1's and 0's column

A Metamorphosis from Community to Consumption?

Early this summer I received an email correspondence from an educator who had just spent several minutes exploring my website, EdWeb: Exploring Technology and School Reform (http://edweb.gsn.org). She said she had enjoyed perusing the website but was troubled that she hadn't found any lesson plans suitable for her classroom. (I'll refrain from naming the subject she taught in order to protect the innocent.) I explained to her that EdWeb was designed as an examination of the relationship between education reform and new technologies, and not a lesson plan website per se. A few minutes later I received a flustered reply. "But I'm looking for lesson plans," she said. "Can't I just get a little service? "

Can't I just get a little service? The seven words made me feel as if I had been transported back to high school, working my summer job at a small gift shop on the beach in Florida. Being the only employee who was ever in the store at any given moment the job usually gave me a sense of independence, but the flip side would be a feeling of helplessness as large buses of tourists would pillage the shop, with a dozen sunburned denizens of the Far Northern Territories all demanding simultaneous help finding the right t-shirt for their son/daughter/grandchild/dog.

Can't I just get a little service! - the universal cry of the frustrated customer.

I don't blame that teacher for the small riposte of angst thrust my way that day. It was late May, finals were approaching. Perhaps mine was the 10th website she had visited during her planning period, the 10th website to disappoint her, and her complaint was a cry against the whole lot of us. But her words also got me thinking back to another time: a summer day in 1995 when AOL announced it would create a connection to the Internet that would allow the customers their private network to visit the World Wide Web. Until that point in Internet history, web users were a rare breed who accessed websites at work, in their university, or through Internet service provider at home. The Internet was still a Western frontier outpost as far as most people were concerned, and until it became easier for people to access it would remain a land of pioneers, trailblazers and squatters.

Among those pioneers were intrepid educators and students from all walks of life who saw the Internet as something different - a place of community where people could exchange ideas and foster innovation. Because the web was universally under construction by these pioneers, people expected the typical bumps and dead ends of a work in progress. But that didn't deter anyone because there was a sense in the air (in the ether, perhaps) that something good would come out of online collaboration, that there was something to be gained by contributing to this effort. It mattered little whether you were a tenured professor, a high school student or an out-of-work welder killing time learning about his daughter's education. If you found a community of interest and were willing to chip in, you would reap the rewards produced by that community. Membership indeed had its privledges, yet membership was open to anyone with access to the Net.

On that fateful day in 1995, AOL, the king of user-friendly, packaged online services, swung open its doors to the World Wide Web. Those of us who were online at the time began to posit what this would mean for the future of the Internet. Would mass access to the Net lead to a goldrush of website publishing, a renaissance of creativity? Or would mass access somehow lower the level of discourse, making the technology a hypertextual equivalent of commercial vast-wasteland TV? None of us knew the answer, though the conventional wisdom seemed to be a smorgasboard-like all-of-the-above: a little bit of this, a little bit of that. If the Internet proved to be as big as some expected, there was plenty of room for all sorts of things to happen. So whatever the impact of this business decision in northern Virginia, the AOLification of the Internet had begun in earnest.

Roughly 45 months and 14 million AOL customers later, the Internet is indeed a different place. As many of us had hoped, Mainstream USA is going online at a fever pitch. With each passing month millions more people begin a new life online, including ever-increasing numbers of minorities, low-income families, and residents of rural and urban communities. The Net becomes more of a reflection of our human landscape with each new click. Dreams of a technology for the masses appear to be materializing.

Yet with the vast popularization and commercialization of the Internet, there's been perhaps a more subtle change of note. Instead of remaining a tight community of contributors, the Net has evolved into a metaverse of consumers. In the most common sense of the word, Internet consumers are people who read, interact, shop, browse through advertising, learn, and entertain themselves online. The Internet has become a market so large that a recent study by Cisco System's InternetIndicators.com concluded that the Net is currently generating $300 billion dollars in U.S. revenue. That's a heck of a lot of consumers, to put it mildly.

On another level, we've become consumers in the most basic sense of the word: an online culture that demands, seeks out and consumes resources. Now that we live in a world where we expect all our friends to have an email address and consider any company without a URL emblazoned on their logo as doomed, we see the Net as a high-gloss market that is designed to meet our needs, whatever they might be. The first-time Internet user expects this new market to be polished, perfected, pre-sorted, pre-fabricated. Hype breeds high expectations, and the hype surrounding today's Internet is high enough to induce nosebleeds. And expectations that are not met can only lead to frustration. Can't I just get a little service!

Assuming the E-Rate doesn't get sucked down an unforeseen political wormhole, we can look forward to having nearly three million educators and 46 million students online in the next couple of years. We've pitched the Net as a place where kids in Missoula can access documents at the Library of Congress and teachers can download the lesson plans of their dreams. In countless cases, these wonderful things do come true, but in an equal number of instances teachers are met with 404 Errors or search engine collections of 1001 Useless Hits. Let's not kid ourselves - if I were going online for the first time I'd probably become frustrated too. Considering Internet is literally too large and nebulous to be measured, the sense of isolation felt by a new user cannot be dismissed.

Everyone who's ever been online was an Internet newbie at one point, but the Welcome Wagon that greets these newbies has changed significantly over the years. Once I might have been one of a hundred or so educators from around the world creating a new listserv in order to discuss a particular teaching passion. Now I am but one in a million - one in 16 million in AOL's case - and it's all too easy to feel like I'm the only one out there, despite all of our similar needs and concerns. As more schools go online, we've got to work harder to make teachers feel like the Internet is a community of people, not a market of anarchy and wild goose chases. Each teacher who's forced to learn the ropes in isolation is another lost opportunity to create a producer of online resources and not just a consumer of them. Can't we just give them a little service?