net.wars: Tennis, web wizardry, and the techno gap

by Wendy M Grossman | posted on 24 May 2002

It's very weird to be only moderately technically ept and yet be regarded as some kind of wizard.

Wendy M Grossman

Web consciousness is only just beginning to penetrate the world of suburban middle-aged club tennis. On discovering that I've been online for 11 years, the natural reaction of people at my tennis club is: "Could you do us a Web site?"

In fact, the club already has a Web site. I won't link to it, because the damn thing's been down for a month. The previous administrator, who shall remain nameless, was late paying the invoice for the site's hosting, and the site got deleted. Then of course the hosting company didn't have backups of the pages (why should it?). Then the former adminstrator hasn't gotten around to replacing the pages yet. So what with one thing and another ... I've done a minimalist temporary placeholder with the bare essentials, but it doesn't display for some reason that isn't clear to me but doubtless will be to technical support.

The whole incident shows that a little bit of knowledge really can be a dangerous thing. The former administrator knew enough to find a hosting company, design some pages, and get them up on the site. She knew enough to know that she could design those pages in Dreamweaver. She even knew enough to be able to upload the pages via FTP (following the site's instructions). She must have: I saw the pages some months back, so I know they exist.

But she didn't know how to make the page findable by a search engine: no meta tags, no registrations. She didn't know that pages created in Dreamweaver could be edited using other software (which may explain why she didn't put them back up). And it never occurred to her to give the club backup copies of the pages, which would have made the present situation easier. The club doesn't even know the user name and password to gain access to its own Web site.

The point is not to carp at this woman. The point is that when you and everyone you know think of the online world as their native country it's very easy to forget just how dense and impenetrable it is to ... well, everyone else. It can be very difficult to remember that - other than my mother and my (much) older sisters - there is an "everyone else".

And it's hard to remember that those people, unlike the technically confused people in my group of friends, are not married to people who can explain it to them. ("What can you do with a computer that you can't do with a pencil and paper?" my father asked in 1982, when I told him I was buying a used machine.)

The other day, I tried to explain to one of the committee members - a bright guy who's a smart tennis strategist, even if he can't type - what a Web page really is. He could grasp "it's a computer file" readily enough: he has a computer and it has files, though I'm not sure he doesn't need to have someone come over and delete a few when he needs disk space. And since he uses the Internet, he'll accept at face value the statement that for you to see a Web page your computer has to go get it from another computer.

But the exact alchemy by which a Web page is created out of words and pictures seems to be a dark, unfathomable mystery to him. One reason, of course, is that his software generally hides all that from him. He would never think to "View source" to see what a Web page really looks like, raw. If his email software gets HTML it's rendered immediately into prettified email (if he's lucky - if he's unlucky, of course, it's rendered into a virus infection ). And he doesn't have the tribal memory of "Well, it's kind of like those dot commands you used to use in WordStar ... "

To do him credit, he's grasped that "Please send the information as plain text" isn't the same as attaching a Microsoft Word file to an email message. Unlike most PR people . Even so, asking him to turn off HTML for email threw him into a tizzy. What was HTML? Why did his email have it? Why had no one else complained? We solved this one the simple way: I went to his house, opened up his copy of Outlook Express, and switched the default setting to text.

I dread to think what would have happened if instead of me he'd talked to the ex-Web-administrator and she'd told him what he needed was to edit his email in Dreamweaver.

There are, of course, solutions. You ask functional questions, not technical ones: "What do you want the Web site to do for the club?", not "Were you thinking of putting up the newsletter as a PDF file?" But the communication problem remains very, very hard. When I was a teenager, we talked a lot about the "generation gap": the Viet Nam war was that divisive. Now we have the widening technology gap, and just as the bitter feuds from Viet Nam persisted to dog Clinton throughout his presidency, it will be a long, long time before it closes.

Wendy M. Grossman’s Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series. Readers are welcome to post here, at net.wars home, follow on Twitter or send email to netwars(at) skeptic.demon.co.uk (but please turn off HTML).