A Step Back From the Web

By Leslie Walker
Thursday, September 15, 2005

Back in 1997, when I was working at the newspaper's Web site, a colleague returned from vacation and I asked him how it went.

"Fine," he replied. "But I was surprised at how much I missed the Internet. It felt like one of my senses had been ripped away."

Almost everyone working on the Web back then -- and that was before Google existed -- felt that the Web was strangely alive. It was changing us, even as we struggled to shape it.

" We are the Web," I wrote in a memo to my bosses when I rejoined the print edition to launch this weekly column in 1998.

"Almost anyone can plug into the Internet and transmit his or her message, making it a more participatory medium."

People using the Web would shape it in unpredictable ways, I wrote, and I wanted to spend as much time chronicling that participatory side as I did the efforts by big business to harness it for the sale of goods and services.

Seven years later, we are still transforming the Web every day. It is hard to stand back and perceive the collective impact that hundreds of millions of users are having, but for the next three months I'm going to try. I'll be taking a temporary break from this column to work on a special project.

There will be a lot of change even in such a short period, for people are far more active online today than when the Web was still a click-and-read affair. And each time we show an inclination to do something new, we send entrepreneurs scurrying to their computer labs to gin up software to make that activity easier.

Searching for information remains a top Internet activity. So it was no surprise that experimental labeling systems called "tagging" grabbed attention this year. If everyone who posted hurricane pictures to the photo-sharing site Flickr, for instance, tagged them with the word "Katrina," then visitors could type that word into the Flickr search box and quickly find all the photos.

Many sites also are using advanced programming languages to speed delivery of their Web pages and make them seem more like desktop software. Yesterday I joined a trial of Yahoo's latest Web mail service, which lets you sort, read and compose messages almost as fast as if you were working offline in Microsoft Outlook.

Countless start-ups have launched citizen-news sites that use inexpensive new software to let visitors self-publish articles and homemade videos, then automatically organize the results into a kind of group newspaper. Sound is flourishing online, too, as thousands of sites are offering downloadable audio files called podcasts -- amateur talk or music shows often created in people's homes.

And who could miss the little orange buttons with white "RSS" letters popping up everywhere? They stand for Really Simple Syndication and enable visitors to retrieve updates from a site automatically and read them in the same window with content pulled from other sites. VeriSign Inc., keeper of the Internet's master address book, is exploring ways to strengthen the underlying system for collecting RSS updates, while Microsoft Corp. is baking RSS code into the next versions of its Windows operating system and Internet Explorer browser. That should make it easier for people to mix and match content from various sites.

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