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Federal Highway Administration > Publications > Public Roads > Vol. 63· No. 1 > Internet Watch

July/August 1999
Vol. 63· No. 1

Internet Watch

by David Dubov

Portals and Communities: Clearing Out the Internet Jungle

Do you remember when the World Wide Web was just a massive collection of pages, unorganized and unsorted? Remember when it was so hard to find anything of value or interest, especially of value or interest to a transportation professional?

Just yesterday, right?

Well, slowly but surely, that is all changing. The once overgrown, tangled jungle of information called the World Wide Web is well on its way to becoming a real, legitimate arena for serious work. And unorganized, hard-to-follow streams of information are quickly being reshaped into logical, subject-matter-oriented wells of knowledge shared among disciplines.

This is being accomplished in a number of different ways, but most significantly and practically, it is being done in two forms: portals and communities.

You have most likely encountered both types of these new Web sites already without even knowing it. They are springing up everywhere, as Webmasters for companies, federal agencies, and others are realizing that their information customers require a place to find unfragmented, comprehensive knowledge, which is logically organized.

Portals

A "portal Web site" is exactly what its name implies, a doorway into the larger world of the overall Internet. A typical portal site combines many features in one place for the user, including access to the latest news, a free e-mail account, simple and advanced search capabilities, places to "chat" online with other people, and more, depending on the numbers of people using the portal site and the features they have requested. More sophisticated portal sites offer "customizable" features such as the latest news according to preferences you set (for example, financial, sports, or political news stories only), weather reports from your area, quotes of stocks you select to be tracked, even daily horoscope predictions!

But the most useful feature of any portal site is the way it organizes the information available on the World Wide Web. Category-specific areas of the portal site break down the knowledge into bite-sized pieces and then into finer and finer crumbs until the site that addresses your specific interest is just one click away.

For example, a portal site might have a category titled "Transportation," which would, among all its sub-categories, have one entitled "Trucks," which might have several sub-categories of its own. Again, among these might be one entitled "18-Wheel Big-Rigs." And from this sub-sub-category, you might choose between "Mack Trucks, Inc." and "Scandia." One click on your choice and you are taken directly to the corporation's Web page.

However, before you apply all this newfound knowledge and go jumping onto the World Wide Web to browse through a portal site (such as the examples listed below), here are some pros and cons to consider:

Pros:

  • Allows easy access to a massive amount of information, logically sorted out for you.
  • Is "customizable" to deliver only the latest news or other information you want.
  • Has features such as free e-mail and powerful searches of the entire World Wide Web.

  Cons:

  • Most specific Web sites have been "listed" with a portal site by their Webmaster, just as houses are listed with a particular real estate agent. If a site is not listed, it won't show up.
  • More features do not necessarily mean better features. Often the latest news feeds, stock tickers, sports scores, and so forth are just distractions on the way to getting the information you need.
  • If a portal site is particularly popular, download times can be slow and browsing time can be long.
Some Examples of Portal Sites:
Yahoo! (http://www.yahoo.com)
Microsoft Home (http://home.microsoft.com)
Netscape (http://www.netscape.com)
Lycos (http://www.lycos.com)
Excite (http://www.excite.com)

Communities

The other type of organized information source on the World Wide Web is a community. And like a community in the real world, it is centered on a group of like-minded people or organizations. Most communities are usually devoted to a single subject or topic area, such as transportation.

Often a community will have a superficial resemblance to a portal site, but without many of the extra features and capabilities of the portal. In many ways, however, the function is the same, as information is organized in category-specific ways. Communities focus almost exclusively on their theme, and this kind of site can be very useful for communicating with professionals in a particular field of interest or with people of similar inclinations, and for sharing the knowledge found among those groups.

Along this line, a good community will allow its members to communicate amongst themselves through discussion groups or moderated "chat" areas and will communicate, in turn, with all its members via a mailing list or similar electronic interchange. Pros:

  • Focuses on a single subject. The community concentrates just the information you might need into one place.
  • Typically, allows for one-to-one and one-to-many communication between visitors to the site.
  • Sharing knowledge among like-minded individuals or groups is the primary focus.

  Cons:

  • Often too narrow to allow for the use of the complete resources of the World Wide Web.
  • If not organized through the eyes of the information customer, knowledge can be hard to find
Some Examples of Community Sites:
Experts Exchange (http://www.experts-exchange.com)

- a community for computer professionals

MIT (http://destec.mit.edu/ks/people/index.html)

- an architecture community

Rumble Strips (http://www.ohs.fhwa.dot.gov/rumblestrips)

- a knowledge-sharing initiative from the Federal Highway Administration

Now that you know a bit more about the clearings being carved out of the Internet jungle, explore them and use their full potential. You might just find the World Wide Web to be a more orderly and friendly place!

David Dubov is an employee of Avalon Integrated Services Corp. Previous to his work there, he was Web master for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and designed, developed, built, and implemented the successful Mars Pathfinder Web site, which reached more than 56 million people around the world.

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