Don't abandon BBSes for the glitz of the Internet

Why listen to the radio when you can watch television? After all, radio is a less
sophisticated technology. It has less immediacy. It communicates only to your aural sense
where TV appeals to both sight and sound. Shouldn't we shut down radio stations because
they are redundant, less effective than TV, and a waste of resources?


This argument sounds silly now that radio has survived and prospered during 50 years of
TV broadcasting, plus cable and video rental stores. Yet a similar argument is being made
about electronic bulletin board systems, now that the World Wide Web is all the rage.


Agency managers are asking, ''Why have a BBS when we have a Web site?''


BBSes typically have character interfaces while Web servers support graphical user
interfaces. Boring BBS text has a tough time competing with pretty Web pictures, buttons
and windows. Moreover, there are many types of Web documents, most of which can be readily
handled by Web browsers. BBS documents only come in text. The Web runs on high speed
digital connections whereas the BBS uses plain old telephone service, also known as POTS.


If it simply were a matter of sex appeal, the Web would win hands-down. Lean times for
federal agencies will continue through 1997, and even sacred cows are being offered up for
budgetary sacrifice. So anyone who claims redundancy and waste gets a prompt hearing.


This leads to the argument: If agencies are putting the same information on Web sites
and BBSes, why not pick one and shut the other down?


The short answer is that these technologies have different constituencies. The Web
serves the high-tech customer with a high bandwidth connection to the Internet. The BBS
serves the low-end customer with a vintage PC, a slow modem and a telephone line.


Agencies publish newsletters, press releases, fact sheets, circulars and regulations,
all in an effort to communicate various kinds of information in a variety of media to a
diverse set of customers. It would be ludicrous to select a single print format and
abandon the others. Similarly, electronic communication needs to be varied to reach an
equally diverse audience.


To choose one technology could mean depriving one customer base in favor of another. To
abandon BBSes would disenfranchise the majority of taxpayers who don't have access to the
Internet. To eschew the Web would deprive high-end users of the features and functionality
unique to that media. Considering the low cost and high payoff of both technologies,
choosing between them is penny-wise and pound-foolish.


That is not to say it's easy to coordinate these two services. Many a program official
has become frustrated trying to put the same information on both platforms. The processes
are different and inconsistent. Infrequent users can readily forget how to maintain their
documents. Having to support both is twice the headache.


The personnel supporting the two services can become competitive. To a degree this is
healthy as the two rival camps strive to offer their customers the latest information or
service. But this competition can readily become counterproductive if agency information
sources have to deal with multiple agendas and competing personalities on top of naturally
conflicting technologies.


Even staff with the best of intentions quickly become focused on one platform to the
exclusion of the other.


Underfunded and understaffed, typically neither service has the extra resources
available for coordination and processing necessary to minimize the risk of
inconsistencies and complexities.


Often agency programs end up choosing one simply because of the hassle of having to
deal with both.


Do agencies offer interactive access to their legacy systems with one interface for the
BBS and another for the Web? Such access is complicated enough that agencies ought to
think twice before writing the software twice. There are no hard and fast rules about
which to use. The media depends on the message and the intended audience.


Valid arguments exist for both. But agencies supporting both need to ensure regular,
structured coordination of overlapping subject matter or audience. Otherwise, your
customers--internal and citizens--may become confused by inconsistent documents and
conflicting messages.


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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