Internet Global Environmental Information Sharing
JOSHUA KNAUER and MAURICE RICKARD
A new model of global information sharing has emerged with the rise of the Internet. This new model allows information to be shared by many and among many, leading to a many-to-many distribution pattern rather than the standard broadcast-type distribution in which information goes from one to many. In addition, the construction of the information arises from exchange of information rather than from an imposed hierarchy. This paper discusses the new model and demonstrates its use in the implementation of the EnviroLink Network.
THE OLD MODEL OF INFORMATION SHARING
The old model of information sharing is based on a one-to-many distribution. It is constructed and controlled from the top of a hierarchical organization (such as with ownership or in management). For example, in the model followed by traditional media, a writer or team of writers is under one or more editors representing the interests of owners, engaged in sending one or more messages to readers, listeners, or watchers. The information flows in one direction only— from the media outlet to its consumers. This is the case with print media, radio, and television in mass markets and in small markets.
The economics of mass media require that the information to be shared be carefully selected. The selection process usually is based on what will generate the greatest reader, listener, and watcher response—either the sensational and the scandalous (ideally delivered before other competing media outlets) or the scoop (the most highly valued information). In the “scoop” model, information is primarily a commodity to be traded, not to be shared. When it is delivered (to the
media consumers, not competing media producers), its value as unique information is lost or traded with the hopes of a wider circulation, larger readership, listening audience, or viewership for more advertising revenue.
INTERACTIVITY UNDER THE ONE-TO-MANY MODEL
In the old model, information is shared with little expectation of feedback other than regular consumption—watching, listening, reading, or purchasing. The end result is more of a lecture than a conversation. Opportunities for interactivity do exist, but they are limited, inefficient, and far less responsive than those offered by the Internet.
Letters to the editor are a form of interactive communication under the old model of information distribution by print, but they are very inefficient as a medium of information exchange. This inefficiency takes several forms: time delays from composition to publication and from reading to response, space limitations, and limited number of response cycles in an interaction.
The delay from composition to publication ranges from a day or two (in the case of a local newspaper) to a month or more (in the case of a monthly national magazine). This includes time necessary to transport a physical letter (recently reduced by the increase of e-mailed letters to editors) and the lead time required for preproduction, printing, and delivery by the media carrier. Editorial decisions in selecting the letters for print act as an additional barrier to the exchange of information. These decisions can be based on the amount of available space or on the content of the individual letter. The limited space for letters results in relatively few letters being published (relative to the total circulation of the publication). Letters that are run often are edited to fit the available space or are selected for brevity. In this case, not every reader is an equal (or potentially equal) participant in the information exchange.
The number of response cycles in this model also is limited. Although one occasionally may find letters responding to other letters, these responses to responses rarely are printed beyond one iteration. A true conversation requires more response cycles in real time.
Radio and television also offer possibilities for interactivity. Like the print media, however, there are limits on the level of participation, based on available time rather than available space. In the case of radio and television call-in talk shows, the time slot of the show precipitates an inverse relationship between the number of participants and the time available for each one to participate, thereby eliminating dialog that requires longer discourse. Any media outlet offering real-time call-in viewer and listener interactivity inevitably will reach a state offering relatively few opportunities for participation. The format and program will become either too popular to give viable access to all of its listeners or viewers, or it will remain accessible only to a limited population. Even if a given show’s distribution grows (from local to other markets to nationwide), each audience
member’s opportunity for participation approaches zero, because the time available for participation remains constant.
Even if a show does not become popular and grow into new markets, it may offer a greater possibility for participation to its small number of consumers, but it will serve as an information-sharing venue for a limited population, and perhaps face the threat of cancellation. The call-in survey form of interactivity circumvents the problem of time limitations by tallying simple yes, no, and undecided responses. This allows a greater number of participants in each show, but the limited response options constrain the expression of subtle or nuanced positions.
THE NEW MODEL: MANY-TO-MANY INFORMATION SHARING
Many-to-many information sharing is a conversation, not a lecture. It is a free interaction among many parties. In the new many-to-many model, every reader is a potential writer, every listener a potential speaker, and the cost of entry to the conversation is relatively low compared with that for print, radio, or television. The only requirement is access to a computer, a modem, and an Internet connection.
The Internet as a Medium for the New Model
Although Internet connections are not universal, most of the developed world and an increasing portion of the developing world have some access to it. Universities, schools, businesses, governments, and private individuals with computer equipment can have direct access to information from almost anywhere on the planet. In fact, people without computer equipment can gain the same access through libraries, schools, and the growing number of Internet cafes. For example, it costs as little as eight dollars for someone in midtown Manhattan to hold an hour-long conversation with someone in Nepal (Greenwald, 1997).
Unlike television, participants can talk directly to the original producer and other participants (not just the company that produces the shows). Unlike talk radio, the conversation is not limited to one geographic area. Unlike both television and radio, interaction on the Internet is not subject to the constraints of time. Unlike newspapers or magazines, the turnaround time for information sharing is nearly instantaneous, and interaction is not marginalized or limited by constraints of space. A constant global conversation is therefore possible.
Furthermore, the global conversation taking place over the Internet consists of millions of participants simultaneously sharing information on a great variety of different topics. The forum, in addition, is under no one controlling agent. There are no fixed rules. It is essentially a functioning anarchy. The Internet is currently the only example of a large-scale unregulated (or sparsely regulated) system in daily use.
Much like other media, anyone (with the necessary equipment) can be a consumer. The Internet, however, enables almost anyone to be a publisher as well, adding his or her voice to the global conversation. The increasing commercial use of the Internet notwithstanding, there are many niches (provided by educational and public institutions as well as nonprofit organizations) that facilitate individual or group expression free of commercial considerations or censorship. The great number of participants, the variety of utterances on the Internet, and the lack of overriding control of the system contributes to both positive and negative effects.
Positive Effects of the Internet
The Internet enables larger numbers of people to be brought into a dialog and to share and combine this information set into a larger, multifaceted knowledge base. Global challenges and problems (socioeconomic, political, environmental) are complex, multifaceted, and multidisciplinary. Solutions to such problems require extensive knowledge bases, made up of contributions from large numbers of participants with their own different knowledge sets and perspectives. For any given group, the greater the difference in specialties and knowledge sets, the less likely it is that the group might have engaged in any kind of dialog through channels other than those offered by the Internet.
The Internet also allows wider participation in the political process. The cost of entry to the global dialog on the Internet is much lower than, for example, the cost of entry to mainstream political participation. This allows the disempowered and marginalized a place in the global dialog, using the same distribution channels as used by dominant cultural forces.
In particular, for independent publishers the Internet has facilitated the sharing of information and the circumvention of possible censorship and repression. Even when governments or other interests pressure one or more Internet publishers to curtail or inhibit discussion of certain subjects, other publishers are likely to take on particular causes and create venues for continued discussions.
A noteworthy example of this relates to a report criticizing police investigations and government mishandling of allegations of child abuse in Nottingham, England. The report proved to be such an embarrassment that the printed report was suppressed by the British government. However, it was published on a Web site in England, which then was pressured to remove the report from its server. Within days, the report had been copied to several servers around the world, effectively circumventing attempts to censor a critical point of view (Craddock, 1997).
An Internet-based Albanian newspaper shows the use of the Internet to share information amidst censorship. Although access to the Internet is limited in Albania, reporters there e-mail their stories to volunteers in France, who then post the stories on the World Wide Web. This transnational team uses the
Internet to supply the world at large with the only uncensored news out of Albania (Nouzareth, 1997).
Finally, the electronic distribution of a vast amount of textual and visual information on the Internet can occur without any increase in consumption of natural resources (trees, chemicals used to process wood into paper, inks, and fuel expended to deliver printed material).
Negative Effects of the Internet
The negative effect of the Internet that is discussed most frequently is the increased access by consumers—children, particularly—to socially unacceptable, damaging, or objectionable information. Racist tracts, how-to guides for terrorist acts, and other troubling material are more universally accessible on the Internet than in printed form. Although objectionable material is certainly available on the Internet, it is also less prevalent than is suggested in reports by traditional media (Katz, 1997a,b; Rosenberg, 1997).
An equally obvious but persistent negative effect of the Internet as a new medium for information exchange has to do with the quality and quantity of information available. It is easy for information seekers to be overwhelmed by the information. One concern with users being overwhelmed is that they may become more passive in their interactions on the Internet. One media observer (Thomas, 1995) has identified this as the “info-sedative nature” of the Internet. Passivity is a particularly detrimental (and all too frequent) response to information about critical global environmental problems such as degradation of rain forests, famines, global warming, disease, ozone depletion, and other issues that benefit from the active participation of media consumers in generating and acting on solutions.
Dualistic Effect of the Internet
Concern about the quality of information available through the Internet revolves around the veracity of the information that customers receive. Critical consideration of the sources of information and their motives will help to separate valuable content from noise. This is particularly important because the users choose from hundreds of thousands of sources online. They also rely on information providers with whom they develop a sense of trust. The sources of information are no longer the familiar few that are part of the traditional media. For example, in the print media, consumers more readily can rely on the media brands (e.g., The New York Times, The Washington Post, Nightline) to determine how the information is filtered (conservative or liberal, environmental proponent or environmental conservative) and whether the sources can be trusted on the basis of their history of checking their sources and their facts. A story running in the New York Times or The Washington Post, for example, would be more credible
with many readers than a story running in the National Enquirer (except for readers for whom the reverse would be the case).
On the Internet, it is more difficult to discern the reliability of information. It is possible for the information to appear official or veracious when it is not. For example, Pierre Salinger’s dubious contributions to the debate over the cause of the TWA flight 800 tragedy was based on a fictitious “report” of a friendly-fire incident, which sounded like an official military report. What Salinger failed to do was to verify the source before passing the report on to others, which many reporters had done several months earlier, rejecting the report as a hoax (Rosenberg, 1996).
As with any information, but most particularly from Internet sources, critical analysis by consumers is essential. Assuming that the consumers are likely to do so and are capable of doing so, there is a likelihood of consumers engaging fully in the information-sharing process. There is evidence that when Internet users engage fully in verifying reports, even those reported by the more reliable press sources, a fuller picture of a particular situation can merge.
A case in point is found in the financial reporting of the Iomega Corporation (Gardner and Gardner, 1996). In 1995, the Iomega Corporation came out with a new disk drive whose disks held 70 times the capacity of existing floppy disks. Between the announcement and the debut of the drive (a matter of months), Iomega’s stock price went from $2 a share to $10 a share. The rise drew strength from the expectations created by laudatory reviews from top computer industry publications that lavished praise on the new product. However, skeptics started to question the company’s capability, pointing to the company’s lack of manufacturing capacity and its two previous years of losses. Rumors abounded that the stock would shortly return to its initial offering price of $2. The reaction from private investors was not to dump the stock; quite to the contrary, in metropolitan centers across the United States, private investors began polling their local computer stores about their current stock and their backlogged orders of Iomega disk drives. They then went online with this information in a public discussion of Iomega availability. Simultaneously, an engineer took a simple tour of the company’s facility and observed the manufacturing process. He then went online to contribute his estimates of Iomega’s production capacity. Furthermore, another investor drove to the company’s headquarters on Sunday afternoon in order to report on how many cars appeared in the company parking lot and then went online with his information. What resulted from the collection and online publication of these seemingly inconsequential details was a national public conversation, a conversation that had never been possible before. How well the company was able to meet demand—a subject of so much speculation among offline investors—had a sure answer among online investors. The information was provided so quickly and in such detail that no Wall Street analyst or firm could have done it. And in fact, within a week, Wall Street traders were becoming part of the discussion.
A single location on the Internet had become the place to go for understanding and valuing Iomega.
When information consumers think critically about the information they receive, they can engage the information on a much deeper level than is normally the case. The Internet provides a means for information consumers to participate fully in the exchange of information. By making their interpretations available to others, they become community resources of critical and analytical information, other voices brought fully into the global conversation. Each reader is no longer a potential writer but an actual writer. Each listener can speak. Information truly can be shared globally.
GLOBAL INFORMATION SHARING AS A FORCE FOR ENVIRONMENTAL CHANGE
All current environmental science points to the world as a vast system of relationships in which many small changes can accumulate to become significant global changes. Local environmental information needs to be shared worldwide in part because of its global implications, but also because observed environmental changes in one locality can be related to changes in another. If solutions to our growing global challenges are to be found, information will have to be shared quickly across distances, across disciplines, and across ideological divisions. At this time, the Internet offers the greatest opportunity for the growth of realistic, workable, global information-sharing systems.
The many-to-many model of global information sharing can be particularly useful for businesses, educators, government agencies, and others seeking information about sustainable and ecologically progressive practices. Businesses in particular can benefit—and have benefited—from engaging in the global environmental information-sharing dialog on the Internet. Businesses can connect with their peers within the sustainable business community to share tips, advice, and other information about sustainable business practices and strategies. A startup company could use the Internet to research other companies’ progressive labor policies, materials, and methods used in sustainable business practices and find contact information for socially responsible vendors. In addition, the company could make its products and services available to a global base of customers through the Internet at a fraction of the cost of conventional advertising and promotion.
Government agencies can use the Internet to research examples of other governments’ efforts at sustainable policies and practices. Government agencies also can use the information-sharing capability of the Internet to initiate and maintain contact with constituents, generating and sustaining a two-way data flow to provide daily updates on their activities and receive constituent feedback.
Community groups working on, for example, restoration and conservation projects can connect with other communities that have completed similar projects
to learn how developers, community groups, and government have worked together to find solutions to environmental problems. At the same time, the results of their work can be made available on the Internet, adding to the global library of environmental information to be used by others.
THE ENVIROLINK NETWORK AS A MODEL OF GLOBAL ENVIRONMENTAL INFORMATION SHARING
The EnviroLink Network was built to facilitate the many-to-many environmental information sharing model on a global scale. Founded in 1991 as a nonprofit organization, the EnviroLink Network serves the global community as a central location for environmental information on the Internet. As of April 2001, the EnviroLink community consisted of more than 500,000 visitors (estimated) per month1 in over 130 countries, on six continents, connecting to each other through EnviroLink’s Internet-based services: a Web site, real-time chats, bulletin boards, and electronic mailing lists.
The EnviroLink Network provides, through its content areas and other services, a forum in which the global environmental conversation can take place. Built from the ground up, members of the global EnviroLink community are using environmental information not only for reference and research purposes, but also in political, artistic, and community applications. To reflect and facilitate this variety of uses, EnviroLink’s resources for global information sharing are organized in several different content areas, which are described below.
The EnviroLink News Service runs daily news stories on environmental issues and events. It is read by students, educators, governments, organizations, ordinary people—anyone interested in environmental information that is updated daily. Its original reports, written by over 800 volunteers worldwide, are frequently reprinted in many different publications around the world.
The Sustainable Business Network
The Sustainable Business Network (SBN) is an area of the EnviroLink Web site that is targeted at a specific audience: businesses that follow socially responsible business practices and people interested in purchasing services and products that are made by these companies. The companies highlighted in the SBN produce items made from recycled materials, and promote organic farming practices, alternative energy sources, energy conservation, and other green products and technologies.
The SBN itself is built from global information sources. Its contributors are writers from around the world whose reports and articles are updated monthly. It
features interactive bulletin boards for readers, writers, businesses, and customers to engage in follow-up dialogs about stories, job opportunities, exchange of ideas, partnerships, and other information.
The EnviroLink Library contains links to thousands of environmental resources on the Internet organized in over 250 categories. Some of the resources are hosted on EnviroLink and some are hosted elsewhere. As the central resource linking environmental information on the Internet, the EnviroLink Library is an prime example of a global information-sharing tool.
The EnviroArts area of the EnviroLink Web site represents a different form of global information sharing, based on the notion that the art of a society transmits unquantifiable information that can lead to greater understanding than that captured in scientific concepts. Through the Internet this information is made available to many more people than it otherwise could be. EnviroArts hosts the work of select environmental artists, and links to artworks with environmental themes and concerns elsewhere in the world. The EnviroArts gallery is located everywhere, available to anyone, and open 24 hours a day.
Examples of Global Information Sharing
Individuals, businesses, and groups everywhere in the world have used the EnviroLink Network to share information. For example, a story on Royal Dutch Shell’s operations in Nigeria originally ran on the EnviroLink News Service content area of the EnviroLink Web site before being picked up and reprinted in an environmental newsletter in Latvia. Similarly, Green Connections (a permaculture publication based in Australia) found Green Marketing and Management: A Global Perspective—a book written by SBN content partner John Wasik—by using EnviroLink’s SBN. Green Connections used Wasik’s recommendations to environmentally restructure the functioning of their office. They analyzed their purchasing patterns and changed them to make them more sustainable, buying office supplies made locally by sustainable businesses instead of buying conventionally produced supplies from other countries. Their contact with John Wasik on the SBN prompted them to question their practices and investigate associated implications of their practices and to change to more sustainable and progressive practices.
Teachers from around the world regularly use the EnviroLink Library as a research tool for their students to find information for reports and projects. Currently a school district in New Zealand is using the library as an information source for their assignments and research projects.
Staff members from the office of Vice President Al Gore have used EnviroLink resources to research public response to administration policies, announcements, and legislation. The Congressional Research Service and individual staff from the offices of various senators and representatives regularly use EnviroLink for similar applications.
The EnviroLink Network is a working example of the new many-to-many information-sharing model. Constructed from the ground up, rather than as a hierarchy imposed from the top down, EnviroLink provides the opportunity for a global dialog in which everyone is a potential participant, able to contribute information, to listen, and to support the venue for the conversation.
Our figure for estimated visitors to the site is taken from a daily record of unique machine addresses requesting files from our site, assuming that one person uses each machine.
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