Where the web fits

Apologies for the break in distribution. With the South African budget last week this article got a little delayed.

The San Jose Mercury News broke a story last August about the alleged connection between the crack drug trade in California and a Nicaraguan guerrilla army run by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency. Being an analogue and digital newspaper, the paper carried the story in both print and on their website. In an analogue newspaper the story would have run for a few days and disappeared. However, the high level of interest in this story on the Mercury website caused it to stay in the news and elevated it onto the US national media stage.

Trevor Manuel delivered his first budget speech to the South African parliament on 12th March 1997. Before he had finished his first paragraphs, hundreds of people had received the speech by eMail or were reading it on one of numerous websites that made it available.

Timothy McVeigh will go on trial on March 31st for his alleged role in the Oklahoma bombing. A website has been made available to the 2000 strong “Oklahoma City Bombing Trial Media Consortium” which will contain up to the minute reports, pleadings and related information about the trial.

Strengths: visual, audio, live
Weaknesses: not searchable, non-interactive, not easily portable

Strengths: audio, portable, live
Weaknesses: sequential, not easily archived, non-interactive

Strength: visual, portable
Weaknesses: limited space, not searchable, non-interactive

Strengths: visual, searchable, interactive
Weaknesses: not portable (yet), visual and audio capabilities hampered by bandwidth

Is the Internet suited for the launch of a product or a big announcement? Are newspapers the best place for readers to respond on a topic? Is television the best medium to host a talk show? I think the answer to all these questions is no. The San Jose Mercury News story about the CIA was something that their readership cared about and wanted to do more than just read on paper. They wanted to respond, to discuss and debate the issues around the story. The internet web site provided the ideal medium for this.

Likewise if Minister Trevor Manuel’s speech was only sent out on the internet then it certainly wouldn’t have attracted the attention that it did. Not only because television sets are still more prolific than internet connections, but because one of the most important things about an announcement is seeing the announcer.

Which brings us to Timothy McVeigh, probably a good example of how different media have different strengths and likewise different roles. The internet web site is probably the best way of disseminating information. Unlike a press conference (which I’m sure they will have in addition), the website is always there, can help many people at the same time and is producing one consistent message.

While breaking news will more than likely also be featured on the website, I think it is television that is going to steal the show here. Sitting in front of your browser pressing refresh while waiting for the breaking news can be a little sole destroying. And then the newspapers will carry editorial and interpretations of the news. Still the best way to keep up with the trial on the train in the mornings.

For the foreseeable future various media will interact with each other and compliment rather than detract from each others message. I remember watching the Atlanta Olympics on television last year while pouring over the results on their website. The website was always current and contained every item to date. The television coverage could only flash the results of the top athletes on the screen for a few seconds. The website was available for months afterwards.

The internet is exciting and new and is causing some upheaval in the media community. The effect is positive as thousands of people apply their minds to how they can disseminate information in a more efficient way. Whereas barriers to entry for traditional media are high, the internet allows anyone to be a publisher. Pick your message, pick your audience and then pick your medium.

FAQs as an alternative to search engines

Tired of trying to understand search engines? Still not finding the information that you want on the internet? FAQs (frequently asked questions) could be the answer. FAQs have been with us since the early days of the internet but have been largely overlooked by traditional media in their efforts to popularise the world wide web. Companies such as Yahoo have made the headlines with their search engines but the good old FAQ has been neglected. I contend that when you know what you are searching for, a FAQ is often the best place to look.

FAQs have grown out of the need for efficiency and good manners, primarily on newsgroups (the electronic bulletin boards of the internet). There are always new people joining these bulletin boards and it became rather tiresome for the old hands in the group to repeatedly answer the same questions. Hence the FAQ which is a collection of the most frequently asked questions. FAQs usually start with questions such as why, what, who and where. The concept is incredibly simple but the information contained in FAQs is invaluable.

A FAQ is also based on the internet’s community model. While there is normally one person who moderates a FAQ, contributions are welcome from anyone who feels they can add something to the document.

FAQ vs. Search engine
Search engines leave the narrowing of results to the user which often causes frustration. A typical search on a search engine can return tens of thousands of documents. I was recently looking for information on converting some Excel spreadsheets to an old version of Lotus 123 so I headed over to AltaVista and submitted +123 +excel +convert. The result from AltaVista

Word count: excel: 322763; convert: 359758; 123: 902813
Documents 1-10 of about 900 matching the query, best matches first.

Although 900 documents sounds reasonable, I still find “about 900” web pages that all match my query rather intimidating. I browsed through the first two screens (15 minutes) and they were not what I was looking for. My options were to plough through the 900, refine my search to reduce the number of documents or to find the information in another manner.

I thought that maybe someone out there may have the same problem as me so considered searching newsgroups and then remembered a great site that contains a list of all the FAQs available on the net. I surfed over to http://www.landfield.com/faqs/ where a simple page gives you options to look at FAQs sorted in various different ways or even search the contents of the FAQs.

In my case I was looking for information on converting spreadsheets so I quickly located the spreadsheet FAQ. What I found was an incredible resource on the main spreadsheet products in the marketing, ideas, tips, advice and links to other websites with even more information. If you’re looking for spreadsheet information then I would recommend the FAQ before a search engine. It is so much less painful.

The Landfield Group maintain information on 3160 (all known) FAQ’s on their website. Information is updated daily. Their category index lists everything from Abdominal Training to Zoroastrianism. What’s Zoroastrianism? Check the FAQ.

Another advantage of a FAQ is that if you cannot find an answer to your question then you can drop a message to the newsgroup which is of course the whole idea of the FAQ. If your question is relevant it will probably be added to the FAQ.

While search engines strive to contain every document on the internet, FAQs are normally restricted to one topic. If you can’t find a FAQ on your topic then either start one or resort to the search engines.

AltaVista ((http://www.altavista.com) which regular readers will know is my favourite search engine has recently added a feature called Live Topics. If you browser supports Java you can view a very advanced display of topics that relate to your search and the relationship between the topics. If your browser is still running sans Java then you can view a text only version which is equally as powerful but not quite as pretty. Live Topics is invaluable if you are doing serious research.