Mac Musings

At 20 Years, the Web Is a Wealth of Information and Connectivity

Dan Knight - 2009.03.20 - Tip Jar

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As Charles Moore noted yesterday, the World Wide Web is 20 years old this month. More precisely, the idea for the Web was put on paper; the Web itself didn't become a reality until December 1990.

The question Moore raises in The World Wide Web at 20: A Medium of Increasingly Trivial Pursuits? is an important one: What has the Web become?

It began as a way for researchers to share their findings, but today it's increasingly used for entertainment - online games, social networks, streaming media, and porn among them. And as anyone who has spent time on Facebook can tell you, the broadcasting of mundane, trivial information has reached epic proportions. Some people can't seem to do anything without telling the world about it. Thank goodness Facebook has an ignore button.

The Web has turned into something Tim Berners-Lee could not have envisioned in 1989. Thanks to increased computing power, broadband Internet access, and new protocols, there's a lot more to the Web than text and static images. Today we have Flash, streaming audio and video, instant messaging, VoIP, RSS new feeds, blogs, and more. It's changed a lot just in the 12 years since Low End Mac began.

There are different ways of looking at the Web. We can bemoan the increasing level of trivial information posted on it and the growing amount of time so many spend connected to it. Or we can look at the breadth and depth of the Web, realizing that it is rich in information - rich beyond comprehension. There's so much out there that we need search engines to help us find it.

Freedom of Expression

It's been said that freedom of the press is only limited by the cost of the printing press, but thanks to the Internet and blogging software, today anyone with access to a computer with Net access can be a publisher. Everyone's ideas can have a hearing, and the theory is that the cream will rise to the top. Most blogs and websites will exist in relative obscurity, but some will be noticed, become important, and gain respect.

That's how Low End Mac started: I posted two dozen profiles of old Macs (Mac Plus through the Mac II family) on my personal Internet account as I learned how to design web pages, the number of profiles grew over time, and several months later someone had the vision to contact me, move Low End Mac to the MacTimes network, and begin turning it from a hobby into a very small business. Nearly a dozen years later, one-third of a million people visit lowendmac.com every month, viewing about 1.5 million pages monthly.

We're far from the biggest independent Mac-related website. Not counting Apple itself or online retailers, there are about a dozen Mac-related websites bigger than we are, but people have recognized us as a useful resource and Google has ranked our pages well.

The beauty of the Internet is that anyone can float an idea, create a blog or website or whatever, and see whether it survives or thrives. Budding writers have the opportunity to display their craft, as do visual artists. People can share their home videos or address the weighty issues of the day - the economy, for instance.

The Internet has grown into something nobody could have envisioned. It is ubiquitous. And, especially for those who have broadband, it has become a primary medium for information and entertainment.

The Web Changed How We Communicate

Print Media

Major daily newspapers are cutting back from daily print editions, giving up on print editions, or simply closing their doors due to flagging subscriptions, declining ad revenue, and increased costs (last summer's $4/gal. gasoline was a factor there). Newspapers have had competition from free radio broadcasts since the 1920s, television since the 1930s, cable news networks since the 1980s, and the Web since the 1990s.

The model of charging advertisers and subscribers for a printed edition and spending all that money on printing presses, newsprint, delivery trucks, and staff is finding it difficult to compete with free access to news, especially the "on demand" access of the Internet.

More and more magazines are also moving away from print editions. PC Magazine has become PCMag.com and gone 100% digital. You can read most of its content on the Net, and for those who prefer the magazine format, the magazine is available in a digital edition. No more getting a copy in the mail or buying one on the newsstand, as I did in my pre-Macintosh days.

Broadcast Media

While illegal MP3s have been the bane of the RIAA, streaming broadcasts are now competing with traditional radio for those who want to listen to music at their desk. There are thousands of free online radio stations - many of them duplicating a broadcast station - and Pandora has changed the model by letting users create their own playlists based on a favorite song or artist.

Of course, for the ultimate in control, there's iTunes, Apple's free software for ripping your CDs, buying music online, managing your digital music collection, and sharing it over a network. iPods are probably a bigger threat to radio than Internet radio.

All of the major television networks have episodes available online, so if you missed Heroes or Eleventh Hour, you can watch it on the Internet. And then there's Hulu, where you can watch TV and movies online for free, thanks to advertising support. And iTunes has sold television shows and movies for years, although many still prefer to buy DVDs.

And then there are the new channels for video, such as YouTube, which have become the video equivalent of the blog.

You'd better have broadband, though. The brave new world of streaming digital content just doesn't cut it over dialup.

Email and Messaging

In the old days, you'd write letters home from college and mail postcards when you went on a trip. Today you're far more likely to send an email, message your friends, or post to your Facebook page. That's probably been the biggest part of the Internet revolution. No more postage stamps. No paper or envelopes. No waiting for the postman to deliver a message. Free and instant communication.

And more often these days, that email is being handled on the Web, not through a standalone email client that stores messages on your computer. Webmail has become the primary form of email for a lot of people, and communicating through Facebook is going to give it a run for the money.

Instant messaging has been around since the earliest computer networks in the 1960s, and the Quantum Link service for Commodore 64 users introduced it to the realm of personal computing in the mid 1980s. Quantum Link became America Online, and it's messaging software became AOL Instant Messenger.

Microsoft, Yahoo, and others created competing, incompatible IM networks, and ICQ became a popular option for those who didn't want to be tied to AOL, Microsoft, Yahoo, etc. Multiprotocol client software, such as Adium X for the Mac, make it possible to be linked to several different services (including AIM, MSN, Yahoo, Jabber, ICQ, and more) simultaneously while using a single program.

If you use more than one messaging program for text messaging, multiprotocol clients are worth a look. Voice and video chat is another issue altogether, and that's where you'll still want iChat, Yahoo Messenger, and the like.

In recent years, some webmail programs have added instant messaging, so you can check your Yahoo Mail or Gmail account, for instance, and message from the same page. (It's usually easy to turn that feature off, which is important if messaging cuts into your productivity.)

Building Community

While some still maintain that the Web produces isolation, the truth is that the Internet has been used to build connections since the first instant messages and emails were sent. In the 1990s, the email group became a popular and powerful tool for connecting people who were passionate about Macs, hiking, politics, or just about any topic imaginable. (Low End Mac has been managing email groups since late 1987.)

Chat rooms are another forum for building community, and they work in realtime.

Online gaming became another way to build community. Many first-person role playing games allow you to connect to multiple users around the world, adventuring and chatting as you go. More my speed is online card games, particularly euchre at Yahoo Games. Thanks to the Web and free community building services, there are thousands of online gaming leagues for card games and more.

I've been a member of several online euchre leagues over the years, and it's a great way to build connections to people around the world. (If you're an early riser in the US or Canada, you can make friends with people in New Zealand and Australia.) Online game sites make it easy to find someone to play with/against to hone your skills, and leagues connect you to a group. In many cases, in addition to online league tournaments and email league newsletters, you'll have a league picnic every now and then, allowing you to interact with your online buds in the real world.

Facebook makes it very easy to create groups, and I've made my share: Fans of Low End Mac, my high school classes in the States (Grand Rapids Christian High 1976) and Canada (Beacon Christian High 1976), and Knight (Knegt) Connection among them.

Facebook also makes it relatively easy to find people: Just type a name in the search box, and if that person has a Facebook account, you should find them. Assuming they're using their real names (some don't) and haven't changed them (as so often happens when a woman gets married). As Baby Boomers are a rapidly growing portion of the Facebook crowd, it is getting a bit easier to find classmates from high school and college - without the begging for a paid subscription we're tired of on Classmates.com and similar websites.

Research

Google has become one of the most important tools on the Internet, and Wikipedia has become a great first stop when researching a topic. Want to learn about a particular Mac? Google will probably point you to Low End Mac. Want to learn about the history of radio or television? Wikipedia will probably provide the most accessible introduction.

Genealogy

I've been dabbling in genealogy since the late 1980s, and Google has been a great tool for finding branches of my family tree. I compile all of my information on Geni.com, which is fairly powerful, pretty user friendly, and designed to also function as a social networking site. Geni lets you upload photos and videos, notifies you of birthdays and anniversaries in advance, and lets you know who has been working on your family tree and what has been updated recently.

My family tree includes over 1,500 blood relatives from the 13th century to the 21st, most of them in the Netherlands. (I'm also working on my wife's family tree, as well as my ex-wife's, since they're my children's ancestors. They're much smaller and don't go back nearly as far - yet.) Thanks to Geni, I've connected to a 5th cousin in this area and a few others who are somehow connected to one of the family trees I'm working on.

The only real drawbacks to Geni are that it's data collection isn't as thorough and its services aren't quite as complete as many of use would like (for instance, dealing with adoptions), and it's moved to the free-plus-fee model. I have complete access to my own family tree, but less access to other trees. I can export my tree to a GEDCOM file, but no other tree unless I sign up for $4.95/month "pro" service.

In addition to the resources Google finds me (the Dutch have lots of church records going back to the Middle Ages), Rootsweb WorldConnect has been an invaluable tool with over 5 million surnames and half-a-billion individual records (many of them overlap with different researchers having different data). I can almost always find a way to extend some branch of the family tree back a few more generations. (If you're interested, I have skeleton views of my Knight/Knegt, Weeda/Weda, and Mans/Mannz-Bruinenberg trees online.)

Church History and Growth

From 1992 through 1998 or so, I attended Calvin Theological Seminary part-time, taking one class at a time as funds allowed. I was enrolled in the program in Missiology and Church Growth, and I did a major research paper for my first class, A Statistical Survey of Grand Rapids Christian Reformed Congregations, 1970 to the Present. It looked at membership patterns for about 35 congregations using some very rudimentary tools I developed, looking at factors such as the size of the baptized membership that hadn't yet been confirmed. I sold maybe a dozen copies to classmates and local pastors, and I later adapted it and posted it on my reformed.net website.

Two years later, I wrote The Dutch Reformed Presence in Canada for my Canadian Church History class. My parents and grandparents had been part of the post-World War II Dutch immigration to Canada, and this helped me learn more about that period and the way the church grew during those years. I've also adapted it for use online, and I hear it's been used in subsequent Canadian Church History classes.

But the biggest part of the website is historical church profiles for about 200 congregations in the metropolitan area, complete with membership charts (not updated in several years). I spent countless hours copying data from historical sources into FileMaker Pro 3.0, exporting it for use in a ClarisWorks spreadsheet, creating a graph, copying that graph to Photoshop, and exporting it as a GIF.

I've managed to acquire some anniversary booklets produced by some local churches to gain additional information, found a bit more on the Web, and begun to compile it into what would have been my Masters Thesis, had I completed the program. It's strictly a labor of love and very much a work in progress. (Did I mention I have a BA with a group major in history, English, and philosophy?)

This isn't to brag about my research, but to show how the Web makes it possible to share information on relatively obscure topics. Honestly, how many people care about the history of a church that has long since closed its doors?

The reformed.net website has never even broken even on hosting costs, but it's a labor of love, just like Low End Mac. LEM became a commercial success, but other websites have died on the vine - Low End PC, Digigraphica, Digital Views - or never come anywhere close to reaching their potential. (I guess nobody really cares about old PCs the way some people care about old Macs, Commodores, Amigas, Ataris, and TRS-80s.)

Shopping

The Web is a great tool to research things. Want to buy a flat panel TV? Learn about plasma vs. LCD. Find out what the world thinks of the models you're interested in. Dig up the best price and determine whether it makes more sense to buy locally or have it shipped. Make sure the TV you buy isn't from a company that's gone belly-up.

Want to buy a home or refinance the one you have? Check out LendingTree.com as well as your local bank.

Want to slim down your budget? You can find sites with tips on reducing you energy bill, saving money on groceries (locally, Savings Angel is great), find the best gas price in the area, etc. Use Mapquest or a similar service to find the fastest, shortest, or most economical way to get from Point A to Point B. (If anyone has a trip routing website for local shopping trips, I haven't been able to find it.)

Entertainment

The Web isn't just a source for entertainment; it can help you find it as well. Want to know what's playing at the local cineplex? Find its website. No more need to look through the newspaper to find show times. And if you don't mind paying a bit extra, you can even order your tickets online. (Why anyone would pay a premium for movie tickets is beyond me, unless the show is a sellout.)

It's Not One Thing

The Web isn't just a source for online entertainment and banal blogging. There's a wealth of useful information on topics popular and obscure. There are lots of online communities covering everything from politics and your favorite sports teams to euchre leagues and class reunions.

Sure, a lot of what's on the Web might seem trivial to you, but it's important enough to someone that it's been put there. It might not rock my world, but everyone has different interests. The sheer size of the Web and the great diversity of people using it enriches the world.

Yeah, you have to separate the wheat from the chaff, the nonsense from the reality (Snopes.com is great for debunking urban legends and rumor-spreading emails), the biased from the objective - but that's just as true at the library, on television, or at the newsstand.

At just 20 years old, the Web hasn't even begun to reach its potential. What we do have is a gold mine for the prudent, a stumbling block for the foolish (Nigerian scams, anyone?), and a bottomless pit for the trivial.

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Dan Knight has been using Macs since 1986, sold Macs for several years, supported them for many more years, and has been publishing Low End Mac since April 1997. If you find Dan's articles helpful, please consider making a donation to his tip jar.

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