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Making sense (and cents) from information overload.

Just as Lenin's statue and the Berlin Wail were pulled down as part of the reform movement in Russia and Eastern Europe, editors and gatekeepers were swept away in the information revolution of industrialized countries in the 1980s.

The rallying cry was "let us decide for ourselves," and the market did just that. Computer services such as NEXIS and CompuServe sprang up, allowing each person to choose his own content. Political junkies could log onto a campaign update database. Those who followed the film business could tap into a movie review bulletin board. Lawyers could access the transcript of the Clarence Thomas U.S. Supreme Court confirmation hearings without anyone picking or choosing the best quotes for them to read.

There are on-line discussion groups, bulletin boards, conferences, document repositories, information retrieval systems, and electronic mail. One system alone, The Internet -- primarily used among university personnel- has 2,800 news groups, some with more than 100,000 readers. Each day, The Internet adds about 25 megabytes of new information. It's like filling up the memory of a Macintosh Classic seven days a week and plugging each one into the system.

So, in the '90s, the problem is information overload, and the solution may open a whole new career path for communication professionals.

"When you're king a fire hydrant of information, someone who can hand you a glass of water will become very important," said Mitch Kapor, founder of Lotus Development Corp., one of the pioneer software companies in America.

Kapor has moved on and now runs ON Technology, dedicated to collaborative computing, and the Electronic Frontier Foundation, an organization concerned about civil liberties and computers. To reach large numbers of people, the Foundation places news and case summaries in a computer database without any restriction on who may access them. "It's a highly leveraged, low overheM" method of publishing, Kapor said.

With the proliferation of such information services, however, users are once again looking for someone to sort through all the material, select what's important, and pass it on in an organized fashion -- editors, to use the old word. Right now, most bulletin boards and on-line interest groups are subcommercial. Someone keeps them going, but not as a full-time job. As the information increases exponentially, Kapor predicts that customers will be willing to pay to support full-time editors for personal electronic newsletters. The value of the information is so high, Kapor believes that users will be willing to pay to have it organized, but because the potential base of users is so wide, each one won't have to pay very much.

These editors, however, will be quite different from the old-style generalists with green eyeshades and pencils behind their ears. The electronic newsletter editor will be in demand to the extent that users trust his or her discriminating judgment and expertise.

What's more, their "publications" may become the principal public forums for their particular subjects, eclipsing print counterparts. It's already happened in some areas. Speaking at the Association of American Law Schools' annual meeting in San Antonio, Texas, Kapor gave the example of a computer science professor at the University of Pennsylvania who is an electronic mail "junkie." He takes the most interesting material he receives and passes it along to a select group of 400 computer opinion-leaders, who rely on it to stay up to date on developments in the industry. It's mostly the same information that would have been available to all 400 individually, but the fact that it has been selected by this professor -- whose judgment is highly regarded -- makes it all the more significant.

As these on-line publications become influential, organizational communicators will have to think of new ways of reaching their publics -- internal and external. I don't know exactly what the computer newsletters of the next five years will look like, but I do know they won't just be digitized versions of print publications.

Additionally, a whole new corps of editors will need to be trained: people who not only know how to organize and present information effectively, but who also know what their particular information is about. It may be that instead of training communicators about the oil industry, for example, petroleum engineers will be trained in communication strategies and will become editors.

But don't despair; there's always a place for the person with impeccable taste. Mitch Kapor tells the story of an on-line bulletin board on humor. No one really edited the thing; someone just took all the jokes that people submitted and typed them in. Problem was, a lot of them weren't very good. So, another person -- a regular reader -- started a new database entitled "humor-funny." Only those jokes that made him laugh made it on-line. Today, humor.funny is far more popular.

An editor made the difference.

Sheri Rosen, ABC, owns ConsultRosen Enterprises, 1468 Nelson St., Mandeville, LA 70448. The firm specializes in corporate publications and computer applications for public relations.
COPYRIGHT 1992 International Association of Business Communicators
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1992, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:Computer Sense
Author:Rosen, Sheri
Publication:Communication World
Article Type:Column
Date:Mar 1, 1992
Words:820
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