Network: Web Design - Information flows best without a filter

Now anyone can distribute content, bypassing the traditional filters
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The Independent Culture
WE ALL have our own special interests - biases, tastes, prejudices, call them what you will - and they are what help to define us as individuals. But finding information that will appeal to our specific interests is a complex task. This was true long before the Web came to fill our lives with information, and over the aeons humans have developed elaborate ways of "filtering" information to get to just what they are interested in. We have critics to tell us what television programmes and films are worth watching and reviewers to tell us what books and music we might find appealing.

Not only do we have to filter the content coming at us, but there is only so much space in the physical world for content to take up. The Independent has only so many pages, there is only so much wall space in the Tate Gallery, and the Virgin Megastore can hold only so many CDs. Because of these corporeal limitations, ways of filtering what content is delivered had to be devised as well.

These filters take many forms, but for the most part they have involved figures of authority who decide what content is worthy of delivery through the limited bandwidth of the distribution channels available.

Editors decide what text is printed in their newspapers, art curators decide what images are hung on their museum walls, and record label executives decide what music is released on CD.

The downside of this is that these authority figures have great power to determine what content is released to the audience. They can deny creators access to an audience or even force the creators to change their content to adhere to certain standards based on their perceptions of quality or social mores.

Karl Marx talked of the workers controlling the means of production, but it is the people who control the means of distribution who have the real power. The Web has changed this by allowing the creators to cut out the "middle man" and take their content directly to their audience.

The Web is not restricted by physical space like most other distribution channels, so content creators can self-publish directly without the interference of their traditional filters.

This has lead to a renaissance of ideas on the Web, where creators can deliver their content without having to bow to the authority figures to be heard. Writers can publish stories that might be rejected by magazine editors, artists can show images that galleries do not have space for, and bands can release music to a wide audience without having to get a record contract. Recently, an interesting case arose that exemplifies the conflict between creators and traditional content filters and shows how the Web is changing the playing field. The American director James Toback was releasing his new movie, Black & White. For it to be seen in US cinemas, it must first be rated by the Motion Pictures Association of America ratings board. This ratings board is one of the many filters that separate film-makers from their audience. The MPAA ratings board viewed his movie and gave it the dreaded NC-17 rating (no children under 17 allowed), ensuring the movie would never be seen except by a few art film fans.

At issue is a scene near the beginning of the film showing a menage trois in New York's Central Park. Toback re-edited the scene to appease the ratings board and to get the much more box office-friendly R rating. But he was frustrated with this forced change so he placed both the original and re-edited scenes on the Web to allow the audience to decide for themselves whether the scene is too explicit or not (http:www.sputnik7.com/ blackandwhite/).

Before the Web, Toback would have had no avenue to get his message out. Now, virtually anyone, anywhere, can distribute content bypassing the traditional filters. The Web is teaming with masses of people all wanting to place their content in front of your face.

So, how do we find information that is relevant to us in the deluge of the Web? This brings me back to the first type of filter I was discussing, the type used to determine what content is relevant to an individual.

These filters will become increasingly important as the Web continues to grow and they will need to become increasingly sophisticated to be relevant. But are these filters already out there? Certainly. They are called search engines.

Next week I'll take a look at how search engines will be evolving in the future and how the best search engine might be a human being.

Jason Cranford Teague is the author of `DHTML for the World Wide Web'. You can find an archive of his column at http://www.webbedenvironments. com or e-mail him at jason@ webbedenvironments.com.

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