Web Analysis Intro 1.1

What makes the web special

Like many revolutionary technologies, the web is predicated on a relatively simply idea: Users can remotely request documents, and those documents contain the means to remotely request documents. The documents themselves can be just about anything, including images, audio, and computer programs. HTML holds all of these together, providing a basic “glue” for potentially any sort of information that can be stored and transmitted digitally. That is, the Web is as much a meta-medium as it is a medium.

The social uses of this meta-medium are not entirely dissimilar to earlier communication media. Many criticized researchers, especially within the field of communication, for treating the Web as a mass medium, or drawing similarities to traditional letter-writing or telephone conversations. It was, they argued, a fundamentally new kind of communication technology. Yet even a cursory examination of the content of the Web would look familiar to someone who had been raised on books, television, and telephone. CNN.com, among the most visited, looks and feels and serves roughly the same social function as CNN over the cable. The difference was less in kind or in role; it was more subtle.

Part of the difference was and is economic. Most people pay a fixed amount to gain access to the Web, but once there, find a relatively large amount of free media. One of the reasons it can remain free is that it is less costly to produce, especially in bulk. The marginal expense of delivering another copy of a web page is vanishingly small. Moreover, while good design and fact-gathering is expensive, actually producing a web page that rivals CNN’s is within the reach of the amateur. This reduction of “friction,” the ability for transactions to happen quickly and at very little expense, has a special impact on the nature of the social interactions that may be supported.

Perhaps most striking, however, are the sort of interactions that may be carried out on the Web that have no clear historical parallels. This is the class of interaction that involves thousands or tens of thousands of people engaged in a sort of large-scale conversation. The Web supports a number of different kinds of communicative processes.


At the most distributed level, a Web page authored by an individual might be viewed by millions of people. When this happens, it is reminiscent of a television or radio broadcast. One voice carries to the ears of a large audience. But given the number of people that can view information over the Web, the potential global audience is even bigger than what most broadcast networks would allow. This one-to-many side of the Web is probably what comes to mind most readily when thinking about Web content. Even when the audience is relatively small–say, several dozen individuals–the one-way nature of this use is prevalent.

At the least distributed level, the Web supports one-to-one communication. This might occur via (Web-supported) email or chat. In this case, the medium supports the sort of person-to-person communication that often occurs face-to-face. Both have the ability to talk, to exchange, and to learn from one another. Obviously, many of these one-to-one kinds of interactions take place using protocols outside of the direct reach of the World Wide Web, but as we saw in the previous chapter, many of the internet applications that have traditionally existed apart from the Web — things like instant messaging, email, internet relay chat, and gaming — are converging on the Web itself.

While we can find traditional media that support the communication practices at these two extremes, it is harder to find older technologies that allow a kind of mass interaction. Many weblogs (and the intersection of these weblogs) exemplify this kind of some-to-some communication. On Slashdot, for example, thousands of people post commentary and respond to one another, and the most relevant responses are brought to the fore using a system for collaborative filtering. Howard Dean’s Election Blog, to provide another example, allowed supporters to voice their opinion and the candidate to respond in a kind of continuous, nation-wide, town hall. As we look at the content of the web, these kinds of large-scale conversations are especially interesting to examine, and raise special difficulties as well.

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  1. By ÀÖ»ªÑ§È¦ on 1/23/2004 at 12:02 am

    What makes the web special
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