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Matt's AmCiv Web Site Evaluation "Paper"
Hello, and welcome to this, my virtual paper. What could be more fitting than to make a website evaluation project into an online document? Well, many things, perhaps. But this is my choice; hope you enjoy it!
Table of Contents:
Got any questions or comments about this bunch of pixels? Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org!
Navigating this Document:
This document can be used in two different ways. It may be read linearly, or can be traversed by clicking on the section names in the table of contents (anchors). The document itself contains many underlined links, which can be clicked on to take you to the site in question for examples of what is being discussed. And don't forget to use the back button to save yourself from getting too lost...
Undoubtedly the most interesting and unique new media to appear in our time is that of the World Wide Web. Using the Web, people from all over the world can access all sorts of information, in many cases more than most people want to get. The following quote from Time magazine summed this "feature" up in July of 1995:
"The Internet, of course, is more than just a place to find pictures of people having sex with dogs."
The greatest and most intriguing feature of the World Wide Web is the idea of non-linear documents. The reader/viewer gets to actively choose what information to see next, as opposed to reading a newspaper or a book, where the data is given to you "as is". But also important is the ease-of-use that HTML (the document formatting language used to create WWW pages) grants a user. Anybody can go out, buy a book and in a few hours be able to put up their own web page. Part of the allure of the web is that exact feature. Part of the confusion of the web is the same. Many people with no (select one: personality, artistic merit, brains) can put up a web site and shout out their beliefs. Huzzah, then, for free speech, but where does the sanctity of the information go?
This, indeed, is the greatest drain on the web, causing the user to be forced to parse through gobs of worthless data before they find that one golden nugget of information. And even if that information is found, who is to say that it is correct? Generally, when one gets information from a library it is assumed that the work is correct, at least in its basic statements, such as historical facts and dates. With the web, this tangibility of the source is lost to the impersonal, ethereal digital world. A new standard is needed for evaluation of the information obtained, then.
Actually, this standard is not hard to determine in the least. With a computerized medium, the page which looks the most professional is assumed to be the most credible source. Although this may not be an accurate evaluation, it is one that was inevitable with a grassroots movement like the Web, and is not far from the evaluation used in most other media today. For examples, look at the Wired and Byte websites. In many respects, Wired is the better publication, but it is often discredited for its gaudy look and poor typesetting.
With this in mind, you can get a better look at the current state of affairs on the much-touted Information Superhighway, and see why it isn't as informative as everyone would like you to think.
Evaluation One: Matt's Hall of Shame
Well, as I surely indicated in the previous section, it was not difficult in the least to locate some poor websites, and they do not deserve too much time (yours or mine) or space. Very briefly, I would like to describe why the sites that I found to be worthless should not be used as references, and indeed do not need to be on the World Wide Web at all.
First of all, nearly every site at K-State was of poor web site quality. A personal guess is that the administration at K-State thought that a good idea would be for the professors to post a short description of their class. In this respect, the professors excelled. In conveying any useful information to a user, which is the primary purpose of the Web, they failed tragically. All of the sites I visited consisted of the course number, syllabus and the hours that the professor would be in his/her office (just in case a student in Zimbabwe who was studying American History needed to get an appointment with a professor in Kansas, I suppose).
The point is that some information should not shift between media. The professor loses absolutely nothing by simply Xeroxing the information and handing it to his/her students, and posting a page with such poor (that is, non-existant) informational content creates only trouble for the cyber-wanderer in search of good information. The whole reason that we have so many types of media in our society is so those controlling the media may choose the one best suited to their message. Why have TV News when you have the newpaper? Quite simply, they can convey the same message in totally different ways, with completely unique impacts. Why should we assume that the World Wide Web is any different?
To give a few examples, here are some sites at K-State and also at www.csuchico.edu, an equally poor web server.
Evaluation Two: The Right Stuff
So, after picking through scores of websites, you've finally (and mainly through process of elimination) whittled your "useful sites" list down to the few out there that contain what seems to be good information, wielded by the website author in a way that is both attractive to the eye and flattering to the medium of choice. So how do you get from point A (nearly infinite amount of information) to point B (those core pages that you really need) without spending your lifetime in front of the computer? The simplest way to cut away the bad sites is to basically ignore those that, at face value, have no features that seem to indicate good use of the Web environment. Some main points to look out for are graphics, hypertext (links to other pages or locations) and usability.
The first giveaway, graphics, may seem to be the easiest one to spot. In reality, however, the relatively low speed of internet connections makes loading WWW graphics seem to take an eternity. A good site designer, in realizing the limitations of the medium, would then use smaller graphics such as thumbnails and icons, and design the layout of their page around the images, much like in a magazine. Thus, although the page may lack in quality information, the very fact that the information was presented well and in an intelligent fashion gives validates the content. This is, in fact, analogous to reading a textbook. The opinions expressed are taken more seriously when more effort has been put into the writing.
Also important to the viability of a web page is the use of hypertext, the underlined words that can whiz you from place to place on the web. A well-designed site will have an abundance of hypertext to allow the viewer to choose his or her own path, but the designer must be able to use the links in moderation. Also, links should be integrated with graphics to make the absolute most of the medium, adding ease of use and navigation.
Finally, to be truly useful as an interactive information source, a properly-designed web site should integrate all of these components into an attractive, easy-to-navigate form. For example, a page which references many different time periods could design its main page to have a timeline. When clicked, the timeline should move to the history of that period. In other words, the degree that a site is intuitive to the user is the primary factor in determining the ultimate usefulness of the site. What good would a dictionary be if the words were in no particular order?
With these criteria in mind, I found that several of the sites surveyed excelled in the use and implementation of such devices. One of my favorite sites, seamlessly combining all elements I expected in a page, and interjecting some humor of its own, was "American History: Civil War to Present", from the University of Wisconsin, Madison. In fact, the entire university seems to put a real interest into the creation and maintinance of their web pages, and the work shows.
First of all, this site was friendly to people using even the slowest modems, since it allowed for the viewing of the page in text-only. Many people still have slow modems, or use text-only WWW browsers, so this feature is especially good in evening out the playing field, allowing anyone and everyone to use the information presented. (By the way, the picture to the right is the spaced-out [haha] professor of the course)
Briefly, what follows is a general list of the best features of the web site, and why the implementation of them works toward the greater whole.
The Hitch-hiker's Guide to American History - This was a well-done portion of the page, and served to replace the boring Links section found on many pages (including this one). Here, anyone visiting the site could send a request to have a site added. If the professor found it relevant, than the site would be added to the list. This way, the usefulness of the site expands as more people use it. This is a great use of the WWW medium, and also more innovative than most "static" list sites.
Online Lecture Notes, which I fully expected to be dull and empty, are actually a very informative and interesting part of the site. The entire page is designed like a giant notebook (I recommend you see for yourself), and gives both graphical and text options for viewing the lecture notes. The outlines of the lectures are lacking in form, consisting of a minute-by-minute list of what the professor is talking about. They are supplemented nicely, however, by the use of hypertext, linking to furthur discussions or information sources about the "topic of the minute". The notes following the main outline are the greatest source of data, and the real body of the page. They are excellent, short passages about various historical or political events, backed by excellent links and spiced with great illustrations. For example, from the first graphical notes, one can jump to the Jefferson Davis Memorial Page, various useful documents such as The Gettysburg Address and several inaugural addresses of many Presidents of the period. Also included are many questions to stimulate the reader into extended study of the topic, giving a few choices to get your mind started. I enjoyed this part of the site the most.
Also, the site provided a good Help! section, a feature that nearly every site on the Web neglects. The obvious insight of the designer is obvious, and the payoff is tremendous.
Unfortunantly, the page had a few problems with it. One part which I would have liked to navigate to a more in-depth level was the Biographies section, which was UNDER CONSTRUCTION at the time. Nevertheless, Lycos, one of the large WWW search engines, elected this site into the Top 5% Award category. This is indeed a great honor to a history-related web site, since Lycos is run by a almost 100% base of Computer Science majors.
In the end, the web site evaluation fine-tuned and enforced many ideas that I already had standing about the WWW medium, especially its relation to the other, more common media. Before the Web can become a viable source of information, the hype must be given a chance to cool itself off. Once people realize that the WWW is not the panacea that they had been hoping for, perhaps they will begin to see it as what it truly is: a different way to convey a point, but not better in all cases. Many of the sites seen, like the KSU cases, would be better implemented by a simple Xerox. Giving the world access to your syllabus is not what the Internet was created for, nor should be used for. Given time, I have no doubt that the Internet will develop into the information source that many people are wishing for, but today that is only a dream.
Just like every other website in existence, the end of the page is generally populated with links to other sites, either as a pseudo-bibliography or just a list pointing you in the direction of similar sites. Here are some of my top choices relating to this project:
Annotated Website List - This is the site that I put up while researching this project.
Original Website List - This is the site that provided the original online list of sites.
The Old South - A demographer's dream, I enjoyed this site immensely. The interactive census information gives insights to the culture that no written text could portray.
AltaVista - One of the most popular search engines on the Web, this is my starting point for many online data searches.
This page created with Netscape Gold, Notepad and MS-DOS Edit, depending on my mood... ;)