, write about your dog, your ant-farm, maybe even list your CD collection.  A homepage becomes an extension of your person, the place where people who’ve been conversing with you about the relative merits of non-stick frying pans, as opposed to traditional ones, go when they are curious enough to find out more about you.  And this is also the place to tell people what you’re having for lunch.  There are however, other uses for the web. One can use it to promote a personal political cause, make some writing freely accessible or simply provide information that may be of interest to a group of people.  What is astounding about the Web, and Compter Mediated Communication in general, is that individuals can interact on a scale hitherto unknown.  The Web makes it possible for anyone to utilize the same medium the New York Times or NBC would.  Unlike the sort of pre-packaged, processed entertainment and information we have been become accustomed to with the advent of radio and television, the Web provides us with a variety of sources that is in itself astounding.  It is no longer necessary to “believe everything you read in the paper”, or see on television for that matter, you can simply find out from someone who is close enough to know about the details.  And if you have the inclination, you can be the person who informs the Net community about a particular issue.

In a sense this is a move back to the times when people in a particular community actually gathered together every evening to exchange news and  talk about it.  The idea remains the same, but the community has enlarged to embrace a large part of the world.  The standards by which we judge what is worth paying attention to however haven’t changed. Though any web page is ostensibly available to anyone and everyone in the world who has access to the web, it’s unlikely that everyone on the Net is going to visit the page.

Unless, there’s something of interest there.  The web has the power to create a new media, one that is fed by individuals with personal concerns, not by large institutions.  Yet, if this capability is to come into its own every individual has to work towards realizing it.  The competition has never been fiercer yet never has the market for information been as open.  The probability that the web may become another distribution network for packaged media runs very high.  We only have a commercial media today because the costs of providing accurate information have always been very high (and will remain high for the forseeable future), this is especially true of the news media.  “The Press” has evolved because it is virtually impossible for individuals to provide the sort of coverage the press can without formalizing the relationship between the consumer and the producer.  Yet this is just the tip of the iceberg. After the large newspapers, wire services and cable networks come the fringe media.  A mosaic of ‘zines, pamphletes, newsletters and grafitti this discourse is sustained by a community of “information providers” who can touch upon topics that the increasingly national and international media cannot.  It is this group of people, call them activists, idealists, or even fetishists if you will, who will dress the web in its finest.  Yet this will hardly happen if we fail to provide the thread out of which this quilt is woven, or the eyes with which to appreciate the dedication of the maker.  The web is perhaps the closest analogy we have for the sum total of human knowledge (the only problem is that the majority of material on the web is in English).  We have in the web a continuously evolving structure of closely/loosely bound documents that are being revised by many people at the same time, that create a space for us to exchange ideas and thoughts.  The web contains both the ephemeral (individual discussion and maybe even IRC), the semi permanent records of our interests (web documents) and even a little of the virtually permanent (the classic web documents that will remain as reminders of what was).  This is nothing but an outline for the sort of interaction that has been occuring amongst individuals for aeons in one guise or another.  The only way to assure that the web evolves into such an entity is to place your own mind up there to be seen and wondered at.  This has always been true for writers and speakers who could make their views known to the world, and it is now potentially true for everyone.

Almost everyone has a cause, a concern, something they like talking about. If you’ve never been able to find a forum to discuss these issues in, or a place to go to find out the latest on this topic, the web might be the place for you.  If you can’t find a page on a particular topic, make one yourself, register it at the “web catalogues” and watch a community build itself around you.  The greatest service any member of the WorldNet community can render to others is to provide information of this sort, whether it is a political issue, something to do with entertainment or just life in general.  This is after all exactly what we’d been promised the Net would do for us, create an environment within which we could find expression for those selves within us that had never before been exposed
to the world.

[originally published in the Washington Square News]