/Siteseeing

After a decade of chasing hyperlinks, our website reviewer bids farewell.

When I first started working for the online Monitor in 1996, finding links for websites relevant to breaking news stories, I was using a hand-me-down computer that looked like this, running an operating system that looked like this, while surfing - over a 28.8K dial-up connection - through websites that looked like this. Ten years later, I'm using one of these, running this operating system, and using a cable modem to surf sites that, after a few seconds of download time, can look like this. The reason for this quick glimpse into my research milieu of the past decade? Well, after a little more than 350 website reviews over eight of the last ten years, my time at csmonitor.com is about to end, and looking back at some of those sites makes for an illuminating exercise.

Oddly enough, the feature that struck me first as I looked back to the beginning of the personal archives wasn't any significant trend in design or interactivity, or even the Web's phenomenal growth - from less than 400,000 sites in 1996 to more than 92 million today - but the ephemeral nature of the exercise as a whole. (This phenomenon won't come as a surprise to anyone who does a lot of surfing, but the attrition rate can be impressive when you try revisiting some of the dustier corners of your Bookmarks / Favorites collection.) Of the first 15 sites that were reviewed in this space, more than half have ceased to exist, while others, like the Theban Mapping Project, have undergone significant additions and upgrades, and only a few, like Private Art, still look much as they did when they were first reviewed. (And perhaps even more to its credit than its longevity as a privately-maintained site, Private Art doesn't look even remotely dated. It was well designed for its role in 1997, and while there have been updates over the years, there has never been the need for a wholesale reconstruction.)

But given the impermanence of the medium, it's difficult to escape the irony that the Web is also responsible for reconnecting a fascinated audience with more materials long lost from public view than all previous forms of communication combined - from Historical Maps, to Olympics Posters, to recipes with a bit of history. Even many of those vanished websites can be visited again through the Internet Archive, which also holds tens of thousands of texts, Spoken Word and Live Music audio files, and the famous Moving Images archive - offering everything from vintage television ads, social hygiene films and Cold War propaganda, to such Holywood classics as "My Man Godfrey" and "His Girl Friday." Thousands, if not tens of thousands of other sites devote themselves to preserving lost ages of, "culture," travel, oral traditions, and even vintage radio broadcasts that would likely never have been heard again without the Web. (And without my personal radio favorite, I wouldn't be able to catch such pre-Monty Python classics as "The Goon Show" and "I'm Sorry I'll Read That Again.")

Which brings us to the overriding theme that links all these sites together, even the missing ones. The theme of the Web itself, and the reason that it's changed our world, is access - to places, to people, to ... well ... things. Through the Web, we can instantly visit cities around the world - at street level, or if you prefer, from above (and in many cases, live). We can tour museums and galleries (including parts of the collections not even available to those visiting in person). We can wade through facts (secret and trivial) and then turn our gaze outward and see astounding sights that would have been available to only select communities a few years ago. Not only can we revisit history (from multiple perspectives), we can replay it (from multiple angles), follow it as it's being made around the world, and even try (for better or worse) to make ourselves a part of it.

Anyone is welcome to join the global exchange and, for the moment at least, all that access is equal. Not only is the amateur on the proverbial "level playing field" with the professional, but in some cases professionals are finding it to their advantage to try to pass themselves off as amateurs. Oh, and if you're not content with merely reaching your neighbors and contemporaries, you can also make your thoughts available to other planets and the future.

A fact which could segue nicely into a few projections about what's coming in the next ten years, but as history shows, predicting the future is a mug's game. Granted, some conjectures are fairly safe - that e-commerce will increase, for example (virtual shopping is hardly a new idea), or that even more private citizens will stake out their own little corner of the Web (the only real surprise about the rise of the blogs is the speed with which new ones are appearing). But while the success of operations like Amazon and Blogger doesn't come as a surprise, I don't remember anyone predicting the arrival of phenomena like Flickr, YouTube, or for that matter, "Hampsterdance." Still, if you insist on getting a few prognostications about our wired world over the next few years, there are always other sources happy to share their opinions. My only forecast is that all the major developments related to the Web - whether they be good or bad - will boil right back down to that "A" word.

(Then again, history may prove me wrong.)

In the meantime, I take my leave. Is it because I think that there's 'nothing left to review' - that the Web has reached the point where it will only be offering more of the same? Far from it - in fact only last week the Exploratorium found a new way to take advantage of the internet, as it invited the world to share in the live recovery of an Archimedes manuscript. (Say it with me, "access.") No, my departure is strictly due to the combination of getting a full-time job late last year and the fact my researching/writing methodology is such that it was taking up almost all of my free time. I have no doubt that developments in the virtual world over the next decade will be as interesting - and sometimes as surprising - as those in the real world, and while I may be gone from this spot, the column, hopefully, will remain. (So I'll get to have someone tell <i>me</i> about new and interesting websites for a change.)

It's been a privilege and a pleasure to play the virtual tour guide over the last few years, and I thank you for sharing in my little discoveries. Now be sure to go out and get some fresh air today, the Web will still be here when you get back.

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