Information overload

First published in the Solicitors Journal, January 1996.

Net ‘surfing’ is no longer an appropriate analogy. Was it ever? If your view of surfing is effortlessly gliding down the face of a wave on one uninterrupted ride to the shore, then I bet you don’t do it on the Web. Not now. Maybe never before. A lucky few who have super-fast, direct connections to the Net nay be relatively untroubled, but for the majority surfing the Net is full of missed waves, waves that never get going and unceremonious dumpings.

The fact is the Net is overloaded: a victim of its own success. Its not simply that there are many more millions connected now than this time last year, but also that there are millions more ever more sophisticated pages being served up to the ever more demanding net ‘community’ (let’s drop that term too).

Now there’s certain obvious factors affecting performance that are within your control. If you have a modem connection you can buy a faster one, or pay through the nose for a leased line. Your choice of browser and available system memory determine the way pages are downloaded and managed on your system, and hence also have a bearing on speed of access. Your connection to the nternet is via something affectionately known as a POP (point of presence). Basically in the UK there are Demon POPs and Pipex POPs and most service providers use one or other; then there’s indirect access through CompuServe. So, you can try using more than one connection.

Beyond that is the Internet itself and things are pretty much out of your control (out of anyone’s control for that matter). Here the analogy is with the human frame: the Net has a backbone and this was simply not designed to take the current strain.

Finally, there is the particular information you are accessing, and this depends on the performance of the computer hosting and serving up the pages requested. Responsiveness, of course, varies very widely, depending on the demands being made on the server and its capacity to cope with them.

It’s reasonable to expect that, with the increasing commercial importance of the Net and continuing rapid technological advances, the performance and capacity of systems forming the network and individual information servers will be improved to attempt to meet increased demand, but there will always be periods when the system is overstretched. So what can you, the individual end-user, do to minimise the inconvenience and frustration?

  • Connect in the morning. America generates a very large proportion of the Net traffic and happily most of it is asleep before noon GMT. You’re likely to spend less time on-line and, despite paying peak telecom rates, even save on your phone bill. More importantly, save your fee earning time.
  • Avoid the gifs. Many pages reference graphic image files (gifs) several times larger than the text content. If you’re doing serious research its worth setting your browser not to ‘Autoload images’, clicking on the ‘images’ button only when required. Well-written pages should contain alternative textual descriptions of the images. Some pages are duplicated as text-only versions, so you may want to bookmark these instead.
  • Avoid the dross. Bookmarks or hotlists provide the most convenient way to list and categorise the information you wish to revisit, and it’s worth spending time maintaining and refining these lists so that you waste as little time as possible on your regular research. And when you tire of your browser’s default startup page, change the default to your bookmark file.
  • Avoid the out of date. Nothing is more frustrating than to keep reviewing a page for changes when it has not been updated. A handy tool called Webwatch will help here, monitoring a list of sites (eg in a bookmark file) and generating a results page listing those that have changed since your last visit. Add the results page to your bookmarks.
  • Write your own page. Not strictly a way to improve access, but with the free HTML extensions published by Microsoft and WordPerfect, writing a simple Web page is quite straightforward. Alternatively, you can try a more professional authoring tool like HoTMeTal. If nothing else you can create a startup page to act as a super bookmark file