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What's the Point?

In the May/June hardcopy issue of Adobe Magazine, Rob French in "Where is Publishing Headed" differentiates between posting information on the Web and processing information for publication on the Web:

individuals who offer their recipes and family photos on a Web site may legally be "publishing," but in reality they are simply posting information to a very accessible bulletin board. Publishing remains the commercial act of acquiring, improving, promoting, and distributing information, literature, and images. (p. 36)

This has led some analysts, Rob French included, to consider the Internet editor a gatekeeper, with readers willing to pay the editor for identifying and making available the best information in the sea of information overload.

Publishing on the Internet adds an additional complexity when we consider the instant interactivity between the authors, the text, and readers. Authors become what Laura Fillmore calls a link editor, acting as an intermediary between those who seek information and the information on the various interconnected servers.

There is a difference, then, between database facts and information which has been commented on, absorbed into a larger concept or idea, and then presented in a new light by an author or editor. There is a difference, then, between information and knowledge.

Sites like Lead Story understand this difference. Each day they choose a topic and provide links to numerous other sites which contain articles and data about the chosen topic. Links are supplied to the data itself as well as author and editor comment on the data. The topic of the day is clearly posted and readers can quickly and easily determine if they should stop or click on to another page.

As a link editor, I'd like to see the point or some purpose statement accompany articles longer than a page or two. Many of the academic articles appearing on the Web are accompanied by abstracts. Abstracts, usually associated with academic and professional journals, state the purpose of the article, the results of the study, and the conclusions. But it seems to me a lot of the longer articles on the Web could use, if not an abstract, a statement of purpose, to give the reader a clue about the content. We're already in a serious state of information overload. Anything to help sort through the information we're looking for is an important issue.

On May 6th, the premiere issue of First Monday went online. An electronic journal featuring peer-reviewed analyses about the Internet, the articles in this first issue are ten or more pages long. Without abstracts. In the first issue, John Seely Brown and Paul Daguid discuss "The Social Life of Documents," suggesting we too often consider documents merely a means to deliver information. The authors suggest documents no longer can be confined to the old metaphor of the conduit. New technologies have transformed them into a means to coordinate social interactions. Documents, the authors tell us, have only recently been recognized as having a sociological function, which goes a long way in explaining the evolution of the Web. This is a good point, but one I could have grasped a lot sooner had I been able to read an abstract.

If I am to be a link editor, I would really like to find abstracts or purpose statements prefacing lengthy articles. In fact, I find long lists of "resources" or "other interesting sites" considerably less useful without annotations. The value of a resource page, in my opinion, is not determined by how many sites are linked, but rather by annotations about the content of the links.

There's much talk about the difficulty of finding information on the Web. I suggest that it's not the finding that's the problem, but the inabilty to easily locate the purpose of much that's out there that creates a considerable amount of the chaos.

There's a lot of talk about information overload, the inability to keep track of everything going on at Web sites, but very little practical advice about how to remedy the situation.

Perhaps a good place to start talking is with abstracts and purpose statements.

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