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No Site Is an Island

The trail’s the thing: The Web experience centers on the paths we take, not just the destinations we reach

 What the world really needs is another magazine column advising its readers of hot (or is it cool?) places to go on the World Wide Web.

Yeah, right.

Most Web users have bookmarked numerous sites they wish to return to again and again. Places they’re comfortable. Places they find visually and intellectually engaging. Places that don’t take eons to load. But the Web is not a scattering of electronic information is-lands. It is a way of moving our minds, of creatively shifting our attention. The experience can be encapsulated not so much in where we’ve been but in the twisting, turning, backtracking, non-intuitive route we’ve followed.

That’s the idea behind Web Crawl-I will provide you with the electronic footprints of one journey I’ve made on the Web, telling you which sites I’ve visited and how I got there. I hope that as I click, scroll, and mutter my way through the Web, the trail I leave behind will reveal something about this embryonic medium.

Every Web session begins with a single click. This being a magazine devoted to innovation, I set off on my inaugural Web Crawl with a simple search on the words “innovation”and “technology,”using Alta Vista (www.altavista.digital.com). This request reaps a modest haul: “About 507,328 documents match your query,”Alta Vista tells me. Other Web users and critics have become jaded, kvetching about information overload. Not me. A half-million hits suits me fine.

Number two on the list looks promising: the “Office of Information Technology-Innovation.” But my attempt to access this site yields only the rebuff that is no less aggravating for its familiarity:  “Not Found: The link you followed is either outdated, inaccurate, or the server has been instructed not to let you have it.” I can’t count how many times I’ve encountered screens like this, but every time it’s like a fresh insult.

Backtracking to my list of hits (in the kind of eddying current that typifies my time on the Web), I scan past corporate brochure sites and earnest academic pages, trolling for the how-about-that nuggets that make the Web such a kick. I settle on the Irish Council for Science, Technology, and Innovation, partly for its oxymoronic ring.

Good move, it turns out. Here, at www.irsa.ie/News/Presentation/Presentation.html, I’ve stumbled upon that rare and precious Web beast: attractive and informative content. A lengthy article is accompanied by bold and easy-to-read graphs showing that fewer and fewer Irish students are choosing to study science. The argument runs on for 5,000 words-far more than I (and I suspect most others) would ever actually read on the screen. It doesn’t help matters that the background is striped blue and yellow, with sidebar material in aqua.

I start hunting for links to allow me to exit without retreating. I have to dive all the way to the very bottom, taking the trap door to www.linkexchange.com, which delivers me to Launchbot (www.launchbot.com). LaunchBot is an annotated list of Web sites. There’s no here, here-just lots of openings to a myriad of “theres.” It’s like walking down the midway at a carnival. I can almost hear the virtual carnies shouting out from their blue-underlined awnings, evoking aromas of greasy food. Hence my quick dive into a site devoted to barbecue (www.barbecuen.com).

One link from Launchbot seems to offer the kind of non-corporate, non-academic funkiness that shrieks: only on the Web. It’s the “Ugly Lamp Contest” (www.findgreatstuff.com/uglylamp.html), and it showcases all kinds of hideous instruments of interior illumination-each with a short anecdote to justify (or apologize for) its existence. It also links other sites of similar kitschiness, including a contest to pick the “tackiest place in America,” at www.thepoint.net/ ~usul/text/tacky.html. This photo scrapbook includes images of a 30-foot plastic lobster, a building shaped like an elephant, and (my favorite) the house covered in beer cans.

Because these photos are dead ends from a hyperlinking standpoint, I retrace my steps one more time to the mother list at Launchbot. I am using Launchbot as a kind of temporary home base on Planet Web-kind of the way mountain climbers set up a base camp from which they stage assaults on the peak.

This time I am drawn to the “Irresponsible Internet Statistics Generator,” at www.ana-morph.com/docs/ stats/stats. html, which squashes some of the more overheated projections of Internet growth and should be required viewing for anyone who wants to get a grip on the confusing numbers flying around about how big the Net is. Type in a date, and the site displays a patently ridiculous figure that would result if the Net is growing as fast as some formulations claim. As of May 1, I learn, the Web should comprise 113 billion sites-about 18 sites for every human alive.

That seems a fitting absurdity on which to end the journey. As is my usual pattern, I have set out with an earnest goal and then deviated from it happily in pursuit of the tantalizing distractions that the online citizenry has strewn in my path. Sometimes I feel like a puppy dog pursuing a butterfly, through a meadow bursting with scents, sights, and sounds. I occasionally catch the butterfly-but I usually gain at least as much nourishment from the chase itself.

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