Ciolek, T.M. 1996. Today's WWW - tomorrow's MMM? The specter of multi-media mediocrity. IEEE COMPUTER, January 1996, Vol 29(1) pp. 106-108.
Today's WWW - tomorrow's MMM?
Dr T. Matthew Ciolek,
The specter of multi-media mediocrity
Research School of Pacific and Asian Studies,
Australian National University, Canberra ACT 0200, Australia
tmciolek at coombs.anu.edu.au
Document created: 7 Jan 1996. Links last checked: 11 Mar 2000.
[Originally published in IEEE COMPUTER, January 1996, Vol 29(1) pp. 106-108.
Also, republished in: http://rs306.ccs.bbk.ac.uk/bcs-nsg/webfut.htm
Also, reprinted in: Educom Review, May/June 1997, pp. 23-26.]
There are good reasons to believe that the unparalleled flowering
and growth of the World Wide Web may ultimately prove to be a curse
rather than a blessing. In January 1995, according to the Lycos
crawler database, over 2 million WWW
documents were published on line. In early August 1995, Lycos had to
keep track of 5.07 million Web pages. Two months later, in late
September, Lycos tracked 10.75 million pages. As of Monday, December
11, 1995, at 19:29 (Pacific Time), there were an estimated 297,900
World Wide Web sites on the Internet.
Certainly, information technology professionals are delighted that
since the early 1990s they have been able to inspect and work with
each other's hypertext files whenever and wherever they want.
Similarly, it is exciting to know that the realm of WWW resources is
growing exponentially and that every week powerful technological
innovations are devised and implemented. Nevertheless, two
elementary questions remain unanswered.
The first concerns the ratio of total volume of networked
information (measured in megabytes) to information useful to
scholars--or to anyone, for that matter. Is the ratio around 1:1?
100:1? 1,000:1 ? or perhaps even greater? The other question regards
long-term trends and prospects for the quality and reliability of
WWW-based information resources. Are we, with the passage of time,
being blessed with an ever-reaching, ever-faster, and over-arching
information matrix of true reliability, or are we being cursed with
tomorrow's multimedia mediocrity?
These questions cannot be overlooked or taken lightly, for they
directly affect our own future and electronic well-being. And,
unfortunately, the networked future looks far from rosy.
The sins and turmoil of the Web
The Web is the global sum of the uncoordinated activities of several
hundreds of thousands of people who deal with the system as they
please. It is a nebulous, ever-changing multitude of computer sites
that house continually changing chunks of multimedia information
(numeric values, text, graphic images, sound tracks, video clips,
and data-input forms), all arranged in a bewildering variety of
shapes and sizes. This information is displayed on millions of pages
(files) wired together by multiple hypertext links. If the WWW were
compared to a library, the "books" on its shelves would keep
changing their relative locations as well as their sizes and names.
Individual "pages" in those publications would be shuffled
ceaselessly. Finally, much of the data on those pages would be
revised, updated, extended, shortened, or even deleted without
warning almost daily.
Thus, the Web's chief structural feature is its permanent state of
flux, its fundamental inability to offer "Internauts" either a sense
of constancy of information or any real stability of location for
its electronic repositories. A state of flux is intrinsic to the
nature of the Web, so that any attempt to curb it is bound to
inflict on the Web phenomenon a violent shock, loss of vitality, and
finally a rapid death; or, more likely, the regulatory attempt
itself will result in a dismal failure. In other words, the WWW is
very unlike the traditional world of books, research journals, and
microfilm, and it cannot now be made to emulate them.
Any complications and problems arising from the dynamic and
near-chaotic state of the Web are further compounded by the behavior
of people and institutions that manage sites on the system. I refer
here to organizational problems such as abysmal and wasteful
replication of effort by different parties claiming to be the
Internet's main site for a given field of specialization; lust and
carelessness bordering on promiscuity with which maintainers of Web
pages establish links to other related (and frequently unrelated)
sites and pages; and labyrinthine circularity of links, forcing
readers to jump for minutes on end from site to site in search of a
server that publishes its own data instead of pointing to other
catalogs. Other Web sins include chronic lack of communication and
cooperation between maintainers of sites specializing in similar
subject areas, as well as passivity and lack of feedback from
readers who use a site.
However, the greatest sin of all is an absurd fascination with
technological issues at the expense of any serious thought as to the
raison d'etre of the WWW, namely information itself. Our greatest
folly seems to be our willingness to cultivate this global
communication system, open to all and sundry, without first ensuring
that we have enough useful and trustworthy, accurate and timely
information to be circulated across such a networked behemoth.
It is strange indeed that reams upon reams of electronic pages are
created to deal with secondary issues such as SGML and HTML style
sheets, telecommunication and interface standards, delivery of the
latest browser and server software, and so on and so forth without
anyone's ever bothering to ask, What is the Web to be used for? How
do we define and judge the quality of electronic information? What
are the minimal standards to be observed? How might these standards
differ from those developed for other forms of publication?
If the World Wide Web, which originated as a communication tool for
scholars and researchers working at the cutting edge of the
sciences, is to have a valid future, these issues urgently need to
be tackled. We must investigate notions of information quality and
make them applicable to material published on the Web.
For instance, would the idea of accuracy remain equally important
across such a wide range of documents as news bulletins,
dictionaries, medieval wheat prices, mantissae in a table of
logarithms, phone numbers, photographs of Elvis Presley, photos
taken by the Hubble Space Telescope, maps of major historic battles,
maps of airports, drawings of flowers and shock-absorbers, and sound
files of classical music and of the Nobel Prize acceptance speech by
the Dalai Lama?
And what about timeliness of information and the related issue of
file update frequency? Are news files to be updated every 12 hours?
or 6 hours? or every hour? Maybe it should happen continuously. Are
on-line history handbooks to be modified and updated every month,
every year, or every decade? Or should they be revised each time,
without fail, that another politically correct linguistic twist
becomes fashionable? Also, how often should Mendeleev's periodic
table be updated?
Clearly, a mighty task awaits site managers, one that must be
handled in close cooperation with librarians, scholars, publishers,
and philosophers. However, the analysis and successful resolution of
all these methodological issues will be only part of a greater
battle. Web- and Net-related standards still need to be drafted and
circulated on the Net so that they can be seen and eventually put in
to practice by the people involved in shaping the Web.
Difficulties in reforming the Web
The major battle, if and when it is fought, will be about the
minimal content standards for the Web. It is going to be a bloody,
uphill struggle against hundreds of thousands of people who love
publishing on line simply because publishing is now feasible and
inexpensive. The present body of the WWW is determined largely by
the developers' hunger for recognition and applause from their
peers. And who are these developers? My observations suggest that
they include primarily
One thing seems clear: Those with access (and copyright) to ample
and high-quality factual and/or scholarly materials are in the
minority. Hence, sites will inevitably vie with each other for the
status of being the Web's biggest (in terms of the cataloged
hypertext links and the size of their logos), or most technically
advanced (in terms of the speed and capacity of their search
engines, interactivity, CGI scripts, and gateways to other software
systems), or most colorful and dazzling (in terms of visual effects
and virtual-reality technologies).
We can now see how this self-referential loop is formed: Good data
is not readily forthcoming, hence the preoccupation with hypertext
and multimedia techniques, and the "cool" appearance of pages. This
motivates the WWW culture to revolve around the bigger and better
"containers" for information and not around the information itself.
Thus, the World Wide Web Consortium, major Web sites, and software
houses regularly ignore the question of Web content and fuss
exclusively about new tools and applications:
- university undergraduates who gain access to an account (and
promptly generate personal home pages);
- on-line advertising agencies (who mount business catalogs and
- programmers (who publish pages with links to Web software, Perl
scripts, and graphics converters or who construct new generations of
Web crawlers and information harvesters);
- a handful of adventurous journalists and academics (who, as an
experiment, mount a couple of documents derived from their work or
try to run an on-line database or electronic journal); and finally
- catalogers and librarians (who compile registers of links).
"So you've been wandering the Web for a while now, and you're ready
to start contributing to the great flow of information on the
Internet. The first thing to do is learn about HTML and how to bring
documents to your screen.
Next, you'll want to learn about adding on-line forms, graphics,
sound, and video--taking advantage of the interactive and multimedia
capabilities of the Web. And once you understand the basics and
start coding pages like mad, you'll want to find some development
tools to make your work easier."
With such a simplistic view of the Web, it's no wonder the so-called
"great flow of information on the Internet" in 1995 proved to be
mainly a tide of colorful snippets, advertising leaflets,
cybermalls, tele-cafes, personal home pages, tedious corporate
mission statements, and sporadic pages of unattributed and
unreferenced data culled from paper sources. Whether this flood of
cyber junk will ever be halted remains to be seen.
The World Wide Web is extremely large and unruly, and thus it is
very difficult to influence or reengineer. The system's vastness and
its individualistic, polycentric, nonhierarchical mode of operation
are simultaneously the source of its tremendous vitality and its
weakness. Bad solutions and erroneous practices cannot be imposed
arbitrarily on the WWW. Yet, by the same token, good ideas are not
necessarily embraced by the population of Web maintainers, because
the overall system has by now grown so large and so multilayered
that in the ongoing rush of new sites and new pages, any solution
--sensible or not--is simply invisible.
Impending emergence of the MMM?
The WWW system has reached a crossroads. Since its inception in
1991, it has evolved rapidly from a tool for congenial
information-sharing among CERN's high-energy-particle physicists to
a channel of communication for anyone with access to the Internet. Do
we really need to link up with pages about someone's goldfish or a
Web-based information, tracked by dozens of Web crawlers and
harvesters, continues to grow exponentially without much thought for
guidelines, safeguards, and standards concerning the quality,
precision, trustworthiness, durability, currency, and authorship of
this information. The situation is untenable. Unless serious and
energetic remedial steps are taken at once by managers of the most
prestigious and resourceful Web sites, and by as many of the
organizations dealing with Web and Internet standards as possible,
the system currently known as the WWW may come to be known as the
MMM (multi-media mediocrity).
Our concerted actions will wholly determine whether this most dynamic
and most promising part of the Internet will (or will not) be seen in
the not-too-distant future as (with apologies to William Shakespeare)
"a useless shadow, a poor MMM that struts and frets his hour upon the
Net, and then is heard no more, a tale told by an idiot, full of
digitized sound and multimedia fury, signifying nothing."
During the time required to read this article, another 50 Web sites
have joined the Net .
I am indebted to Monika Ciolek for critical comments on the first
draft of this article.
[ 1]. Excerpt from the Creating Net Sites page by the Netscape
[ 2]. This was true in early January 1996. Four years later, in
January 2000, during the time required
to read this article, another 500-600 web sites have been placed
online (tmc, 11 Mar 2000)
T. Matthew Ciolek,
formerly a behavioral scientist, works at the
Coombs Computing Unit, Research Schools of Social Sciences and
Pacific and Asian Studies, Australian National University, Canberra,
Australia. He is the architect and administrator of the Coombspapers, the world's oldest and
largest social sciences and humanities FTP site. He also runs the
Coombsweb Social Sciences Server as a
platform for seven specialist World Wide Web virtual libraries
(social sciences, Aboriginal, Asian, Buddhist, demography and
population, Pacific, and Tibetan studies). He can be found on the
WWW. He can be
contacted by e-mail.
Maintainer: Dr T.Matthew Ciolek (tmciolek at ciolek.com)
Copyright © 1996-2000 by T.Matthew Ciolek. All rights reserved.
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