Magazine article Online

The Two Worlds of Online

Magazine article Online

The Two Worlds of Online

Article excerpt

The two worlds of online have existed side by side for 15 years, but have taken surprisingly little notice of each other. This is starting to change, but still few people can move easily in both. One is the world of professional online research, which includes DIALOG, NEXIS, STN and the rest that provide the science, technology, business, and current events databases that are used on behalf of professionals and researchers in business, academia and public service.

The other world--the so-called consumer online services--has an even wider range of purposes. Its inhabitants (and there are many more than there are online professionals) go online to places like CompuServe, America Online, GEnie, Delphi and PRODIGY for research, for buying and selling, and for a rich spectrum of communications activities.

Professional online searchers have always been aware of the consumer services, but have usually known little about them. Nevertheless, they have been disdainful of them, dismissing them as consumer toys, full of useless software and lascivious bulletin boards. Certainly they have assigned them no value at all for serious research.

At one time these services were toys, but like everything else in the online landscape, this has changed. They have grown in size, content and sophistication. (Note that the consumer services are ahead of the research services in several respects. They have long been ahead in handling binary files, they had custom software and GUIs earlier, and now they are pioneering user-friendly Internet connectivity.) Consumer services are the real sites of online activity for millions of people. Their prominence makes it very important for online professionals to know what they can and cannot do.

USING CONSUMER ONLINE FOR RESEARCH

One thing consumer services can do is find serious information. There are valuable pockets of research data in the consumer services, including some databases not found on the mainstream professional databanks. CompuServe, for example, has the SUPERSITE database, which has census data down to the block group level; and Global Report, a comprehensive collection of news and business information, including real-time financial data from markets worldwide. Professional research databases may also appear, with advantages, on a consumer service. Knowledge Index, now on CompuServe, offers major research databases at cut rates, with little loss of search power.

These examples deal with document and character-based data, but there are other kinds of information for which the consumer services are superior. One is graphics, where they are far ahead, not only in incorporating graphics in their software, but also with databases of graphic images (watch CONSUMER ONLINE in the next issue of ONLINE for more on graphics). The consumer services are also moving rapidly to provide digitized sound and video material, which are increasingly important in this multimedia age.

The consumer services have always stood out as public software clearinghouses. Their software libraries contain thousands of public domain utility and application programs, some of which are "official" software mounted by software publishers in their online customer support services. Finally, the consumer services lead (and indeed can be said to have created) online communications. It is true that most of the content in their message areas is trivial and ephemeral. There are, however, nuggets among the dross. Useful information may often be found in the archival sections in most special interest areas. …

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