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Forces Against the User-Centered Revolution

It may be surprising to have to raise this issue, and yet, familiarity with the information world today reveals the existence of social forces that act to divert or retard the user-centered revolution. Four such counter-productive influences follow.


It is ironic that many people experience an aversion to or fear of computers, since the user-centered revolution is taking place in an electronic information environment. Though unpleasant, this is nevertheless a normal affective response in human-machine interaction in the early stages of becoming information literate. The ability or skill to overcome technophobia is part of the repertoire of the lifelong novice. There may however be large individual differences in the time it takes to acquire self-confidence as a searcher or navigator, and there are conflictual and emotionally challenging intermediate states. User-friendly systems and affectively-oriented instructions can ease the transition, yet being lifelong novices, people may regularly regress into technophobia when the old repertoire does not work with a new system. The kindly management of generalized technophobia remains a central goal of the user-centered paradigm, as more and more novices of all ages and backgrounds begin to participate in the cyberspace world.

Information Shock:

A second counteracting force is infoshock or the emotional reactions of feeling overwhelmed by unfamiliar and complex information. Experience in an academic setting shows that students learning to use the Internet as a course-integrated assignment go through weeks of frustration, anxiety, and even depression. These are their reactions to being pressured by course deadlines while being challenged by seeming information dead-ends. Research is needed to discover effective techniques for managing users' experience of information shock in the electronic environment.

Information Illiteracy:

If lifelong novicehood is to be endured by users, they need to be given meta-tools that empower them to operate by systematic trial and error, instead of semi-randomly or illogically. Information literacy skills provide users with the pre-requisites of how to read instructions, evolve mental maps of systems, keep notes that are needed later, check one's typing, retrieve, filter and evaluate information, and how to retrace one's electronic steps. Lacking these skills, information illiterate users may be overcome by technophobia, discouragement, and avoidance. Information illiteracy creates an insurmountable barrier, defeating the gains of the user-centered revolution.

Maintenance Cost :

As the Internet grows, the cost of running it and keeping it user-friendly becomes a potential threat to the user-centered revolution. For instance, non-academic users pay a monthly access fee and cumulative connect time. The latter cost can exert a prohibitive pressure that interferes with the convenience of browsing freely without undue concern for how long one can stay on a screen. In addition, thousands of users have already moved past the navigation stage to full fledged membership as World Wide Web homepage owners. Millions will soon follow. This means that one must rent disk space on a Web server. The space issue becomes potentially prohibitive even with academic and professional users who receive Internet services as part of their job setting. As more people begin to own virtual real estate in cyberland, space and traffic become forces that threaten users' ability to explore and build the virtual information world.

User-Centered Consciousness in Cyberspace

The rapid development of the Internet would not have been possible in the absence of the user-centered revolution of the past 25 years. Driving the mass explosion of the information world are entertainment technologies and information services. There is a sensitivity to "customer needs-based-networking," as described by one commentator:

The newest mandate for the online information networks is to develop applications for the general public. This is the message conveyed by the feverish superhighway activity in Washington, DC, by the new commercialism cropping up everywhere on the existing networks, and, forcefully, by the joint venture/takeover frenzy in the cable, broadcast, entertainment and general communications industries. The new dawning is focused on the great masses of potential general users, who so far never have experienced the joys of telnet, and perhaps never will have sufficient time, energy or interest to appreciate its more arcane beauties" (p. 12).

Since "the new dawning is focused on the masses" it is thoroughly steeped in user-centered consciousness. But note a certain pessimism about users who "never will ... appreciate its more arcane beauties." It may be better to work with an orientation that strives to eliminate "arcane beauties" and make them openly accessible to all novices. As more novice users join in, there is a growing need to demystify the Internet.

The cyberspace of the Internet has the potential to empower users by providing a public platform for individuals to display and share their expertise in a wide variety of areas, i.e., dog care, computer systems, racing cars, emotional support, poetry, recipes, and so on. This explosion in self-publishing permits unprecedented self-expression and creativity, and mirrors the exponential growth of end user computing. In these early days in the cyberspace community, a characteristic phenomenon is the willingness of so many people to post detailed answers to strangers' questions on electronic bulletin boards and discussion groups. One may wonder what motivates this kind of public spirited, 'gift-giving' effort? One webmaster, who was asked this question, said that he responds out of a sense of mutuality and identification with other webmasters who are stumped by some technical problem to which someone else may have found a solution. "The whole thing would stop working if we didn't come to each other's rescue," he insisted.

We are at the threshold of achieving universal access to the global Internet infrastructure. It is an exciting historical time when cyberspace communities on the World Wide Web are being founded in all departments of societal information activities -- educational, scientific, governmental, cultural, commercial, artistic, and personal. Homepages of all types and functions spring up literally by the hour! There is a frontier land spirit of pioneering and innovation that parallels population forces that brought immigrants to the New World and adventurers out West. The new attitude is thoroughly steeped in user-centered consciousness since the cyberspace revolution is the user's revolution. Hackers, net potatoes, scholars, students, marketers, consumers, publishers, public officials -- these and others make up the Internet. They have all unwittingly taken on a new status, that of lifelong novicedom.

Community-Building Forces in Cyberspace

Just as there are social forces that counteract the user-centered revolution, those that operate in the progressive direction are no less vigorous and impressive. Two are mentioned here.

Cybersocialization Forces :

It is remarkable to observe the positive social forces that operate within the user-centered electronic revolution. Cybercommunities are virtual in the sense that they are independent of place, geography, and even demographic variables. One may wonder what motivates thousands of people to build up the virtual architecture of cyberspace. Professional and commercial motives have not been among the principal initiating forces in the evolution of networking. Today, a search on "Home Page" yields many more individuals, families, and membership clubs than businesses or institutions. We are currently on the threshold of an explosion in homepages and homepage development services. One educator has created a "generational homepage" involving new students every semester in a virtual learning community that produces an unending virtual superdocument on the topics of the courses It is easy to imagine families producing and maintaining elaborate generational genealogical homepage multimedia scrapbooks on the Web, complete with home videos and family travelogues.

The homepage phenomenon can be seen as an expression in cyberspace of the spirit of frontier development. Librarians and information professionals will no doubt become involved in working with individuals, faculty, students, and community members, to develop their own homepages for presenting and retrieving online information. This is a natural outgrowth of traditional reader service, since homepages are personalized information delivery systems with resources collected by and for the individual. For example, faculty members may ask librarians to assist them is creating homepages for particular courses that include useful Internet addresses, the full text of course materials and lecture notes, and model student assignments, among other things.

Freedom :

Surfing the net has become a technological expression of an individual's inalienable right to pursue happiness. Internet technology allows one to pursue only what one desires. Attraction is the decision point for traversing a path, or not. Just as people loved the advent of highways that allowed them to take-off to wherever they pleased, today the information superhighway provides people with the new freedom of browsing where they will. Furthermore, social contacts in virtual reality take on new dimensions of freedom previously unattainable in human experience. Cyberpersonalities and "virtual selves" allow users to strip themselves of their regular identities and perhaps shed some inhibitions in the process. In cyberspace everyone is an actor who can play different roles of choice and even become famous. This tendency to develop anonymous personas has been the focus of a warning cry in political places with the consequent promotion of regulation and legislative oversight of the Internet.

Roles for Information Professionals

Some in the field see that user-based methodologies can create new forms of data on library use which provide opportunities "to redesign libraries in fundamental ways."(110, p. 301; 111). The end user revolution has engendered new roles for information professionals that place them directly within the sphere of user concerns. The trends toward creating information that exists only online, creating machine-readable text of older books, articles, and images, providing online access to current text and information services, and the online self-publishing explosion establish the new milieu technoligical for information professionals. With the advent of new research methods, the knowledge base on end users has grown and has focused on their inner world, establishing the new psycho-social mileu. The evolution in user methodologies represents a graphic shift in perspective on users from the retrospective, summative, distal data of surveys, to the concurrent, formative, proximal data of ethnographic methods. At this stage, theoretical integration of these approaches will promote a holistic approach in the further creation of the information environment.


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