Caught in the Web?

Dr. Dorian in Charlotte's Web by E.B. White.


It's time for agencies to pause and gain a little perspective on
the World Wide Web.


So compelling has the WWW become that some 70,000 individuals, businesses and
government agencies have constructed home pages. No one knows the amount of labor and
dollar costs spent on the Web by government alone.


Yet in terms of content, most Web sites aren't much more than graphic bulletin
boards--albeit entertaining ones.


That's in odd contrast to how people--like the folks in Charlotte's Web--have
come to imagine the Web almost as a miracle. How else can you explain the market value of
tiny, one-product Netscape Communications ballooning to a billion dollars?


Web publishing has taken on a life of its own. It's easy to get swept along, often
before clear objectives are established. And a vague sense that you better be there since
everyone else is doesn't constitute a good Web strategy, at least not for a government
agency.


Web compulsion is leading to the creation of sites that aren't very good because they
don't have a compelling reason to exist. I recently watched a demo of an automobile
manufacturer's mediocre site. Its creators couldn't say for certain whether the several
hundred thousand dollar effort enabled them to sell one extra car.


Sometimes the press release describing a Web site is more compelling than the site
itself. Just this morning I read the breathless prose of a handout and quickly logged onto
the Web site for a major military program. I found less information than you'd find in a
decent magazine story. And the pictures weren't as good.


These quality shortfalls may be an indication of a second problem. Even with a good
strategy, it takes management commitment--and real money--to mount and maintain a good Web
site.


Finally, it's important to realize that the World Wide Web is just a powerful extension
of existing means of information distribution. But one with this twist: Simple Web
authoring is cheap and easy. But getting onto the Web to use it requires computers and
know-how. Sites, unlike mass media, are accessible mainly to wealthier people or those
with easy access to computers in their jobs.


That's something government agencies need to keep in mind as they rush pell-mell into
Web siting. The bulk of citizens don't yet have Web access. The miraculous Web should be a
component of any citizen outreach program, but it can't replace other means of
communications.


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