Web naysayers are louder, but it's still a useful tool

Trashing the World Wide Web is rapidly becoming the latest journalistic fad. Once the
darling of the press, the Web is getting closer scrutiny and more negative reviews from
those who were uncritical advocates.

Is the Web really such a disappointment? Now that the Web is a household word, articles
extolling its virtues are not news. When the journalists stop extolling the Web, it's a
sign that the Web is a mature technology.

The Web may be the most significant development in computing since the PC. So what?
Webheads are not particularly interested in some reporter's revelations about the
astonishing amount of information (or at least data) available to those who surf the Net.
For them, it's "been there, done that."

On the other hand, webphobics and luddites are not eager to read articles about the
virtues of a technology that intimidates them. They'd rather have an excuse for their
reluctance, something conveniently provided by the "Web is trash" line of
journalism. They take a position like this: I don't need to spend the time, money or
energy to get connected because, as a recent Washington Post headline says,
"Farewell, Webheads. I used to be one of you. Then I took out the Internet trash and
found there wasn't much left."

Other Web critics are disenchanted Internet dweebs who resent the Invasion of the
Suits, the corporate executives who have inflicted crass commercialism on the Web. Just a
few years ago, the Internet was a friendly sandbox for blue jean-clad academics and
engineers from high-tech colleges and universities, companies and government agencies.

Back in those good old days, use of the Internet presumed a modest background in Unix.
To play, you had to join the fraternity and pay your dues by learning vi, grep, chmod and
other arcane Unix incantations.

Now anybody who can type can create Web pages. So there is a lot of garbage on the Web.
Many corporate Web sites are nothing more than slick promotional brochures. Many
old-timers find this development disgusting.

But remember that newspapers and news magazines thrive on controversy. Even the most
reputable publications must sell copies. And nothing sells like controversy. As the
National Inquirer and Star demonstrate at any grocery checkout line, lurid headlines and
outrageous assertions sell newsprint.

So is there any truth to these Web-is-trash laments? Critics correctly observe that
sifting the grains of wheat from the buckets of chaff is no simple task. The mindless
robots used by the Web search tools collect a lot of crap. In fact, many popular Web sites
specialize in providing high-quality links and evaluations of the utility of the site's

The Web is no exception to Silverberg's Law: "Ninety percent of everything is
crap" If I recall correctly, author Robert Silverberg issued this edict as a response
to critics of a science fiction anthology he edited.

To avoid being overwhelmed by the glut of data on the Web, find yourself a
knowledgeable information broker. Getting help from those with skill and knowledge is the
first step in getting useful results from the Web. A few minutes of counsel and guidance
will make your research far more productive.

The Web is a quagmire for those who are easily distracted. Employers and school
administrators are rightfully concerned that employees and students will fritter hours
away cruising the Web. To prevent this, sometimes I write my query topic on a sticky note
and post it on my monitor to remind me of the task at hand.

Agencies need to set a policy limiting use of the Internet to official purposes.
Supervisors will need to pay attention to what their employees are doing on their
terminals. Just monitoring the smoke and coffee breaks no longer is sufficient.

Like teenagers driving their first cars, most Internet novices go though a period of
slack-jawed wonder at all the glitz on the Web. Then they come to their senses and use the
Web like any other tool. Those who don't snap out of their fixations will need
intervention by colleagues or supervisors.

Nevertheless, in the hands of the disciplined employee, the Web is an excellent search
tool and information dissemination medium. Agencies can reach a broad spectrum of
customers nearby and far away. Documents that were the cherished preserve of jealous
bureaucrats can overnight become available to the entire world.

A well-organized Web site can be an essential repository of agency and organizational
information. Or the site can be a hodgepodge collection of data and papers that frustrates
rather than helps your customers. Which it becomes is up to you.

Walter R. Houser, who has more than two decades of experience in federal
information management, is webmaster for a Cabinet agency. His own Web home page is at http://www.cpcug.org/user/houser/

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