No Place Like a Home Page
By Kara Swisher
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 1, 1996; Page A01
The Buzbee clan now has global reach.
Switch on a computer in Washington or Buenos Aires or Hong Kong, or any other spot that's linked to the World Wide Web, and you can summon images of John and Sally Buzbee to your screen. There they are enjoying a meal, mugging for the camera during a family celebration. You can read about the recent travels abroad of the District couple or their time as students at the University of Kansas.
It's a personal "home page" on the Web, a sort of electronic front porch to which the whole world is invited. But don't leave without meeting the rest of the far-flung family. On the Buzbees' page, you'll find highlighted words and symbols. "Click" on them with your computer's pointing device and you'll jump to the home pages of other Buzbees.
There's "Dad" Buzbee, actually Richard E. Buzbee of Hutchinson, Kan., who was a newspaperman, served in Korea during the war and has four sons and a wife named Marie. There's Jim Buzbee, John's brother, who lives outside Denver and loves bats so much that he built a bat house. His home page is devoted to the winged night creatures, complete with bat facts, bat advice, bat pictures and even bat jokes and bat poetry. And there's Jim's 8-year-old son, Tom, who has his own page made up of his reviews of R.L. Stine's "Goosebumps" book series for children.
Unusual, but not that unusual.
Across the nation, people are creating personal home pages to announce themselves to the world. At the Washington, D.C. Personal Home Page Registry, a Web site where Washinton area residents post notice that they've created pages, more than 2,200 are listed.
All told, an estimated 11 million people use the World Wide Web these days. Some, like the Buzbees and their fellow personal home page creators, provide information. Most, however, come to consume it. Some consult the Web as casually as they do books, newspapers or television.
Of course, people who don't use the Web far outnumber those who do. And not a few users lose their excitement quickly, having been turned off by the confusion, the cost and the frequent mindlessness of what they find in cyberspace.
"I find you can dismiss 90 [percent] to 95 percent of Web sites," said Jack Cremeans, a sheep farmer in Howard County who uses the Web occasionally to find information on sheep, the economy and current events. Often, he said, you're "better going off to the corner library, where there's more discipline to the research."
Still, the numbers shift a bit in favor of the users each month.
"There's a lot to complain about and everyone does, but I have to tell you I love" the Web, said John Buzbee, a graduate student at Georgetown University's Center for Contemporary Arab Studies. "I use it extensively for school, doing research on government pages. . . . I also use it to keep up with my faraway sports teams and in weak moments I just wander. It's exciting not only because of what's available, but because it's getting better every hour."
For now, the typical online traveler isn't typical of the population at large. Forrester Research Inc. of Cambridge, Mass., estimates that 74 percent of the people on the Internet, the larger computer network of which the Web is a part, are men, 22 percent are women and about 4 percent are children.
But each day, as thousands of Americans join in, the online population is becoming a bit more like the country as a whole.
Children are signing on to visit sites related to TV shows they watch. Or to do homework -- for many, the first step in an assignment to research a paper on, for example, abolitionist Harriet Tubman is to zip to a Web "search engine," type in the name and see what comes up. "You can get lots of information about the world, quickly," said 10-year-old Stephanie Tapiero, a Bethesda fifth-grader who uses the Web that way.
Eileen Betancourt, an aspiring romance novelist who lives in Gaithersburg, uses the Web to research settings for her writings. She couldn't find a map of the Maryland town of Frostburg at her local library; she found one on the Web. For her "pay the rent" job, telemarketing, she uses the Web to gather telephone numbers.
"I get on it with a purpose in mind," she said. "I'm on there to get information. I really fight the urge to surf; I don't think it would be that time-effective."
Multiply Betancourt by several thousand newcomers a day and you get an idea of the momentum the Web has built up.
"I don't think anybody had an idea of how big this thing would be," said James Barksdale, chief executive of Netscape Communication Corp., which makes the world's most popular software to navigate the Web. "Unlike a lot of passive mediums, this is a network that the mere mortal can effect, can jump on and ride to anywhere."
Each of the millions of people who venture onto the Web is courted by providers of "content," which includes pictures, text and sounds. Like barkers at the doors of carnival tents, content creators must find ways to distinguish themselves from the great mass and get Web travelers to come and sample their wares.
Content is a dynamic, ever-changing work in progress. Just as the Web's circuits are not owned by any one party, content is a group effort. No one vets it for accuracy or taste. With a few exceptions, anything goes.
Some sites are pure labors of love. For the Buzbees, it's the sheer fun of knowing their tales are available to the world. "Yes, there's a bit of an ego thing," John Buzbee said. "It's nice to think you're writing for an audience, and on the Web it's possible to convince yourself of that whether anyone is reading it or not."
Other people find pleasure in maintaining unofficial sites devoted to the "Star Wars" films, actress Alicia Silverstone or computerized fortune-telling, to name a few.
There's even a site devoted to complaints that the Web's being corrupted. Called "suck," it's a soapbox from which a coterie of smart, young naysayers spew forth on various media deals and online developments.
Institutions with the purpose of serving the public also are well represented in the new medium. It's an obvious step for a library, for instance, to put material online, so as to expand the pool of people that it reaches. The Library of Congress has offered up its card catalogue and images and text from exhibits that it holds in its halls. So have universities, government agencies and nonprofit organizations.
Virginia Tech's Seismological Observatory in Blacksburg has a site with a handsome red-and-orange picture of Virginia and charts of recent seismic activity. There also is a lot of information about earthquakes in the region, which sits on the center of the North American plate. Included is the surprising fact that there have been 160 earthquakes in the region since 1977, 16 percent of which have been felt.
The Web lets the FBI circulate its wanted posters more widely than is possible through post office notice boards. Escaped bank robber Leslie Rogge, one of the bureau's "10 most wanted" fugitives, recently was arrested in Guatemala after being recognized by someone on the FBI's Web page.
As more Americans have entered the Web, politicians have followed. It now is fashionable for a presidential candidates to have a Web site. And their critics sometimes set up countersites to ridicule them, though sometimes it's not immediately clear which is which.
Helping the newcomers find their footing, for a price, are companies like Electric Press Inc. of Reston, run by Duffy Mazan.
Formerly director of computers at the National Academy of Sciences, Mazan left it with three colleagues. They raised $100,000 and started the firm. Today it has about 100 clients, including the Kiplinger publications, and revenue that Mazan predicts will exceed $3 million this year. Its basic job is designing, creating and maintaining other people's Web sites. Like many people involved day to day in the Web, he's a bit breathless about it all. "It's such a huge cacophony that it's getting hard to rise above the noise," he said. "I never would have predicted it."
Putting out information for free is one thing; more challenging is making money from it.
The Web has unleashed a burst of capitalistic energy that rivals anything seen on the floor of a commodity exchange at peak time. Companies are rushing to get on the Web and establish sites with addresses that end in ".com," indicating a commercial site. The new mantra: You're nobody if you're not somebody.com.
It's equally true that nobody is quite sure what to do once they get there.
Underlying all of these ventures is the conviction that the Web is just waiting to be turned into a global bazaar. online commerce will become as big if not bigger than the once-small business of selling things by catalogue over toll-free telephone lines, the pioneers said. It's cheap, it's efficient, it matches buyer and seller.
Big established corporations are trying it out as a new vehicle for ads. By posting electronic billboards at different sites where passers-by will see them, companies such as General Motors Corp. and Bell Atlantic Corp. hope to build brand recognition and image. One thing they like: The technology can measure precisely how many people visit a site and see the ad.
Others use the Web to complement their existing business. Federal Express Corp., for instance, has a Web site that customers can contact to check on the progress of specific packages. Other companies provide technical advice about their products on the Web. Record companies offer audio snippets of new songs in hopes that people will go out and buy the full compact disc or tape.
Microsoft Corp. is using the Web to deliver software that people otherwise would pick up on disks in a store. Newspapers, The Washington Post among them, are offering electronic versions of themselves on the Web. Catalogue firms offer online catalogues. You place the order online, and it's delivered by courier.
Other owners of .com addresses are start-ups convinced that they can invent an entirely new business based on the Web. A site called Amazon is selling books on the Web. Other services help people plan their gardens and road trips. Still another composes customized love poems -- you type in the name of your beloved, his or her interests, the level of intensity you want in the finished product, and out comes a (generally laughable) poem.
The sex industry, never slow to pick up on technologies that help preserve customers' anonymity, is there too. The first electronic peep shows have appeared. Using the Web's developing though still primitive function as a video pipeline, customers pay money to watch images of sex acts that are transmitted live to their screens.
So far, none of this commerce has turned into anything resembling a mass market. A recent survey by the firm Find/SVP found that only 19 percent of Web users have ever bought anything online. Those who did buy tended to be from a rather narrow group -- men ages 30 to49 -- and most were purchasing computer goods and music and dirty books.
One big impediment: the basic question of whether people really want to shop this way. The Web remains agonizingly slow. Photos of summer blazers from a men's catalogue take a long time to move over the Web, and then they're not nearly as good as what is available in a catalogue of shiny paper.
Security is another concern. Though consumers in general think nothing of using credit cards in restaurants where numbers could be filched at will by waiters and clerks, many fear their credit card numbers will be intercepted by hackers.
Several companies, such as Cybercash Inc. of Reston have introduced technologies to protect customer's accounts from intruders. Other companies are functioning as validators, checking the bona fides of sites on the Web to assure that they are run by whom they claim to be. Those that check out get a validator code; software in the machines of visitors look for that code and flash a warning if they don't find it.
Often the technology turns out to be the easy part. By making new things possible, it rubs up against long-standing laws, practices and expectations.
Copyright law, for instance. Owners of copyrighted material, such as newspapers, books, and records, are reflexively suspicious of a medium that allows wholesale, flawless copying of their material. Many have held back putting material online out of fear that its value would evaporate if one person copied it and sent it to multiple others.
Should libraries put books online? People who couldn't make it to one would no doubt benefit. But it might result in book sales declining. It's hard to copy a 400-page novel checked out from the library; it's not hard to copy one in electronic version. This issue is being hashed out. Some owners of copyrighted material put nothing up; others put a sample in hopes of getting people to buy the full product in a store.
The same holds true with online shopping. In theory, one great advantage is software that would automatically query different shopping services and seek out the lowest price on a given item. But retailers are loathe to allow that to happen because they want to "sell" you with soft words and pretty pictures and make you put aside the question of price. So many of them have fought use of software that sniffs out the lowest price.
The Cyber Fearful
These debates will last for years. In the meantime, people like the Buzbees will continue to log on, explore, try out this, abandon that.
They're a lot like a lot of Americans. Take the Denver Buzbees. Judy, wife of Jim, doesn't venture into cyberspace at all. "I don't have a lot of free time," she said, "because I am pretty busy raising a family. And it still seems a bit complex at this point."
Still, she was impressed at something that he husband recently did online. He planned an entire vacation using the Web. First he used search engines to find a paradise isle in the Caribbean -- Dominica. Then he researched it using a variety of Web pages and made reservations for the trip.
"This puts the tools in our hands rather than in somebody else's," Jim Buzbee said. "It is very empowering."
Staff writers John Burgess and Jeff Glasser contributed to this article.
© Copyright 1996 The Washington Post Co.
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