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Coming to Terms with Cyberspace
"[My problem with] the Internet is that it's about facts and figures and information. But without the flesh and blood and the breathing that goes on, who am I talking to? What do they look like? Is it a multitude? Are there 25 people there? ... That part the human touch, that's what's missing."
From "An Interview With Studs Terkel," Mother Jones, September/October 1995, P. 22. http://bsd.mojones.comlmother_jones/SO95/eastman.html
OK so the Internet isn't everyone's favorite hangout. Some people love it; others hate it. Most of us are still reserving judgment. We just want to know more about it.
Most of us already know that the Internet is a great new medium for information and communication. But even experienced cybernauts are often torn between appreciation for the many positive things about the Internet and frustration over the negatives.
Here are some of the things we like to do on the Net:
* visit virtual museums
* buy books
* hear about jobs
* do research
* network with other professionals
* get news from around the world tailored to our interests
* take courses through distance education
* consult with educators, academics, health professionals, and other experts
* find health information
* rediscover old friends and make new ones
* find out about restaurants, vacation destinations, and other travel information
* check schedules for buses, trains, and airplanes
*get the latest government information
* let the government know what we think.
And here are some of the things that we dislike about the Internet:
* reading text on a screen
* graphics that take forever to load
* Web addresses that are constantly changing
* finding 300 messages in our e-mail box
* finding that 200 of those messages are much longer than they need to be (some folks have not yet grasped the difference between e-mail and letters!)
* dealing with people in "not-real time"
* having to distinguish between "real time" and some other kind of time
* flaming and other forms of electronic nastiness
* the sense that because things change so quickly on the Internet,
we have to struggle to keep up just so we won't be left behind.
If you are currently using the Internet, you can probably add to both these lists.
Those who have spent time on the Internet often feel overwhelmed by its vastness. Even though it has been around for a number of years (1994 marked its twenty-fifth anniversary), the Internet is still evolving. It is multifaceted and complex, and in many ways it remains a vast, uncharted frontier. It's great fun to explore, but there are also bound to be challenges and even a few unpleasant surprises along with the thrills.
Despite that, there are solid reasons for getting onto the Net. If you are a professional researcher, a writer, a journalist, an editor, or a student, you can't afford not to use the Internet. In the end, two things will help to overcome some of the difficulties that people sometimes encounter with the Internet one is the technology itself, which is constantly improving; the other is learning to use the Internet efficiently.
"More and more journals are reviewed and published electronically, giving faster turnaround and quicker feedback. I can reach a researcher directly, and perhaps get an answer within an hour ... Networks are terrific.
"On the other hand, I've watched researchers waste morning after morning, reading irrelevant net news, plowing through e-mail and fine tuning their screen savers."
Clifford Stoll, Silicon Snake Oil: Second Thoughts on the Information Highway. New York: Doubleday, 1995, p. 91.
The Internet Handbook for Writers, Researchers, and Journalists will show you how to use the Internet efficiently as a research tool. It's not necessary to understand everything about the Internet, but it is important to be able to select and make use of the kinds of features and resources that will be of most value to you.
The first step is to get an overview of what's available on the Net. The second is to start learning about the tools that will get you where you want to go.
* Beyond the hype: What's really available on the Net?
* Internet tools: Keys to unlock the world of information
* Challenges and opportunities in electronic communications
* Looking ahead: What does the future hold?
Beyond the hype: What's really available on the Net?
The Internet is an extensive system of interlinked yet independent computer networks. In less than two decades, the Internet has evolved from a highly specialized communications network used mostly for military and academic purposes into a massive electronic bazaar. Today, the Internet includes:
* academic and government computers
* computers from research institutions
* computerized library catalogs
* community-based computers (sometimes called freenets)
* diverse small, local computers (called bulletin boards) where technogeeks are known to hang out.
Anyone who has an account on one of these computers can send electronic mail throughout the network and access resources from thousands of other computers on the network.
Because of the free-wheeling culture of the Internet and its overall lack of structure and external controls, it is tempting to dismiss it as a novelty. Those who take time to learn about it soon discover, however, that the Internet is a microcosm of our society.
The following "snapshots" of daily activities on the Internet reveal a cyberworld that is as dynamic, varied, and controversial as the world reflected in print or broadcast news. They also suggest the richness of the Internet as a source of information for students and researchers, as well as its potential as a tool for writers and journalists with its wealth of contacts, story ideas, and background information.
Business on the Net
Your local bagel shop may not be on the Internet, but thousands of other businesses are. Yahoo, a popular Internet search engine, lists more than 120,000 companies on the Internet. These include legal firms, advertising agencies, car dealerships, financial institutions, publishers, and bookstores. (And, yes, there are even a few bagel shops: Bagel Oasis in New York will ship bagels to your home or office.)
Amazon.com (pronounced "Amazon-dot-com"), one of a number of virtual bookstores on the Net, is an example of a particularly successful online business. It's located sort of in Seattle, Washington, but its services are available almost anywhere around the globe. Amazon claims to offer more than five times as many titles as its nearest (non-cyber) competitor, so it is not surprising that one patron recently managed to locate two books that he been seeking for five years, while another successfully tracked down a book from the 1970s (which arrived with its original price tag still in place!).
On the Internet, researchers and journalists can also tap into the latest economic, business, or stock market news. They can talk to small business owners or sample discussion groups on controversial topics, such as the advantages and disadvantages of a flat tax or the future of work. There are many resources providing information on setting up a small business or on telecommuting two important business trends.
Health information on the Net
The Internet is a terrific source for the latest medical news, and for sharing medical opinions and research. There are an estimated 500 health-related discussion groups on the Internet, and likely even more health-related resources on the World Wide Web. Premier health agencies such as the Mayo Clinic, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, and Health Canada provide research information online. Journalists can find out about exciting new areas of research, such as DNA vaccines, or they can consult medical specialists to verify information about bone marrow transplants. Researchers are able to access study results and health information databases.
Alternative health information can also be found in abundance on the Net. In fact, practitioners involved in alternative approaches to health care have benefited greatly from being able to use the Internet as a resource for sharing information and lobbying for their discipline. The Internet makes available information about acupuncture, chiropractors, herbs, vitamins, iridology, gemstone therapy, and even a traditional favorite leeches. Increasingly, scientists and researchers use the Internet to share information and ideas. A project from the National Library of Medicine has produced a spectacular resource consisting of 21,000 pictures of the human body. The Visible Human Project (http://www.nlm.nih. gov/research/visible/visible_human.html) provides a complete, anatomically detailed, three-dimensional representation of the human body. The project is, among other things, a prototype for the development and dissemination of a medical image library. The Internet is truly a gateway to understanding the latest developments in science and medicine.
Education on the Net
While there are hundreds of useful resources for teachers and nearly 6,000 elementary and secondary schools posting information on the Internet, the power of this technology is particularly evident in two areas of alternative education: distance education and home schooling. The Virtual Online University (http://www.athena.edu/) is an example of a distance education institution available on the Internet (Figure 1-1). The electronic campus is open twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, and offers such courses as Macroeconomics, Freshman Composition, History, and Latin. The Internet University (http://www.caso.com/iuhome.html) lists over 700 college courses available over the Internet, including studies in arts, business, mathematics, psychology, and education. Students from around the world can enroll in these courses. Some students will use them to supplement courses from local institutions, while professionals pursuing life-long learning opportunities value the flexibility of distance learning. There are even a number of primary and secondary schools now offering high school courses over the Internet.
Similarly, the Internet has become a major resource for home schoolers. On the Internet, home schoolers can connect to courses, online tutors, and learning services. Once isolated in their own communities, such students can now participate in live online discussion groups, projects, and activities with other kids being schooled at home. In the United States the number of students being taught at home has increased from roughly 18,000 in the late 1970s to an estimated 800,000 today (some claim this figure is closer to one million). If you are a journalist or a social science researcher, you will be intrigued by the broad social changes signaled by this kind of growth. Undoubtedly, the Internet will fuel even greater growth in alternative and distance learning in the years ahead.
Media on the Net
No area of endeavor has been more profoundly affected by the Internet than the media. Traditional print and broadcast sources are now "reinventing" themselves online. Change is further fueled as existing print and broadcast agencies merge and media conglomerates compete with telephone companies for dominance on the information highway.
Radio has been on the Internet since 1993. The first-ever Internet video broadcast of a rock concert featured the Rolling Stones in November, 1994.
There are several hundred newspapers on the Net, as well as news services such as AP and Reuters. News is available on the Internet from over eighty countries in the world. The Ecola Newsstand (http://www.ecola.com) lists over 2,300 print publications that now maintain an active presence on the Web. This total does not include the hundreds of publications that exist only online.
The online versions of many publications (also called cybergeists; Figures 1-2 and 1-2A) usually give you a sampling of their latest issue and sometimes offer complete back issues. These publications also provide online links that relate to current features, invite dialogue, offer online interviews with authors or guest "speakers," and in some cases facilitate discussion groups related to topics of interest to readers. Increasingly, publications on the Internet are developing multimedia formats that integrate text, sound, graphics, and animation.
It is speculated that, over the next several years, press releases and newswire services will become available, with the Internet as the preferred (if not exclusive) point of access.
Internet tools: Keys to unlock the world of information
Journalists and researchers need to know more about the Internet than simply how to find information and contacts. They also need to know about the social and economic trends and changes represented in the day's events. Students, too, are expected to develop an up-to-date awareness of many different fields as they pursue a diploma or a degree. Freelance writers and editors will find many new opportunities by learning about telecommunications technologies and incorporating new media into their work lives.
Media professionals also have a substantial contribution to make in helping to shape the online world. Journalists in particular will appreciate becoming actively involved in the creation of a new medium that has the potential to reach millions of people around the globe, and everyone will want to have at least a general understanding of the technology that makes this possible.
As with any learning venture, success depends on mastering the basics. Currently, the two biggest applications of Internet technology are the World Wide Web and electronic mail.
World Wide Web
The World Wide Web is a vast collection of text, graphics, sound, and occasionally, video files. With special software called a Web browser you can view the material on the Web by pointing the cursor and clicking your mouse button. Among the millions of Web pages you will find news stories, online museum exhibits, art gallery displays, government information resources, distance learning courses, weather maps, online catalogs, and interactive computer games, to name just a few possibilities.
You can also use a Web browser as a communications tool for example, to send electronic mail or to participate in online discussions. Technologies such as Web conferencing, in which messages are posted to the Web for ongoing discussions, and push technology, which allows customized data delivery, have greatly enhanced the relatively static presentation of text and graphics.
Electronic mail rivals the Web as the most common Internet application; some consider it the most powerful application on the Net.
Electronic mail allows you to send and receive individual messages over the Internet, as well as participate in group discussions. Many people with limited Internet access rely on electronic mail to obtain online publications, software, and even information from Web pages.
Electronic mail lets you communicate with anyone who has an Internet address. For journalists, electronic mail can be a method for making contacts with experts, conducting interviews, and networking with colleagues. Many researchers use electronic mail contacts to conduct surveys or focus groups and to locate information sources.
Through electronic mail, researchers, writers, and students can also join worldwide discussion groups. There are close to 40,000 different discussion groups on the Internet. Participants use them to keep abreast of professional news, to gain background on particular topics, and to pursue personal interests. Journalists might join JOURNET, a discussion group for journalism educators, or CARR-L, which discusses the use of computers in journalism. YAFICT-L offers writing tips, market possibilities, workshops, and personal support for writers of young adult fiction. An Internet mailing address gives you access to discussion groups in business, politics, arts, health, humanities, science, nature, and recreation. Today, Internet newsgroups and listservers are valuable communications tools. (We discuss newsgroups and listservers in detail in Chapter 6.)
Other Internet applications
Although the Web and electronic mail are currently the two most important technologies on the Internet, there are other Internet tools as well. Most of these are accessible using just your Web browser, although some require more specialized software. (Web browsers and related helper applications are described in Chapters 2 and 3.)
Online chat and conferencing. It is possible to participate in real-time communications on the Internet by using a "chat" program such as Global Chat or Internet TeleCafe. These give you access to Internet Relay Chat (IRC) networks or "chat rooms," where users engage in social conversation or take part in scheduled events, such as online discussions with politicians or bestselling authors.
Another form of Internet communication is group conferencing based on stored text messages. Web conferencing software is used for "town hall" meetings and online class discussions. A number of online magazine sites sponsor Web conferences; a few conference sites, such as ICS Netropolis (http://chat.acmeweb.com/), let you set up your own conference room on the Web.
Audio and interactive video. With the proper computer setup (including speakers, a sound card, and Web phone software, which you can buy at your local computer store), you can also use the Internet in place of the telephone. While this technology is not yet common, it is estimated that more than one million people currently use it.
You can also have instant access to radio and other audio broadcasts with technologies such as RealAudio. (We discuss RealAudio in Chapter 3.) Desktop videoconferencing and video over the Internet are still limited on slower-speed networks (such as those dependent on ordinary telephone lines), but new techniques for compressing and transmitting data may make these high-end applications widely available in just a few years.
The proliferation of cable television services, set-top boxes (for Internet access via your television), and satellite communications technologies may facilitate the development of an all-purpose tool that will one day bring interactive audio, video, and broadcast services to average technology users.
Gopher, FTP, and telnet. These are older technologies that you may have heard about. All are still available on the Internet. A Gopher site on the Internet is like a Web site without the pictures. FTP is used to transfer files from one computer to another, and telnet is used to search library catalogs or interact with those computers that are on the Internet, but are not readily accessible through a Web page. We discuss these three technologies further in Chapter 3 (Gopher and FTP) and Chapter 5 (telnet).
Challenges and opportunities in electronic communications
As the technology continues to develop, the Internet promises radical changes in the way we communicate, at work and at play. The Internet holds exciting possibilities for news gathering and other mass media. It also poses a number of challenges.
Although the Internet offers a wealth of information, much of it is of questionable value. Most of us like our information served up in carefully selected and easily digestible bites. We don't necessarily want to know when Sailor Moon broadcasts in Tokyo, or which San Diego grocery stores deliver. While it's thrilling to be able to send messages to people all over the world via the Internet, it is less of a thrill to have hundreds of people we don't know sending messages to us.
A big challenge for writers and journalists is how to attract and sustain an audience. Someone has estimated that the average amount of time spent on a Web page is about 15 seconds not much time in which to build readership. Journalists are used to developing material that springs from the interests of their readers. How do you write a story that will capture the attention of even a fraction of the millions of people who use the Internet? And how will anyone find an article you've written in a technology-mediated universe that must be navigated by computerized search engines, and where your piece may well be served up along with hundreds of others on the same topic?
But the Internet also represents new markets for many writers. Journalists in small communities and those working for smaller publications can draw on a much broader range of sources than were previously readily available. Electronic communications provide unique opportunities for interviews, and story ideas abound.
For researchers, the Internet poses some new challenges as well, such as mastering the many different ways to search the Web and keeping abreast of what's available. While this takes time and effort, most researchers will benefit from the mushrooming of resources that are accessible online.
The most important factor in mastering the electronic universe is learning to use the Internet well. It's a cinch to call up your Web browser and start surfing, but it takes time and a deeper understanding of what the Internet is all about to use it effectively.
Looking ahead: What does the future hold?
We have talked about some of the good things on the Internet, and acknowledged a few of the negatives. But what does the future hold? It's easy enough to predict that the technology will continue to develop so that people will be able to do more and more things on the Internet watch movies, play 3D chess, book a business trip, order take-out food. We believe, however, that the two most important applications for the Internet will continue to be information exchange and global communications. Both areas offer phenomenal opportunities for Internet-savvy reporters and information professionals.
We anticipate that there will be increased demand for non-technicians to participate in developing services on the Internet. To some extent, content on the information highway has been neglected in favor of technical development. But the focus is beginning to shift from laying the tarmac to sprucing up the destinations. This shift represents a prime opportunity for journalists, writers, and information specialists to become content creators and experts on the Net.
Interestingly, much of the future demand for writers and content experts will come not from the traditional publishing community (though publishers too are finding a place on the Web), but from other kinds of companies with products to sell. Whereas traditional print publications control content but need commercial advertisers to cover printing costs, advertising online needs useful, informative articles to attract readership. Commercial sponsors are therefore becoming more involved in developing online publications and information sources. For example, Toyota sponsors six different electronic magazines; L.L. Bean provides access to a database of national parks; and Molsons, the Canadian beer company, provides listings for upcoming concerts across Canada.
The Internet remains in many ways unpredictable. Who would have guessed, just a few years ago, that electronic mail would edge out the post office ("snail mail") as the primary vehicle for business communications? Figuring out just where the opportunities will be is one of the things that makes the Internet interesting and fun.
Ultimately, there are probably only two things we can say for certain about the Internet: it's bound to keep on growing, and it will offer the best opportunities to those who become most skilled at using and developing material for this new medium.
"Computers are incredibly fast, accurate and stupid; humans are incredibly slow, inaccurate and brilliant; together they are powerful beyond imagination." Albert Einstein
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