The power of the World Wide Web, it is commonly believed, lies in the vast information it makes available; "Content is king," the mantra runs. This image creates the conception of the Internet as most of us envision it: a vast, horizontal labyrinth of pages which connect almost arbitrarily to each other, creating a system believed to be "democratic" in which anyone can publish Web pages. I am proposing a new, vertical and hierarchical conception of the Web, observing the fact that almost everyone searching for information on the Web has to go through filter Web sites of some sort, such as search engines, to find it. The Albert Einstein Online Web site provides a paradigm for this re-conceptualization of the Web, based on a distinction between the wealth of information and that which organizes it and frames the viewers' conceptions of the information. This emphasis on organization implies that we need a new metaphor for the Internet; the hierarchical "Tree" would be more appropriate organizationally than a chaotic "Web." This metaphor needs to be changed because the current one implies an anarchic and random nature to the Web, and this implication may turn off potential Netizens, who can be scared off by such overwhelming anarchy and the difficulty of finding information.
Albert Einstein Online: A Model
The Success: Extrapolate the Einstein Paradigm
Vision of the Web: Organization vs. Content
The Bias Inherent in Hierarchies
The Metaphor: Web vs. Tree
The Ramifications of the Tree: Anarchy vs. Hierarchy
I first had the idea to create Albert Einstein Online [ 1 ], a Web page about the German physicist and Nobel laureate, soon after I created the first incarnation of my personal homepage. Long a fan of Einstein's life philosophies and world views, I wanted to link to an Einstein Web page from my own page. After I soon discovered, however, that there was no comprehensive site about him, I made my own. Part of the beauty of the Internet is this do-it-yourself spirit, the ultimate manifestation of the power of the free market: I saw there was a need, so I satisfied it.
Albert Einstein Online is a listing of over 90 Web pages about or relating to Albert Einstein. It is organized into six categories: Information, Writings, Quotes, Pictures, Miscellaneous, and Announcements. The site, in other words, provides no new information or any new content; instead, it organizes much of the existing online information about Einstein so that users (Net-surfers) can find it easily.
Graphically, the page consists of a straightforward list of the various Einstein sites, organized by category, with a chalk background and a small photo of Einstein at the top of the page. The page is simple; its central purpose is to present the information clearly. Rather than making pretensions to giving net-surfers a substitute for reality - this is what seems to be in fashion these days - it just presents them clearly with the information they need, reinforcing the point of the site: to organize the other Einstein sites (see screenshot). I have forgone the loud graphics that characterize many Web pages because I want to facilitate the users completing their tasks [ 2 ].
This to-the-point graphical philosophy, additionally, takes into account current technological limitations. Most Web connections are currently over phone lines and thus slow compared to the relatively quick T1 connections, and, as a result, it is time-consuming to wait for graphic-intensive sites to download [ 3 ]. My approach is structural and organizational, emphasizing the information rather than distracting the reader with superfluous graphics. This philosophy is similar to Yahoo!'s; the clarity and ease of finding information is more important than looking at the graphics and multimedia which are not part of the content itself. "Vigorous writing is concise" William Strunk writes; like vigorous prose, the Albert Einstein Online Web site is to the point [ 4 ].
One day in the late summer of 1995, when I decided to make the site, I did a Lycos search for "Albert Einstein." Then I searched Yahoo!, AltaVista and finally WebCrawler. I sorted through most of the pages, going through many of the hundreds of pages returned, and compiled them into a big list. Since AltaVista alone has 30 million Web pages catalogued [ 5 ], the amount of information available online is unmanageable for individuals. An AltaVista search for "Albert Einstein," for example, yields 50,000 Web pages [ 6 ], impossible for any single person to sort through reasonably. Web-surfers still use AltaVista and the like very much, but only because, like Churchill's quip in defense of democracy, a better and more efficient method for finding information on the Web has yet to emerge. It is, however, interesting to note that Yahoo! - the search engine which goes the farthest to organize the Web - is the second most visited Web site according to PC-Meter [ 7 ]. Even though AltaVista's ordering scheme - which places pages that mention Einstein the most nearest to the beginning of this huge list and places the casual, passing references towards the bottom of the list - organizes the pages algorithmically, there are still a tremendous number of pages beyond the power of any individual to sift through; the top 5% of the Einstein pages leave 500 pages to look at. These rankings and orderings become negligible after a certain point. Some sort of organizer or mediator, therefore, is necessary to disseminate all the online Albert Einstein information into a viewable form for the Web surfer. This is the function Albert Einstein Online fills.
Because AltaVista and the other search engines search by rank and numbers rather than by idea and association, the result of the searches invariably returns thousands of pages useless to the information-seeker, such as the many sorts of pages with just a photo of Einstein and a caption, or a passing mention of him [ 8 ]. Information-light pages such as these, furthermore, are often placed closer to the top of the mechanized ranking systems because the words being searched ("Albert Einstein" in this example) are more prominent on the page. Ideally, this organization is the sort of work search engines ought to be doing for us, but they fail miserably (in their current incarnation; who knows about five years from now): search engines are not able to distinguish between contexts, to see what is useful and what mentions are superfluous. Although it is certainly possible to use more advanced features when searching for information online such as ranking criteria, these engines lack the human ability to associate ideas and, as a result, the engines alone can not create a search mechanism nearly so effective as a library's card catalog or a Yahoo!-like classification. So this is what I did "by hand" when I organized much of the online information into the various categories and thus created Albert Einstein Online.
The success of this re-conceptualization emphasizing organizational structures, therefore, may be measured on a small scale by the success of this site. If this site is successful, then it can be used as a microcosm of sorts. This begs the question: has the Web site been a success?
One barometer of the success of a site is the number of links to it. According to AltaVista, Albert Einstein Online has over 400 links to it [ 9 ]. Although many Web users and pundits are now skeptical about the significance of the number of "hits" to a Web page [ 10 ], it is currently still a popularly-used measurement. The top level front page of Albert Einstein Online alone receives about 500 hits, on average, every weekday [ 11 ].
The Web page has also been reviewed and awarded various distinctions. A WebCrawler review of the site says that it's "an index sure to please Einstein fans - both physics scholars and dilettantes alike" [ 12 ] and the site has been awarded the National Academy of the Sciences Cool Site of the Day [ 13 ] and the Medaille d'Or [ 14 ]. Another measure of the site's success can be users' responses. I receive perhaps five to ten Einstein-related inquiries per week, including the following ones in a recent week:
Date: Mon, 28 Oct 96 13:43:12 EST
Subject: Einstein Quote About Bicycles
Somewhere I got the idea that Albert Einstein was the source of the quote that "the bicycle was the greatest thing mankind has done." Can you confirm this?
and in the growing tradition of using the Internet in place of library research:
From: "Tatiana Lobo Coelho de Sampaio"
Date: Fri, 25 Oct 1996 12:33:17 GMT-3
Subject: Einstein paper
I'm very interested in a paper by Albert Einstein which I haven't been able to find. The reference is: "On a Stationary System with Spherical Symmetry Consisting of many Gravitating Masses" Ann. Math. 40:922, 1939 I would greatly appreciate if you can give me any information about how to proceed to find this paper.
Thank you very much.
and often ones such as:
From: Chris Engebo chrise@MOM.SPIE.ORG
Date: Fri, 25 Oct 1996 16:52:33 -0700
Subject: Einstein page
Einstein's contribution to humanity is under-rated...
The most frequently asked question I receive is, indubitably, why Einstein is sticking out his tongue in that famous photo. To the cynic, that shows, perhaps, what people are really interested in on the Web. A year and a half ago, a reporter from the Brazilian magazine Superinteressante shared the answer with me:
These varied sorts of e-mails - and the constant stream of them I receive - demonstrate that the site is being used for all sorts of purposes, and in that way it is a success.
Date: Tue, 26 Sep 1995 17:58:34 -0300
Subject: the answer of Einstein's tongue
Dear Mr. Friedman,
Thank you by your attention. I have asked around the world about this picture and finally I know the answer. The picture was taken in March, 14th 1951. Nobody knows the name of the photographer but we know he is from UPI (United Press International). I was Einstein's birthday and the photographer asked him to smile. Too many people already asked him to smile, so he decided to make something else.
Then he showed the tongue.
This information was discovered by Ivonete Lucirio, a reporter of our magazine.
I hope you enjoy this information and you can tell it to all your friends.
If you have any information about Einstein (new information or curious information) please send them to us.
Thank you a lot,
RICARDO B SETTI
Building on the success of the site, let's expand this Albert Einstein Online microcosm and examine the Web through this organizational rather than content-based lens. Most people today see the Web as primarily content-based, concerned with the information itself and not the shaping, framing, and organization of it [ 15 ]. Yet many of the most visited sites on the Web are those which organize the rest of the Net for the user. A close examination of the WebCrawler's Top 25 Most Linked Sites and the 100 Hot list (of the most visited Web sites) indicates that 7 of the top 15 sites on the former list and 6 of the top 15 on the latter are search engines or Web classification schemes, and this isn't even including Netscape's ubiquitous "NetSearch" button [ 16 ]. And the engine that organizes the most, Yahoo!, is the most popular search engine, as mentioned earlier [ 7 ]. So, many of the sites most frequently visited are largely the ones that organize the rest of the Web and, by their nature, often control other Web-surfers' entrances to the rest of the Web.
This Albert Einstein site has become popular and useful, largely due to the function it provides: using the microcosm of Albert Einstein, the site organizes the Net. Jacques Derrida drew a famous distinction between people who create knowledge from scratch and those who take pieces of others and bring them together to create new knowledge [ 17 ]. On the Web, the latter of these two groups, the organizers whom I'll call Bricoleurs, to use Derrida's term, sort out the rest of the information on the Internet and give the information to the user beautifully wrapped. In doing so, they control what and how the Web-surfers see on the Web. As the Web grows exponentially bigger, making it even more difficult than it is now for any individual to search the Web haphazardly, the importance of this organization and these Bricoleurs will become even more paramount. Steven Steinberg, for example, has argued that, "Knowledge organization is important not because of how much knowledge there is now, but because of how many people are becoming involved in its production [ 18 ]."
I envision the future of the Web controlled by librarians of sorts or perhaps by a cyber-ontology. Yahoo! attempts to organize the Web by hiring dozens of librarians to sort through and catalog pages submitted to them. But they will never be able to do much more than they do now; the Internet is too large for any single person or group of people to organize alone. Netizens are becoming Bricoleurs, solving this problem (and will solve it to an even greater degree in the future) by creating meta-organizations on thousands and thousands of topoi and niches. People wanting to find information on Andrew Lloyd Webber, for example, can now consult a Web page which is just a listing of the dozens of other Lloyd Webber pages out there [ 19 ], as Albert Einstein Online does for Albert Einstein. In the distant future, more advanced computers may be able to do this for us, but not until computers develop a human-like sense of judgment.
If we extrapolate this organizational paradigm, one problem looms: personal bias. Any Linneaus-like organization will be biased, as Linneaus was when he organized organisms into genus and species and his hierarchy of nature. But this is not a problem, I will argue here.
While finding Web sites to be listed on Albert Einstein Online, I evaluated the sites based on informal criteria. Seeing how search engines failed using analytic criteria, I relied on human judgment, keeping track of sites with useful or interesting information (bibliographies, essays, and so forth) and even those with pictures and quotes. I weeded out the sites which are, for practical purpose, superfluous, such as those with redundant information, or the personal homepage of the student who attends, lets say, the Albert Einstein College of Medicine. No search engine can do this. I spent perhaps three summer nights in a hot computer lab in the University of Pennsylvania's Steinberg Hall-Dietrich Hall, going through hundreds of Web pages at a rate of a page per two minutes or so. I was inevitably affected by my biases as we all are; complete objectivity is impossible. And my biases in organizing the information shape the viewer's perception of the information (about Einstein, in this case) presented on the Web through my sorting.
Since this bias is inevitable, the best we can do is be self-conscious about it. That way, we can be as fair as can be. And on the Web, if one site is too biased for certain people's tastes, someone can just make another one, less biased from their point of view. As in any marketplace, competition will make the market fair. And because it is relatively easy to make a competing page - especially with the ease with which you can copy the "source" (code) of a Web page, moral or not, and especially when compared to the cost of start-up competition in other markets - most Netizens could make another organization of Albert Einstein, or whatever other niche, and overtake me if they think my biases influence the site too much.
But my shaping the site according to my biases raises another question because I am no physicist and certainly no expert on Albert Einstein; I am just a Web-surfer with a passing interest in Einstein. My biases are popular, not academic. In traditional print media, the editor of an anthology is a Ph.D., or one of the most knowledgeable men or women on the given subject. But with the Einstein Web site, I am Joe Average, knowing only the pop culture sound bytes about him. I created the site (and chose which sites to link) from the point of view of the typical Netizen, not the esoteric academic, thus making the site more sensitive to the interests of the majority of viewers. I made prominent categories, such as "Photos," or "Quotes," around subjects that I and the Web-surfing general public will most likely be interested in, not categories such as "The Physics of Einstein's Early Atomical Experiments." This emphasis has made the site more popular, tilted towards pop desires while still linking the research and scientific information.
The ramifications of this on the publishing industry could be manifold. When the users are publishers, and vice versa - the ultimate result of this trend - the Web will become truly democratized, with everyone, novice and expert alike, having a voice and equal opportunity. This direction the Web is moving in makes the need of a hierarchy and organization for the Web more important: when everyone has a voice, there is even more of a need to differentiate between and sort through the vast amounts of information and variety of sorts of information (including novice and expert opinions alike) available online.
We now conceive of the Web through a horizontal and democratic metaphor. The Web is structured, as it currently implies, as a "web" of information: a vast intertwining of millions of bits and bytes of information through which we, the Web-surfing information-seekers, must wade to find the information for which we're searching. The differences between the experts and the novices, as I just argued, are fast fading on the Internet as it becomes simple for anyone to publish, and this equality of opportunity is the embodiment of the democratic spirit. But from this wealth of information and the need to use it efficaciously to find information arises the necessity for the virtual equivalent of Derrida's Bricoleur, who takes bits of information (created by what Derrida called the Engineer) and uses it to create new information. Bricloeurs - like me with Albert Einstein Online - are thus integral to the Web, making it coherent enough for others to utilize.
This structure is represented less by a "web" and more by a "tree". You would think, offhand, that the Web is based around many nodes which join together like a spider web to make the World Wide Web. But there are a few Web sites out there, Albert Einstein Online on a small scale and Yahoo!, for example, on a grand scale - the branches of the tree, if you will - which sort through the hodgepodge of hundreds of millions of characters on the Internet (leafs, we can call them) and present the Web surfer with just the results. These few Web sites shape the way the Web surfers see the rest of the Internet, just like the branches shape the way you see the tree. And the Web surfers can be squirrels, jumping from leaf to leaf, in an organizational structure based around the tree and branches. The hierarchy of the Web, like the hierarchy of the tree itself, is not immutable; new branches grow and die, as new Yahoo!s grow and die as well. Think of this tree vision of the Web as a meta-Gopher plus integrated graphics and text: the hierarchy and structure that make Gopher clear and relatively easy with the text and graphics that give the Web its popularity.
Metaphors can influence the development of objects and ideas, and must be chosen carefully. A well-known technological example is the computer virus. The first computer virus was a good one: in 1981 it went around Apple computers harmlessly, optimizing them [ 20 ]. Now, however, all computer viruses are bad. The name "virus" has earned viruses such a pejorative connotation that it would be impossible for Microsoft or any other company to release a "good" virus. No one would buy it - and the company would have to change the metaphor (i.e., not call it a "virus") for consumers buy it.
This begs the question: has the "Web" metaphor been adversely affecting the growth and development of the Web? Yes, for two reasons. First, potential Web surfers can and have been scared off by this anarchy of the Web in other ways. Just hearing about the random linkage of all the information can easily scare away the potential newbie. A Web search for "Albert Einstein" that yields 50,000 responses is frightening for the potentially productive citizen, who doesn't yet know that most of those sites are superfluous. The newbie will be even more scared off after he/she starts examining the first few dozen sites, and realizes that they are mostly irrelevant for most purposes. They are, furthermore, rightfully scared off; it's unreasonable to have to sift through up to 50,000 Web pages to find the particular one you need.
Contrast this anarchy with the vertical image of the Web I'm presenting. Rather than being scared off by the endless Web of connections, potential users will be able to find what they need with greater ease. Now imagine what it will be like once we reach the point in which there are sites like Albert Einstein Online for every subject; then the Web will be truly organized, in image and in reality. It will then be easy, and not scary, to find the information which you need, and people will not be turned off by the anarchic structure which the Web metaphor implies. Gopher doesn't scare anyone, and this is the aspect of Gopher the Web needs to emulate.
The second reason why the horizontal Web metaphor has been adversely affecting the Web is more political than fear-based. In anarchy, the weak individual is powerless: you can suffer from the whims of any other individual at any time unless you are one of the few powerful ones, able to overpower the others. This is certainly the case with the Web, in which most individuals are, more or less, powerless-Web surfers just go back and forth between a group of favorite big sites and, when they don't, they usually use these big sites (such as AltaVista) to frame the rest of the Web for them, as I argued above. Netscape "bookmarks" have become popular so we can remember those few sites we frequent most; Web pages have largely lost their initial function of being the list of links people visited most. This also explains why there is only paid advertising on a very few Web sites; only a couple of Web pages get enough hits to make it worthwhile for a company to put an advertisement on it. The most visited Web sites are the search engines (sponsored by big companies like Digital) and big corporations like Wired and McKinley; individual Web surfers are like lone consumers, without consumer groups or other communal support. But, because of the pretense and commonly held belief that the Net is democratic, individuals think they have power and run things. The result? Under the current system, people don't do much, other than surf to the big, popular Web pages, even though they have an untapped potential to do more.
If the Web were conceptualized as a hierarchy, however, people would realize that they are at the bottom of the food chain, and not think they are powerful, as they do now with the current conceptualization of the Web as a democracy. Since it is natural to want to escape out of the lower rungs - especially for the capitalist mentality of the democratically-imbued Americans who dominate the Internet - under the new conceptualization people will work to move to the top of the hierarchy. What will happen, in fact, is a sort of group action; call it populism if you will. Netizens, I am confident, will work together and turn the Web into a truly grassroots virtual space, by unwittingly organizing the Web by creating lots of Bricoleur-like organizations on the many niches of the Web. With everyone, not even knowing they're working together, making meta-lists, or little Web sites organizing specific little aspects of the Web (such as Albert Einstein information), the Netizens themselves will have truly taken control of the Web.
Richard Lanham has drawn a distinction between looking at something and looking through it [ 21 ]. New technologies such as computers, he argues, force us to look at the text rather than through it, as is traditionally done. The technology, in other words, makes us self-conscious about the text, so we can't ignore it. What I am doing in this paper is taking this one step further, and arguing that the importance of the at can no longer be ignored on the World Wide Web. Netizens have been ignoring the structure (the "at", Lanham would say) of the Web, and just using it to find the information or "content" for which we're looking (and looking "through" the Web). But with the exponential growth of the Web, we can no longer do this. The Web has reached a size where we can no longer look through it, ignoring the structure of the information; instead we now have to look at it, and see that it is dependent on the hierarchical structure that I have outlined here.
I have been arguing, in other words, for the power of the metaphor. The structure implied by the metaphor of the "Web", while superficially true (and also nifty to say), is inappropriate for the Web, encouraging us to look through the Web rather than at it. The conceptualization of the Web as anarchic - manifested in the metaphor of the "Web" - turns people off from the Web and has given rise to a link-anarchy making the Web difficult to navigate. But it need not be this way. If we each make our personal Yahoo! on the subject we love, then not only will we have made the Web more organized and easier to navigate, but we will have each made a useful site and, in a way, conquered the Web. As more people start Web-surfing, and as more experienced Web-surfers organize the online information about their niches and areas of interest, we will together be working towards changing the Web to a "Tree."
Steven Morgan Friedman (email@example.com), a third year undergraduate studying English and History at the University of Pennsylvania, is researching writing and rhetoric on the Internet. His Web pages have been mentioned in the Washington Post and PC Week, and have won various awards. Homepage: http://www.sas.upenn.edu/~smfriedm/
2. One example: http://www.sas.upenn.edu/~dkantor/page5.html as of 5 December 1996
For a wonderful discussion on the power of elegant Web pages, see the Sun Web style guide, at http://www.sun.com/styleguide/
3. Paul Hoffman mentions that at 14.4Kbps modems (the average modem speed as of 1996), the Web can often be too slow to load graphics (p. 91). There are listservs and discussion groups, such as the one at http://sunsite.unc.edu/mdma-release/ "dedicated to the proposition that the web is just too darned slow," working on how to speed it up.
4. William F. Strunk, Elements of Style, http://www.columbia.edu/acis/bartleby/strunk/strunk.html#13
7. Reteurs, January 14, 1996: http://www.yahoo.com/text/headlines/970114/tech/stories/aol_1.html
8. Such as: http://www.lewisgroup.com/illumina/theboss/theboss.htm
10. Roger Hurwitz, "WWW Site Measurement," p. 121
11. See the logbook analysis of the Web page, automatically updated at noon, at midnight (EST) daily: http://www.english.upenn.edu/~morgan/accesswatch-1.33/einstein/
Note that I track loads from graphic browsers (with the graphics option turned on) because I keep track of the hits through the loading of a graphic on the Einstein page. I do this because the server the page is located on does not allow users to access the Web logbooks for analysis. So, the figures here likely under-estimate the number of hits to the page.
13. September, 1996: http://www.nap.edu/fresh/hot/archives.html
15. This is the general feeling on the Internet, with the current drive to put everything online. One example of such a drive is at: http://www.firstmonday.org/issues/issue2/content/index.html
More directly, there's an online famous editorial arguing that "content is king" at: http://homepage.seas.upenn.edu/~mengwong/#editorial and a similar presumption in the Economist, 11/23/96, in the article "Citizen Gates", at http://economist.iconnet.net/issue/23-11-96/wb8465.html
and in Paul Hoffman, Netscape... for Dummies, p. 26.
16. WebCrawler: http://www.webcrawler.com/WebCrawler/Top25.html
100 Hot: http://www.100hot.com/
The 100 Hot list presents some statistical problems because its results include all the subpages on the given domain, and they explicitly exclude X-rated material from the ranking.
17. Jacques Derrida, Structure, Sign and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences.
18. Wired, May 1996, p. 182.
19. This does, as a matter of fact, already exist; I made it. http://www.sas.upenn.edu/~smfriedm/alw.html
20. Rune Skardhamar, Virus Detection and Elimination, p. 7.
21. Richard Lanham, The Electronic Word, p. 50.
Jacques Derrida, 1978. "Structure, Sign and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences." In: Writing and Difference. Translation by Alan Bass. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Paul Hoffman, 1996. Netscape and the World Wide Web for Dummies. Foster City, Calif.: IDG Books.
Roger Hurwitz, 1996. "WWW Site Measurement," World Wide Web Journal, vol. 1, no. 3, pp. 121-125.
Richard Lanham, 1993. The Electronic Word. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Rune Skardhamar, 1996. Virus Detection and Elimination.
Boston: AP Professional.
Steven G. Steinberg, 1996. "Seek and Ye Shall Find (Maybe)," Wired, vol. 4, no. 5 (May), pp. 108-114, 172, 174, 176, 178, 180, 182.
William F. Strunk, 1918. Elements of Style. Geneva,
N. Y.: Press of W. P. Humphrey.
Copyright © 1997, First Monday
Albert Einstein Online by Steven Morgan Friedman
First Monday, volume 2, number 2 (February 1997),