Where do portals come from?

Luís Ángel Fernández Hermana - @luisangelfh
21 November, 2017
Editorial: 152
Fecha de publicación original: 26 enero, 1999

Don’t say shoo! until the last cat has gone by

We are in the portal era. But, let’s see how long it lasts. What is certain is that, at the moment, either you have a portal, or you are in one, or you’re a dead “bit”. And, if this is indeed the case, the situation could be worrying. We know from experience that, whether physical or virtual, portals have a limited capacity for letting things in. Not everyone fits through them. And this gives even greater cause for concern, as we saw at a meeting organised by the Grup de Periodistes Digitals (GPD) in Barcelona last week. Almost 200 people listened to representatives from the most widely-known portals, from the Americans Yahoo, Lycos and Microsoft to local ones such as Telepolis and VilaWeb. Apart from the particular considerations of each of them, the emergence of portals relates to the eternal question posed by the Internet: how we organise information in the Net. Portals seem to offer a short-cut. But I don’t think we should think of them as a miracle cure before we really see how they work.

There are a few things about portals that I think we must bear in mind. The first is where they come from. Their origin is usually a directory with a search engine (some of those that call themselves portals only contain what they have produced themselves, which is very poor as far as the Internet is concerned, but very close to what is really meant by a portal from the conceptual point of view.) It takes directories of the calibre mentioned above, years and loads of money to accumulate addresses and services on the Internet.

Three years ago I met a young guy at a beach house on Long Island (New York) whose job it was to review web pages. Every day he entered a personal page prepared for him by his company, and extracted a daily list. Then he spent the day going through this list visiting pages and filling in forms which included information about each web from content to a critical appraisal. He averaged about 80 web pages a day. At night he deposited his work on his page picking up the next days’ work at the same time. A perfect teleworker. Well-paid, he didn’t do anything else, and he could do it from anywhere in the world with his laptop. The company had 200 people like him working all over the United States. If my calculations were correct, that meant they combed about 300,000 webs a month. The company, by the way, was Excite, which ATT-TCI has just paid a billion pesetas, 999,999 million pesetas, plus one, for.

The second thing to bear in mind about portal-directories is the X Generation, the new arrivals. New users, a body of people that we know nothing about – their volume, density and behaviour – and to whom hard-line theories of chaos and liquid mechanics would have to be applied if we want to get to the bottom of the problem of just how many of them there are on the Net daily and how they behave. That’s why I give them the X. But, they are the main devourers of directories and, now, portals. It would be interesting to do a thorough survey (I know that’s impossible) of veteran internauts (those who have been on the Net for more than three months and average about two connected hours a day, either by e-mail, distribution lists, chats or navigating) and find out just how many times they visit a portal and for how long. I think we would be surprised at the results.

However, it seems to me that what is more interesting about directories is how they evolve from the point of view of organising information on the Internet. At the beginning (two or three years ago), directories didn’t even have a content list on the first page. There was only their name and the search box. Later, the home page included a list showing the information to be found “inside” and organised according to subject, with very little information besides that. Then, they started the difficult task of pulling the list apart to include the maximum possible information at one glance The idea behind this was not only to try to show all the content in the directory, but also to give the false impression that the “whole” of the Internet was to be found there. You didn’t need to go anywhere else to find out what was happening in the very bowels of the Internet. The directory was the very belly of the whale itself.

Given the futility of this attempt, on the one hand, and the waves of new arrivals which grew and grew, on the other, the presentation of information began to include extras to create the impression of a totality. That is why they started to present news services (their own or bought from others), as well as the first traces of electronic commerce and a “hotch potch” of other things. All of this, if possible, on the first page. It was as if on entering a supermarket, one had a map on the door which told you not only where the ladies’ department was, but also the colour and size of the panties on sale there as well as what other products the manufacturer had on offer like underpants, records or cutlery. All at one glance. An enormous portal.

The idea was great but the results very poor. Technology is not advanced enough yet to allow us to capture such complexity on one page (although we are moving in that direction). And, in the second place, that complexity still depends on the fundamental resource of these places and that is the directory, or in other words, a data bank of addresses and services on the Internet. So, the portal is still very limited with respect to the global range on offer on the Net and its reach is only that of its directory and that depends on the size of the individual company concerned. We can add to this the indubitable economic value of portals, especially their ability to “educate” new arrivals, because they are able to increase the visibility of certain resources.

If things go in this direction, it is possible that portals will break up into areas of interest, forcing us to reorganise information and open the doors to a different kind of navigation, closer to what in the next generation technological sector is called conceptual navigation. This consists in developing a graphic representation of the information stored in directories (or in webs, documents or files or wherever it may be stored on computers), irrespective of its volume, complexity or heterogeneity. The basic idea is to find the information not under the successive layers into which it is structured (like hierarchical trees or via hyperlinks) but spatially. In order to do this. information must be transformed into a navigable map where almost everything can be seen at a glance, as though we were using the visual interfaces of geographical information systems.

Portals have taken a step in this direction and it seems to me that this is more important than their pretensions to totality or extraordinary properties in the field of electronic commerce or their supposed ability to generate information and content. The Internet is still much more than its portals as is the case in a city as well. And at the portals of both there is more chit chat than real substance. And there is no reason why to start off with, it should be any other way, nor is it a reason to discredit them. However, real life always takes place on the streets, in buildings, in businesses or in human groupings of some kind. And the Internet has much more of all this than all the portals in the world put together.

Translation: Bridget King.