Lessons Behind Web Stalker's Sneer

Review in Wired News16/01/98

Today Some of the fiercest battles over technological standards now bear directly on Web browsers. A skirmish over who has the last word on Java, for example, prompted Sun to sue Microsoft this past fall. While the real issues are sufficiently arcane to be incomprehensible to the average Web user, the outcomes will determine her experience of the Internet and the Web. In this context, the design philosophies behind the new alternative browsers are a welcome challenge to the existing rules of representing data space, despite their links to one of the most tired and elitist poses of Net culture.

Web Stalker, one of the first alternative browsers available to the general public, is designed to disassemble Web pages, presenting a collection of parts rather than an integrated whole. Launching Web Stalker opens up an expanse of black that does nothing to dispel connotations of illegality and dark, shadowy night stuff, the domain of live stalkers. (Though, it should be noted that you can change the background color to shades like midnight blue or magenta). You create multiple windows on this black or magenta field and assign functions to them like "crawl" or "map" or "extract." "Crawl" lets you connect to a site. A "map" window opened nearby will display all the links out from that page, a bouquet of circles with lines for stems. The "extract" function pulls the text out of a Web page and displays it in a scrollable window. The "dismantle" function plucks links out of a page, which you can save separately using the "stash" function.

Web Stalker is still at the 1.0 phase of its life, and many features will undoubtedly be added and improved. Yet one of the most striking - the mapping function - is seriously flawed. A map of a given URL and its attendant links appears as a lovely intricate pattern, much like a Spirograph. But the map itself contains no titles or identifying information. It's more like looking at an unlabeled family tree, or one of those maps of the Internet where interlacing filaments hover above an outline of the United States - stunning but nearly meaningless visual exercises. Using the cursor, you can only read the URL of each circle one at a time. To see how links really relate to each other, you would want to see at a glance the titles of multiple URLs, as well as the pathways connecting them.

Like text browsers of yore, Web Stalker prefers old HTML, doesn't read images, and is easily derailed by scripts of any sort. If Web Stalker's inability to handle GIF files is temporary (the creators plan on adding graphical capabilities in upcoming releases), its creators' aversion to visual information seems more permanent, and more telling.

Matthew Fuller (part of the design group I/O/D behind Web Stalker) recently dismissed Web graphics with one succinct phrase - "eye candy" - and hyped Web Stalker's end run around advertising, a not altogether novel course that will resonate with purists, hackers, and those besieged by advertising. (In other words, just about everybody who watches TV or lives in a city.)

Web Stalker's pose as the worn leather jacket to IE4.0's khakis makes it irresistible. But, built into its interface and menu options is an idealized view of the Web, specifically the ethos (reinforced by silly mantras like "information wants to be free") that profiting from information, or even stemming the hemorrhage of cash in its production, is anathema, and severely impedes the Web users' experience. Which is all well and good for the plentiful number of obsessed individuals pouring hours into their Web sites with no hope of, or interest in, ever receiving financial remuneration from advertisers or anyone else.

But the assumption that sites with ads are malignant or uninteresting, or that the ads themselves should be avoided whenever possible, smacks of cultural elitism. One, also, that limits the form, in this case the Web, to the leisure class, as most everyone else (except suburban teens and college students) can't afford to spend hours producing "information."

Good information is expensive: the process that transforms data into valuable or entertaining information requires time and labor, two things taken together that often equal a salary or other sort of financial compensation. Anti-ad browsers, in a medium that straddles broadcast (no fees but lots of ads) and publishing (subscription fees and ads) but still lacks the market size of either, are a weapon for killing off sites (like the one I co-founded>) that depend on ads for some revenue to offset the costs of production.

Still the most encouraging thing about Web Stalker is the genuinely novel vantage point it offers for looking at the web. Whether or not it makes it out of beta, Web Stalker does make you reconsider some familiar, and seemingly endemic, aspects of "traditional" browsers.

A background of corporate-casual gray is not a foregone conclusion, for example. Coupling all your online activities from email to Web reading into one browser is not, necessarily, a good thing. Despite its sneering surface, Web Stalker permits a refreshing disintegration of a Web page, even as Microsoft and Netscape are hell-bent on integrating and aggregating. Over the past three years, thousands have labored in HTML, constructing the Web from the digital equivalent of spit and glue. Now, with Web Stalker, you can relish its deconstruction.

Stefanie Syman is the executive editor of Feed magazine.