Monday, April 29, 1996
Nicholas Negroponte, director of the MediaLab at MIT, recently said that using the internet, ?information and community can be pinpointed with total disregard for geographic density and without the need to justify or qualify them in terms of a mass medium.
It?s a familiar argument that the internet creates communities of similar people that would otherwise be separated by geography. But how much of a sense of community is it possible to feel with people, when your means of communication is a computer and modem?
To test this theory, I went looking for a community of people that were just like me, or rather for people that were me – people called David Moore. (This might sound nothing more than vanity, but it?s actually not a bad name to choose: not too common and not too rare, and it?s a name that isn?t linked to any particular English-speaking country).
The first place to start was a number of search engines on the World Wide Web. These allow you to enter a subject to search for, (in my case ?David Moore?), and sit back while the engine consults its records and then brings you a list of sites that include your subject.
Lycos, one of the most popular engines, boasts that it searches 34, 617, 737 unique web pages (remember, a particular site can include a large number of linked pages). With this amount of data to sort through, a welcome feature of the engines is the way they rank their search results in the order of the closest match. So, for example sites which include the words of your query in the right order in the title of the page come first.
Most of the sites that mentioned the name were individuals? home pages – sites where people share information about themselves and their hobbies, jobs and interests. This was perfect – where better to get a real sense of what people called David Moore are like? And what a mixed bunch they are.
We had a catalogue of photographs of Honda motorbikes next to a site devoted to the Appalachian dulcimer (a rare type of stringed instrument). Then a David Moore whose home page included links to Bible resources and commentaries, next to a scuba-diving, polka-dancing member of the ?pro-active research organisation? Childless by Choice.
The internet bias towards the worlds of academia and computing was apparent in the number of technical author and professor David Moores I came across.
Perhaps a future professor is the David Moore of the sixth grade at Rockledge Elementary School in Maryland, who made it on to the Principal?s Honor Roll for getting straight A results.
However, I was also pleased to see that there?s a David Moore writing sports journalism in Chicago, and another making bagpipes with his brother Hamish in Dunkeld, Perthshire. Unfortunately one of my number had achieved a different sort of fame. David A Moore is wanted by the police in Phoenix, Arizona for violating probation after an initial charge of supplying marijuana. His mug shot and details appeared on the Silent Witness site – a computerised wall full of Wanted posters.
This might seem like nothing more than a hi-tech parlour game, but it does illustrate some important points. These other David Moores have been alive for years, and until recently it would have been almost impossible for me to find them. Now, with a few key presses I can be taken from the Reverend David P Moore in Amherst NY to the David Moore of Einstein?s Moon Publishing in Australia, who?s been fighting a ban on a book called E for Ecstasy.
This is at once very powerful and deeply odd. While the information I have on these people has given me a tiny insight into a variety of lives, it?s very difficult to feel a sense of community with these Davids. At the same time as I was meeting these people, I was also completely alone.
It might be argued that this is not surprising, since I share with them nothing but the accident of a name, but even in newsgroups or chat rooms, where are people are discussing things of mutual interest, there?s still a feeling of unreality. You can acknowledge intellectually that these people exist, but they still don?t live for you in the same was as even the most passing acquaintance you ?really? know.
Nicholas Negroponte elides ?information and community?, blurring the distinction between them. Perhaps this is because virtual communities sound much more exciting than piles of disconnected information, but that?s all the internet largely is at the moment.
This is not to underestimate it – it offers some invaluable resources. However, it also offers much more information that is largely irrelevant to you but mildly diverting, and still more that is completely useless. It?s like a cross between an encyclopaedia and an extended gossip column, not a set of communities.
(first published in The Irish Times, Monday April 29th, 1996)