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Letter from the Editor-in-Chief Rob Kling
16(3) 2000

This issue of The Information Society, 16(3) contains four articles, a review-essay and three book reviews. Two of the articles examine the structuring, accessibility and communications via the World Wide Web,  one examines the ways that people who use information systems are conceptualized by medical informatics researchers. The last article discusses social informatics – the field that studies computerization and social change in cultural and institutional contexts. 

This issue opens with an article about the biases of various World Wide Web (WWW) search engines, such as Alta Vista, Google, and Excite. Everybody who frequently searches the WWW seems to have a favorite search engine. But the behavior of various search engines is hardly transparent. It is hard to learn from a search engines’ site which kind of  WWW sites they index, what “fraction of the WWW” they effectively index, and how they rank WWW sites in response to various kinds of queries. As the WWW becomes a routine adjunct for many kinds of informational searches – professional and personal – there is a strong public interest in our being able to have reliable answers to questions such as these. There is a small body of empirical research which tries to answer these questions for specific search engines. There are  also services, such as Search Engine Watch (www.searchenginewatch.com) that report data and publish articles that help to answer these questions. However, most of this discussion is cast in technical terms (ie., how many pages does a search engine index, how does it score on technical retrieval criteria?).

In their article “Shaping the Web: Why the Politics of Search Engines Matters,” Lucas D. Introna and Helen Nissenbaum, examine the kinds of systematic biases in the  coverage and  ranking strategies of various search engines. Their study suggests that search engines systematically exclude certain sites and certain types of sites, in favor of others (by design or by accident). They also found that search engines  systematically give prominence to some WWW sites unfairly at the expense of others in ways that can confuse many people who use them.  Some search engines have invited  sites to pay for top locations when a search includes certain key words (and this location may not be sacrificed when a search includes additional key words that are not on the paying site). Other search engines enable sites to pay for “express indexing” – the ability to be updated more rapidly in the multi-month queue of sites that will be revisited for new indexing. Searchers are not informed which sites have paid for enhanced visibility. Search engines have to find  some way to pay for their development, refinement, and operations. However, Introna and Nissenbaum argue that such systematic (and underappreciated) practices lead to a narrowing of the Web’s functioning as an important public information medium. They also argue that these practices undermine the ideals that have fuelled widespread support for its growth and development. They end by discussing several ways of  addressing the politics of search engines.

The second article also discusses the relationships between IT systems developments and the people who will use those systems in their routine work – but in the context of medical information systems. In “How ‘LINCs’ Were Made: Alignment and Exclusion in American Medical Informatics” Elke Duncker examines the ways that computer users are treated in the field of Medical Informatics. Many proponents of the field believe that the emergence of Medical Informatics has been technology driven. These approaches emphasize technological “revolutions” that are claimed to transform information processing in Medicine. Her article examines the ways that workable medical information systems require significant involvement from the professionals who will use them if they are to be workable in practice. This involvement has been much easier to accomplish  for clinical laboratory systems than for hospital-wide information systems that support  medical records for routine use by doctors and nurses. Duncker examines the contrast between the development of  an early laboratory system – LINC, and an early hospital record keeping system – TDS-MIS. These two cases illustrate the differences in how different groups of system users are engaged or distanced in system developments. Duncker argues that the field of Medical Informatics must develop a stronger appreciation for these issues to enable its practitioners to develop more usable and useful information systems to support routine medical work. While ideas of this kind are appreciated within the field of  Information Systems, there has been little cross-over to Medical Informatics.

The third article, “Reproduced and Emergent Genres of Communication on the World Wide Web”, by Kevin Crowston and Marie Williams examined the kinds of conventions that are commonly used for organizing web pages, such as sales catalogs, journal articles, Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ’s), and personal home pages. They build on research by Wanda Orlikowski and JoAnne Yates and refer to these kinds of conventions as genres. Genres refer to “typified communicative actions characterized by similar substance and form and taken in response to recurrent situations.”   The standardization of formats helps readers to quickly orient to them and use them. New media, such as the WWW, can facilitate the use of new genres. In fact, some literary and communication theorists have argued that hypertext would become commonplace and revolutionize social relationships through new forms of communication. A few theorists, such as Doug Brent, have addressed the actual practical difficulties of writing meaningful articles in hypertext format. In fact, most scholarly and professional articles that are posted on Internet sites appear as standard articles, although a notable number use external hyperlinks to link to on-line sources or citations. 

Since there may be a gigantic difference between the usage of possible kinds of  documentary genres on WWW sites and the most popular and common genres, an empirical study is a helpful approach for understanding contemporary practices. Crowston and Williams conducted an empirical study of 1,000 WWW pages to garner such insights. In addition, they were very sensitive to the ways that WWW authors faithfully reproduced paper genres, (such as course syllabi and meeting notes), modified genres (as with hyperlinks to other documents), blended genres (such as an instruction sheet on how to apply for a loan that included the eligibility rules for the program),  or created new genres (such as home pages, hot-lists and URL submission pages). They found that  about 60% of  their WWW documents are designed with traditional genres, about 30% are designed in new, but accepted  genres, and only about 5% of their documents were designed with new genres. Their study serves as a useful statement about the character of publishing practices on the WWW, as well as an advance in research about communicative genres in new media.

The fourth article, “Learning about Information Technologies and Social Change: The Contribution of Social Informatics” by Rob Kling is a  Perspectives article that serves as a useful introduction to the systematic study of IT and social change.  There has been a substantial body of analytical and empirically grounded research about information technologies and social change that could better inform contemporary discussions. Unfortunately, the research articles are scattered in the journals of several different fields, including communications, computer science, information systems, information science, and some social sciences. Each of these fields uses somewhat different nomenclature. This diversity of communication outlets and specialized terminologies makes it difficult for many non-specialists (and even specialists) to locate important studies. One impetus for coining a new term -- social informatics -- was to help make these ideas accessible to non-specialists. The new appellation was also intended to strengthen communication between specialists, and to strengthen the dialogs between communities of designers and social analysts. “Social informatics” is the new working name for the interdisciplinary study of the design, uses, and consequences of information technologies that takes into account their interaction with institutional and cultural contexts.

This article uses examples such as studies of computer networks, scientific communication via electronic journals, and public access to the Internet to illustrate key ideas from social informatics research. Some of the key themes include: the importance of social contexts and work processes, socio-technical networks, public access to information, and social infrastructure for computing support. The article draws upon 25 years of systematic analytical and critical research about information technology and social change. Readers who wish to learn more about social informatics research programs, conferences, courses,  and discussion lists can find additional information on the Social Informatics Home Page: http://www.slis.indiana.edu/SI
This issue ends with Richard Mason’s review essay of Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed, by James C. Scott  and three book reviews: 

· Eric Higgs and Sundeep Sahay‘s review of Holding on to Reality: The Nature of Information at the Turn of the Millenium, by Albert Borgmann; 
· Felix Stalder’s review of Pandora’s Hope. Essays on the Reality of Science Studies by Bruno Latour and; 
·  Holly Crawford’s review of Information Ecologies: Using Technology with Heart, by Bonnie A. Nardi and Vicki L. O’Day. 

We will conclude this volume with issue 16(4) on "New Multimedia in Europe" which was guest edited by Prof. Elisabeth Davenport and Prof. Robin Williams. 

Please check our Indiana University-Bloomington web site for news on forthcoming issues, calls for papers, and abstracts of articles from previous issues. Prospective authors may reach us via email at tisj@indiana.edu.

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