Labun Jordan: Learning The Web

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(HOST)  Commentator Helen Labun Jordan is looking back on the dawn of the Internet age and realizing both how far we’ve come and how many people we may be leaving behind.

(LABUN JORDAN)  I remember when the World Wide Web wasn’t infinite.

When my family first subscribed to AOL, we received a helpful booklet of jump words to bring us to sites on a particular topic. Navigating the web was like navigating a book’s index – you looked up a subject and flipped to that page.

A dozen years later, when I started my first job, the online world had expanded exponentially, but evidence remained of its earlier boundaries. My office kept a file drawer full of print outs from websites on tuberculosis that were collected in the early ‘90s. The project director back then hadn’t expected web pages to last. . . and at the time it seemed perfectly reasonable to print every piece of online information about the world’s second deadliest disease. He’d reduced the web to a collection of papers.

Today, another decade later, we have no trace of the web being like an indexed book or a file drawer; it’s an endlessly evolving virtual space. And I’m comfortable navigating that space. We grew up together – as its sophistication increased, so did my own.

But what about people who are just now learning the Internet, years after the training wheels have disappeared?

Finding a piece of information online is nothing like finding it in a book. We get to webpages by  finding a search engine then trying out keywords, or by typing in a full address, or by clicking a link in an e-mail, on another page, from Facebook, from a blog, or by returning to a favorites tab. Or something else entirely.

Once you’re on a page, the information you need might be found in the homepage text, or under a menu across the top, a menu across the bottom, drop down menus, hyperlinks, search boxes on the page, search boxes in your browser, a site map, or a directory. Or not even there at all.

Keeping that information isn’t like keeping a file drawer. You could download a PDF, Word document, Excel spreadsheet, or JPEG, and even print them, but you could also hit a paywall, find your information in a multimedia format, find it in an interactive format, or simply find it unreliable.

This online world is not beginner friendly – if it were, every browser would display an instruction manual. Sites, no matter how creative, would prominently feature one or two common conventions on how to find information. Ads and editorials would be clearly different from research, and would never pop up in front of your cursor. Sites would all offer a simple text option. And there would always be a human you could call for help.

As much as we value the next cool thing from the online world, what’s more important is making this world easy to understand.  Crucial information is going online. That’s where you’ll find newspapers, job postings, government benefits, bank statements, school enrollment, basic communications. . . and it’s everyone’s responsibility to be certain that the Internet is something anyone can use.

(TAG) You can find more commentaries by Helen Labun Jordan at VPR-dot-net.

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