Magazine article Information Today

The Web Meets Online, Online Meets the Web

Magazine article Information Today

The Web Meets Online, Online Meets the Web

Article excerpt

Last year was the year when traditional online services met the Web and the Web met traditional online. The counter forces within that confrontation have created a whirlpool effect. Who will win? Who will lose? Who will survive? Who will fail? Stay tuned! 1998 awaits.

The scramble for high ground remains a fascinating spectacle for consumers, particularly for information professionals who themselves face some of the same challenges into which the Internet and its Web have shoved the information and publishing industries. Oddly enough, however, information professionals may have a higher perch from which to start their climb to safety as the waters rage below. After all, they actually know what "real" customers want and expect and need. The wisest among the info pros even know how to distinguish among those three states-want, expectation, and need-better than their customers do themselves. (In the immortal lines of Angel Martin on The Rockford Files, "You and I know, Jimmy, you can't make one thin dime giving people what they need. You gotta give 'em what they want.")

As far as I can see, most of the confusion in an admittedly chaotic situation stems from the paradox of a market that seems to expand and contract simultaneously. No doubt can remain in anyone's mind that the day of digital data has arrived. The Internet and its Web have created a mammoth and ever-growing market of end users. More than that, they have set a standard and established a pattern of information retrieval that will, in time, reach everyone and will, in time, forever change and diminish the function of print as a format for archiving and exchanging human knowledge. The change will affect all areas and all uses of knowledge-from the highest levels of scholarship to the lowest levels of entertainment. (Ahem. And I guess we all know the phenomenon to which that refers!) The Internet and its Web have simply become a basic way of knowing and finding things out for millions, with millions more waiting for the conversion throughout the world and throughout the years to come.

At the same time that the number of online users begins expanding exponentially, the "disintermediation" (as Steve Arnold calls it) squeeze has begun all along the line. Initially, some traditional information industry players thought that disintermediation simply meant that the librarians and information professionals who stood guard between vendors and searcher clients would vanish. Some traditional players were even woolly-headed enough to think that they would profit from such an elimination. Now the rest of the disintermediation trend has begun to emerge to the horror of traditionals with the courage to watch and the quaking of those who listen to the Jurassic Park sound effects getting ever louder while they hide their heads in the sand.

Bottom line, the distance between author and reader could vanish. At the same time that it creates a universal standard for delivering information, the Net and its Web create a nearly universal platform for creating information for delivery. A simple change of address turns an e-mail message into a listserv posting. Every word processor software package has upgraded to produce HTML documents with one click. ("Look, Ma! I'm McGraw-Hill!")

Of course, the problem that has always plagued every publisher or distributor of information remains for new Net "publishers," too. Just because you want to talk doesn't mean someone else out there wants to listen. Just because you load it doesn't mean anyone else will download it. With the flattening of the distribution medium (http://www.nytimes.com vs. http://www.seemynewdog.com), gaining a high profile becomes more and more difficult. No longer does distribution itself dictate purchase choices. In a print world, if you want a daily newspaper, you have to take the local paper or one of maybe three or four national papers. Otherwise, you can't get delivery. With the Web, you can pick any one or more of hundreds of dailies, inside or outside the U. …

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