Welcome to the Revolution

by William Dan Terry

IP News (Internet Edition) Fall 1996

In times of societal unrest it is said that the pen is mightier than the sword. Now it seems that the electron is replacing the pen making it yet the mightier tool. Welcome to the revolution.

Our ancestors had the daunting task of creating language. The written form of language provided a means of exchanging and preserving information while maintaining its integrity. The medium evolved in different ways around the globe with new technologies replacing old; stone to papyrus to paper to computer screen.

The tools developed to aid in the creation and dispersion of information evolved too; the chisel to pen to typewriter to personal computer - the scribes to manual printing press to modern electric printing press to computer. All of these changes were created to make information more easily rendered, preserved, disseminated, and used.

The history of humankind is the story of change; change brought about by different means at different times. In such flux, the world learned that the pen can be mightier than the sword. More accurately, information can be more powerful than might. As the electron replaces the pen, or more accurately, as a technology based upon the electron evolves from a technology based upon pen and paper, the importance of information is reaffirmed.

Currently, the industry responsible for the recording and dissemination of information is based upon a hybridization of all of these technologies. Much of information is recorded using electronic technology and disseminated in printed media. The next chapter in the information evolution is being written, or should I say, wired. The latest change on a global level is the advent of the electron-based world-wide medium for information exchange called the Internet.

The Internet Age

Periods in human history have been labeled by their primary technology. We've passed from the Stone Age through the Industrial Age. Many consider us now to be in the Information Age. It could be said that the Internet has already made a large impact on information exchange and is predicted to radically change many aspects of information management. This paradigm shift warrants a fresh look at how we manage information and may even warrant its own label - the Internet Age.

The Internet evolved out of a United States government initiative to develop a fault-tolerant means of information exchange across the country. While there was no singular Internet initiative, various programs and ideas were pursued independently, enhancing the capabilities of the technology which would collectively become the Internet. Some of these remain as part of the Internet. Some were superseded by others. US government and academic communities were the early members of the Internet citizenship. As the Internet matured, other communities and countries joined in its use and development. Today, Netizens come from all walks of life and all points of the globe. Dorm rooms and hotel rooms are being wired for Internet access. People regularly correspond with colleagues they've never met who reside on distant continents, and information is presented and exchanged among Internet virtual communities. The Internet is truly an international structure expanding daily.

A series of information exchange protocols, and the tools to utilize them, have emerged to handle different types of information and different styles of communication. Some of these provide the currently predominant protocols used for general information exchange. Others cover more technical or more focused uses. And yet while some others are still in use in legacy systems, they have been supplanted by newer protocols.

Of all the primary general information exchange protocols, it is the advent of the World Wide Web (WWW) which is responsible for the explosion in the use of the Internet and which has opened up the Internet as a media for fields beyond computer and scientific exchange . Hailing from the European Laboratory for Particle Physics (CERN), Tim Berners-Lee envisioned a means for more easily sharing information. This vision included the use of hypertext (text which automatically references other information) and multimedia techniques to more transparently mix information formats. As part of this, Web browsers (the user's tool for accessing the WWW) incorporate the ability to access many of the other information exchange protocols, bringing these additional protocols to the user in a much more friendly package.

The Sword, the Pen, and the Electron

The methods for spreading ideas, philosophies, and information have evolved along with human culture. Having largely left the first means behind and currently using the second, while flirting with the third, how do we really capitalize on what electronic, and more specifically Internet, media have to offer? As a publishing venue, the Internet has many exciting possibilities for expanding the benefit of published material.

Information recording and dissemination benefits are the most apparent. The benefits of electronic information recording are already well understood in publishing. Computer uses for research, composition, and desktop publishing abound. Dissemination via the Internet is immediate world-wide.

The Internet's fault-tolerance means that the transmittal of publications does not suffer losses or major delays due to the core Internet technology. Albeit errors can occur in specialized software applications until corrected, and transient errors can occur in the networking.

Yet, the most significant benefit of the Internet as an integral part of a publishing program is the number of tools which can be used in concert in presenting information. With these tools, articles can be presented in a continuous publishing paradigm. Responses to articles can be made immediately, and dynamic discussions among readers can be fostered with the same ease as viewing the article. Raw research data can be made available to all readers directly via the article in a cost-effective manner. Readers can view computer simulations or video clips or listen to audio clips directly within the article. They can even run these computer simulations with their own variations of input to experiment with the model's stability. Materials referenced in articles can be viewed just as easily through hypertext links.

The primary tool in the electronic toolbox is the World Wide Web, whose standards are now guided by the World Wide Web Consortium (WC3). On the WWW, titles can be presented in a number of electronic publishing formats. The main two of these are HyperText Markup Language (HTML), a subset of SGML, and Portable Document Format (PDF). HTML is the native format for the WWW, and as such, its display is subject to the reader's preferences. This means that fonts and layout are only roughly defined by the publisher. Audio and video clips are easily included in HTML documents so that the reader can select to hear or view them at any time. PDF preserves fonts and layout, but requires the reader to use another software application to read it.

The other Internet publishing tools include email (Simple Mail Transfer Protocol, SMTP), File Transfer Protocol (FTP), Internet News (Network News Transfer Protocol, NNTP, USENET News,), Internet Relay Chat (IRC), and Java.

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Email applications called list servers can be used to create email discussion groups, to which a reader can elect to "subscribe". Every email the reader sends to the discussion group gets distributed to all members of the group. And, likewise, every email submitted by all other members is delivered to the reader. In this way members can engage in discussions on a variety of topics concurrently without confusion since the message topic is generally available for identification. And due to the nature of email, members do not need to be present at any particular time to participate. These discussions can be moderated or unmoderated. The publisher can also use the list server as a vehicle to discuss selected topics or to include specific guest participants, such as article authors.

FTP provides a very useful way to make additional information, such as raw data from research, available to the reader. The WWW makes retrieving such FTP files as easy as selecting highlighted text in the article. The data would then be viewed using the computer software applicable to the file format, i.e. a word processor for a word processor file, a spreadsheet application for a spreadsheet.

Internet news can be used by the reader to read and post bulletin board-styled correspondence. While similar to email list servers, no membership is required to participate and the discussions are generally unmoderated.

IRC provides a means for a different type of discussion group. In this model, discussion is in real-time involving only those people who are actively present via their Internet connections. This generally limits the topic to one primary subject at a time, much like a group of people participating in a single discussion at a conference socializer. This provides a great means for having guest speakers, such as the author of an article in the current issue, available for an hour to discuss a specific topic with readers.

Small specialized applications such as computer simulations can be made available to the reader via the Java protocol. This feature can be used to allow the reader to easily try out altered input in a model used for a research article.

All of these pieces of a publishing program are accomplished while sitting in one place via one instrument, the computer on the Internet.

Welcome to the evolution.

On the Trail of the Elusive Electron

It is impossible to know both the exact location and velocity of an electron at a given time. Likewise, e-publishing finds itself in a similar state - not knowing exactly where it is or where it's going. Internet publishing represents the first potential opportunity for completely different publishing paradigms since Gutenburg. This is probably the biggest single step in publishing evolution yet. And to add to the challenge, e-publishing offers a multitude of completely new options to incorporate.

The world of publishing has forked before, primarily based upon the currentness and longevity of the contents, from daily newspapers to tomes that endure for ages. The contents itself and the target audience have also been part of the influence on the publishing program pursued. With the embracing of e-publishing will be seen a forking of publishing programs like no other before it. The opportunities for tailoring a publishing program to the desires of the particular audience are more easily realized on the Internet. The contents and audience will play a much larger part in defining the fork followed and publishing in general will become more interactive.

Choosing the right trail will take an understanding of the Internet medium, both the tools and the culture, and the collaboration of editors, authors and audience. Since technology is playing a large part in the media, publishers will want to keep abreast of it, continuously assessing its applicability to their current program. It is possible to develop programs ranging from straight Internet presentation with a few features like full-content search to programs which more closely resemble organizations with members and a suite of member services.

Sample Internet Publishing Programs

The following three sample publishing programs are simply possibilities from a continuous spectrum. They range from simple to sophisticated, but don't represent any inherent categories.

Sample 1 - a short, weekly newsletter on stock market trends
Availability to paid subscribers is immediate world-wide, so there is no lost window of opportunity for some whose postal mail service takes added time. A search engine is provided so subscribers can query the corpus for stories related to the topic of interest. An editor feedback form is provided for direct editor email correspondence. A reference page is provided with links to useful, stock market-related Internet sites.
Sample 2 - a monthly journal on astrophysics
In addition to the features of Sample 1 (as adapted to astrophysics), articles contain video clips of observed phenomena, audio clips from radio-telescope recordings, links to raw data, visualizations of computer modeled phenomena so that the reader can watch the simulation progress, direct feed links to observatory equipment during the observation of specific events like a solar eclipse. An unmoderated discussion list open only to journal subscribers allows for conversation between subscribers.
Sample 3 - a continuously published journal on political science
In addition to the features of Sample 2 (as adapted to political science), the first Wednesday of every month a guest speaker is invited to a two-hour chat session. Participation in the chat session is only open to paid subscribers. Subscribers can use a profiling service which alerts the subscriber via email when an article matching the profile is published. A variety of newsfeed services are monitored, cataloging the day's stories for easy location by subscribers.

While many of these features aren't part of hardcopy publishing programs, subscribers will probably want more capability from their electronic information sources. After all, a title is a specialized information source of value to the subscriber. As the number of titles continues to increase at today's rates and titles become more specialized, subscribers are going to want more tools to deal with this wealth of information. And who better to provide those services than the publisher.

Locating the Electron Now

The first step in developing an e-publishing program is to assess the audience's interest in an e-publishing program, what kinds of presentation benefit the contents and what kinds of features benefit the community of readers. This requires educating publishers, editors, authors and readers of the types of options available, and prompting them to invent their own options. The limits of Internet publishing are not known and probably will change as technologies evolve.

As much of this is as new to the audience as to the publisher, it's worth experimenting with options. Regardless of whether the Internet portion of the program is done in-house or vended out, the relative cost of experimenting with some options is a small addition to a base Internet publishing program.

And probably most importantly, constantly reevaluate your program, both for areas of excess and shortage. With Internet technology evolving quickly, some features may be outdated the next year and should be updated. Other features may have had a promising start due to their exciting newness, but turn out not to be of much real value to readers in the long run.

Exciting times are in store for us as we ride on the tail of an electron.

Welcome to the revolution.

William Dan Terry
Director of Technology, NetPubs International

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