Don't let the greying hair fool you. Many of those leading the charge of community on the World Wide Web are middle-aged technophiles who had their roots in the PC revolution of the mid-eighties. Such is the case with Ron Wilson, who could be found manning an early writer's Bulletin Board System in Denver, Colorado a decade ago. Internet Brothers invited Ron to talk to us in July 1999 about life as a veteran net junkie, and to offer his astute observations about writing for this online media. From his home in Spokane, Washington Ron oversees the development of Chivamba's Kraal, a tribute to the late 19th century author and adventurer Stanley Portal Hyatt. A celebrated writer and lecturer in his own right, Ron has a lot to share with us about the importance of the written word on our web sites.
This is your friendly interviewer, Jeff Clark, as he appeared in 1999. Time changes things.
[Internet Brothers] As host of the highly rated History Site and Frontier web awards, you've had the opportunity to review many and various sites. How can beginning web developers make their sites ready for reviewers of top-notch award programs?
[Ron Wilson] Like Internet Brothers, I too take web awards seriously. I have set the requirements for my two awards high because I want it to be a special honor for a site to receive one. My winner's list is short and contains few big name sites, which may lead some to conclude that I am arbitrary in whom I choose as recipients. This is not the case. I review each site submitted and judge the webmaster not only on any God-given talent such as artistic ability, but mostly on how much effort I see. Fancy does not replace good; hence, the more bells and whistles present, the more I suspect that real content may be lacking. People who construct these endless cotton candy home pages need to take a serious look at why they want a footprint on the Web in the first place. As it has been said before: A purpose is the eternal condition of success. So also with Internet sites.
While we're on the subject, yes, I know that links are an inevitable part of the Web. But if you stop and think, the idea that "more is better" when it comes to links is ludicrous. Every link is an invitation to leave where you are and go someplace else. It's a little like inviting people over to your home and when they arrive you present them with dozens of handsome invitations to leave your home and go to someone else's. Kind of like saying, "Folks, there's really not too much for you here. I know you'll be a lot happier if you go down the street to one of these other addresses. Oh, but before you leave would you sign my guestbook and thank me for pointing them out to you?"
My advice is simple for anyone who wants to go after the worthwhile awards on the Web: scrap the animations, the MIDIs, the banners, the endless pages of links, and all the other winking-blinking bunk. Show visitors who YOU are, what interests YOU, and why they should care. Do that and you'll rise above the vast majority of tripe sites out there and easily attract the interest of reviewers, not to mention millions of mouse jockeys across the planet.
[IB] On your web site and in your communications, it becomes immediately apparent that you have great respect for the written word. How did that evolve for you?
[RW] Communication has always been important to me. I grew up with a speech impediment and was always self-conscious about how I sounded when I spoke to other people. While I was working to overcome that, I ended up majoring in English and speech in college, then later went into broadcasting and finally commercial narration. I discovered that the more effectively I spoke and wrote, the more people would take me seriously. The whole idea, the whole point of language, though, is to communicate, and in my estimation simple is best. There is no substitute for plain, correctly spelled English.
[IB] Quite frequently the quality of language can be the make-or-break difference between a highly successful online presence and one that struggles to survive. We've all seen the masterfully artistic sites combined with 3rd grade grammar and spelling, or the businesses with a superb marketing concept that can't get their message across. Is online communication something an individual or group can improve overnight? How can we get started with the process?
“The advantages of community building and online partnerships are only limited by our ability to envision them.” — Ron Wilson
[RW] I think a little less time worrying about stellar graphics on a site and a little more time worrying about grammar and spelling would be a good start. True, everybody "knows what I mean," but language errors are an interruption, a distraction. Moreover, when you spot one error you subconsciously look for others. Credibility is the first casualty of errors. When I review a site and come across: "If your interested" and "thier" and "i" all on the first page, I close my notebook and leave.
No, there's no overnight solution. My greatest word of advice to those who desire to improve in this area is this: read what you write. Simplistic as it sounds, most people don't do it. As Sherlock Holmes said: "They see but they do not observe." Some believe that if there are mistakes, somehow they'll go unnoticed. I understand that not everyone can be an English major, but frankly there's no excuse for spelling errors in this day and age. Even HTML editors have spell checkers. Grammar is another thing. Read what you've written out loud. The ear is a good censor. If it doesn't sound quite right, change it. Again, simple is best. Clarity is far more dazzling than profundity.
[IB] Internet Brothers has had a modicum of success with the idea of "reaching out and shaking hands" with the cybercommunity. We know you are also a proponent of that philosophy. Can you describe for our readers the advantages derived from community building, from online partnerships?
[RW] I'm always amused at the number of "handles" on the Internet. It's as if we've become a society of secret agents and the most dire development to confront us would be for the world to somehow discover our real names. Despite the bad press lately, cyberspace is populated by any number of remarkable individuals — folks well worth knowing. Not surprising, they aren't named "Red Dog" or "Boo-Boo" — they have names like Tom Speer and Jeff Clark. The miracle of the World Wide Web is that for the first time in human history we don't have to live in the same country, the same region, or even the same city to cultivate and enjoy highly meaningful relationships with exceptional people. The beautiful thing I find about e-mail is that it all looks the same in your browser window. A message from Steve Jobs doesn't look any more impressive than that "Earn a Thousand Dollars a Week at Home!" message cowering under your delete button. Instead of the six-gun, the World Wide Web has become the great equalizer. The advantages of community building and online partnerships are only limited by our ability to envision them.
[IB] Adjunct to developing these net relationships comes the possibility of collaboration. Do you have any favorites out there you would perhaps like to do some work with in the future?
[RW] I've enjoyed collaborating with Tom Speer at Fortress Web Design on several recent projects, and would certainly welcome the chance to include Internet Brothers in future plans. I have also been impressed with Don Chisholm at Website Awards and Wally Gross at Surfers Choice, both of whom are in the forefront of many internet innovations. Ken Lanxner at Lives, the Biography Resource would be another candidate for collaboration. The good guys are out there, if we just look.
Basically, I see Outspan continuing to serve two purposes: adding new resources to the Internet community's resource pool, and also serving as an additional example of the "reaching out and shaking hands" you describe. Example is the best teacher for that, I do believe. No doubt the World Wide Web itself will chart the course for me beyond this point, as it has in the past.
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Return to part 1 of Internet Brothers interview with Ron Wilson.