Second site: Ground control to CD-Rom

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The Independent Culture
IT LOOKS like the night sky, but it's a menu. It's a star chart, but has more in common with those you see pasted on the walls of primary schools to reward good behaviour than the ones astronomers use to view the heavens. And it's as pretty a way of filing a heap of documents as you'll find on any computer screen.

Starrynight is the way into an archive of messages held by Rhizome, an outfit which provides a noticeboard service for the new media art crowd, promoting work and providing a forum for discussion. Rhizome is a botanical term, meaning a kind of stem which burrows underground, sending out both shoots and roots. It's a buzzword in certain esoteric political circles, denoting networks without hierarchies, and it translates naturally on to the Web. But we have enough fibrous metaphors for the Internet already (Web and Net for instance), and the field of stars is a breath of fresh air. At a time when the world is looking at the Net and seeing a welter of ballooning stock options, the idea of visualising part of it as a thousand points of light harks back to its early dreams, in which it would take us to a higher dimension, and everybody in it would be a star.

There aren't quite a thousand points of light in the Starrynight sky yet, but the total has passed 750. Every time a message is sent to Rhizome, a new star is born. Its location is randomly chosen, but fixed, so the sky map remains consistent as time passes. Unlike an astronomical chart, the Starrynight map does not assign names to the stars. Instead, Rhizome's editors have selected keywords for each text. Some are plain enough, such as "video - cd-rom". Others add up to terse little new media poems, such as the enigmatic "body - java - virtual reality - collider". These listings take the form of pop-up menus, which appear as the mouse cursor passes over a star.

Clicking on the star itself leads to the message it represents. Clicking on one of the keywords creates a constellation, as lines appear linking all the stars tagged with the same keyword. It might be cute to have names for the constellations: the Great Browser, perhaps, or the Keyboard Shortcut. Instead, the fun feature of Starrynight is that each time anybody clicks on a star, it becomes brighter. The most popular messages are glowing discs with halos, while the least read texts remain just points of light.

Of course, indicating that something is popular will make it more popular, regardless of the reasons for its initial success. From the consumer's point of view, there are usually quite sensible reasons for this. Culture is a social activity. Much of the value of a book or a movie arises from being able to discuss it with others. A bestseller therefore has extra value simply through being a bestseller.

Though that's the way of the real world, the Internet is supposed to be somewhat different. The Internet is the realm where size doesn't have to matter, and neither do numbers; where a fanzine can reach a global audience just as easily as a Time-Warner production. Yet the first gimmick thousands of proud homepage owners put on their sites is a webcounter that displays the number of visits the site has had, inviting visitors to suspend their own critical faculties and accept the rating given by the traffic tally as a measure of quality.

Rhizome's swelling stars illustrate that the enthusiasm for bandwagons extends beyond the humble regions of the Web where personal homepages thrive to the Net's intellectual elite. But for the plebs and the intelligentsia alike, numbers are just a game. For the entrepreneurs, who are the up- and-coming on-line class, they are the bottom line. You won't see many webcounters on their sites. They know that visitor statistics are sensitive commercial information.

Visit www.poptel.org.uk/secondsite for links to pages mentioned or contact Marek Kohn on secondsite@poptel.net

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