What's wrong with the Internet in Australia?
By Dan Byrnes
With the remaining clumps of the dot-com bubble meltdown still
smouldering, the charred IT landscape of Australia should offer opportunities
for the web content providers left standing. Provided they can get it
Dan Byrnes asks "What's wrong with the Internet in Australia?". Drawing on
six years' experience as a Webmaster and content provider, he then answers his
own question with a list of practical items that should provide food for
thought for all Antipodean web site owners.
What's wrong with the Internet in Australia?
The dreaded, old-fashioned Australian Cultural Cringe, that's
THE INTERNET, available to Australians from early 1996 in its commercialised forms - a marvellous revolution in communications?
Or a non-broadband, telephone-line-clogging mess where everyone including idiots can have their say?
What's in it for Australian netsurfers? For international netsurfers?
What's in it for Australian web developers of all kinds? How long are one hundred different pieces of string, on average?
After enjoying the Net since late 1996, and now maintaining more than 300 pages on the Net, lately I am wondering why we Australians so rarely discuss: what is a successful Australian website?
That is, successful, for Australians, with Australians, by Australians, for inspection or information of both Australian and international netsurfers, so that netsurfers will be impressed - and then return.
Past a lot of the hype about the Net, much of it already discredited, past a lot of good websites, I feel there's an underlying, gnawing problem with Australian websites - and it's not the triumph of form over substance.
Form triumphing over substance gives us little to remember - except the form. What worries me about many Australian websites is that the form as well as content are less than memorable - except for something irritating. Just what is this irritation?
The problem is that old enemy, The Great Australian Cultural Cringe attacking us again in the so-called Age of the Information Revolution.
This cringingness is a hydra-headed beast that disturbs both website design and content. It affects what we want to say on the Net, how we say it, and what we do after we say it. I suspect it rather makes international netsurfers wonder about us in ways we don't ask about... What might the symptoms be?
Proviso: I'm aware of my own problems. I know, I know that lately, some of my own websites need renovations. This will be taken care of as funds and time permit.
Meantime, I'm fairly satisfied with the hit rates to my websites, except that the Australian feedback is much less lively than my international feedback - which is worrying, disturbing, and partly why I write this article.
Please note: that I am not talking here about websites managed by corporations, I'm talking about the humbler sorts of websites that Australians of all sorts are developing, as these are the sorts of websites which display the synergies between today's use of new technology, and older cultural ways of thinking, perceiving and communicating.
There are at least eight major symptoms of poor use of Internet facilities, particularly websites. Some of the problems are shared internationally, and not just due to poor technical infrastructure. Our cultural-cringe-tendencies in Australia only make them worse. These symptoms are:
Symptom One - Ineffective concentration of local or like-minded Net
resources: For examples of good localised content-mixes, see
local-area websites in the UK, generally.
Symptom Two - Cultural inhibitions: I propose that as per older definitions of The Australian Cultural Cringe, it is re-surfacing in our website offerings. There is no reason why any IT or communications revolution should necessarily relieve us of old cultural habits and response patterns.
Symptom Three - Inappropriate adoption of overseas models/attitude: This has become a problem in technical as well as cultural zones. I propose that our thin population has much to do with how Australians mishandle this symptom.
Symptom Four - Website design, maintenance and cultural nuance: Any website designer anywhere will have problems here. I propose that our cultural cringing interferes with the confidence which websites should possess, as outlined below.
Symptom Five - Overbusy websites: You can recognise this problem easily when you see it! Because you find you don't want to bother.
Symptom Six - E-commerce that fails to work: This hurts the hip-pocket nerve especially.
Symptom seven - poor website usability: Also an international problem.
Symptom eight - Fear of erosions of copyright: Our musicians are less afraid than our writers.
Symptom One: Ineffective concentration of local or like-minded Net resources.
Managing websites is partly a numbers game, and measuring website hits or other uses of websites is very much a numbers game. What do the numbers mean? I propose that given Australia's vast distances and small population (20 million), we need our own protocols for measuring how websites are used. US models are inappropriate, being based on a larger population, and a more even distribution of well-populated cities.
In contrast, I propose that our abnormally high concentrations of population in Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane simply contaminate our measurements of how Australians use websites well or badly; they do not define normal website behaviour for the nation.
I suggest this - and it's ironic - since one of the most attractive e-mail newsletters I've ever seen in Australia comes from people promoting tourism on the West Australian coast north of Perth. I've not yet noticed a super-attractive e-mail newsletter coming out of Darling Harbour in Sydney!
Netsurfers returning to a website is what it's all about, whether a site is e-commerce enabled or not. So what factors lead netsurfers to return to a website?
More so as we know, that server stats can easily tell us the difference between hits arriving to a website from search engine queries, versus those arriving from websites which are cross-linked to a particular URL.
Hits coming to a website from an individual's query on a search engine, versus those arising from hyperlinks from other, like-minded websites, are important, as they mean the difference between queries from individuals versus queries arising from groups and/or communities of interest.
I happen to live in a culturally-diverse town, a university town, which, strangely, fails utterly to understand the idea of a localised, cohesive, Internet-wise community of interest. Or, sets of interests. The result is that local web developers mostly assume they'll get hits from individuals-only, not from other communities of interest - so they don't crosslink. So they neglect their neighbours, which really boils down to bad netiquette.
Symptom Two: Cultural inhibitions.
Now, I don't want to embarrass anyone, myself included, by drawing attention to individual Australian websites - or groups of websites - that I consider good or bad. But before the Internet came along, we did have a strong, much-complained of cultural inhibition - The Great Australian Cultural Cringe.
Having gotten over early technical excitements and challenges with websites, myself, I've lately felt forced to re-examine our cultural heritage, generally. As a webmaster, I feel this is quite in keeping with a literary critic stopping to wonder how our novels and poetry are going lately, internationally. The same, as for a film critic. An economist wondering how our economy is holding up, internationally.
Since late 1996, when I first went on the Net, many impressions have crowded in on me about our use of websites. Amid the hype about the Net, before the great dot.com busts, with the cultural cringe creeping into our Internet scene, spoiling things, a feeling arose that many Australians were wasting much of our Internet time/resources or misusing what we do have.
I recall the IT man at a noted public school in my area saying at a seminar - "We don't actually need broadband, we just need to use our thin little telephone lines more effectively." At the time, he had done it to the satisfaction of the computer-literate school community he answered to.
Problems arise when web designers try to build sites which are not designed to work a slow Internet connection - which is what we mostly have.
So if Australia does end up usefully broadbanded, we still risk ending up with two Internet systems - one for the richer people with broadband connections and computers able to cope with such fast download at such volumes, and one for people without broadband.
So far, Australians seem to have successfully avoided the challenges of developing templates for generic-type sets of interests. So far, it seems impossible in Australian local government circles to find a suitable template for a local government outfit, pluck it off a shelf, tailor it to a particular municipality, and cheerfully upload it to the web.
This doesn't seem a problem in the UK, why is it a problem here?
(Although, I know of a Sydney software distributor who is attempting to correct this situation in Australia - and I wish them the best of luck.)
Many of our website design problems arise from our thin population, meaning, website designers - especially in the bush - have too few chances to meet each other in person and exchange ideas... and there are many relevant things which can't be said via e-mail.
This is even more reason for us to discuss our best websites more effectively. Yet in our print media, we tend to find brief mention of the URLs of better websites, and a brief review, with no reference to the time,. work and thought put into producing a site that could become a useful model for its kind of topic.
Item: The backpacker tourism market increasingly realises that providing
Internet accessibility is a necessity for its travellers, especially for
e-mail and online bookings. The risk grows also that "backpacker hostels which
don't advertise their existence on the Internet are doomed to fail"...
(The Australian, IT pages, 20 March 2001)
Item: "Many IT job candidates are so poorly-skilled that only two in every
100 can pass a basic test of programming capabilities, a Melbourne software
company (Internet Business Systems) says...
The Australian, IT pages, 21 May 2002.
We do not seem to be concentrating the most useful technical approaches we can identify behind our best success stories. One reason why, may be the age/gender of most web designers - nerdy, younger males. Although, I know of two cases of younger, female web designers producing objectionable websites.
Too many of our websites suffer from a combination of over-enthusiasm for the technology - too much flash, glitz and pyrotechnics - plus the cultural inexperience of the web developers (simply because of their youth). There are various questions also of generation gapping.
From inspecting our genealogy websites, which are produced by the older generation, I find most are not a patch on similar websites from the UK, the US or even New Zealand. This is due to a cultural-shrinking-violet syndrome of some kind, although I also don't think we still have a problem of recognising convict ancestries. The problems here seem to relate to the way we combine our views on family history, local heritage, national heritage, historical experience generally. Which is a cultural problem, maybe further confused by multiculturalism.
Symptom Three: Inappropriate adoption of overseas models/attitude.
Our problems here I suspect arise not so much from over-enthusiasm from the young, whizbanger website builders. They arise from an incorrect assumption about what it really means if a site really does get a lot of attention!
The US and the UK have much larger or denser populations than we can talk about. If an Australian website gets a lot of attention from Australians, those Australians will still be spread (probably) across vast distances. True, interesting communication may be happening, but if the people cannot otherwise keep in useful contact, the communication is happening only at one or two levels in cyberspace.
Proper, healthy communication is multi-level in any environment we care to name, but in the circles which overhype the Internet, linkages between communication and cultural life are downplayed. Cultural life and communication are two sides of the same coin, but in Internet circles, they are too often treated like oil and water.
That is, no website designer can afford to overlook the cultural life of the people around them.
What we Australians, because of our distances, are finding hard to do, is back up our Internet-type communications with ranges of other, healthy sorts of communication. I suspect that a lot of the blame given to Telstra by the nation itself, apart from more political worries about selling it off (or not), about anxieties we have about Telstra providing better infrastructure, is due to semi-conscious anxiety about such questions.
Where do such anxieties arise? From our pre-Internet experience, from our history, from the tyranny of distance. In Australia, it is not enough that the Internet gives the illusion of collapsing distances. Today we need an Internet-plus set of communication response patterns.
Problems can also arise from poor wording on websites. As writing styles go, the best writing style for websites is similar to advertising copywriting, which is clear, well-organised, brief, succinct, pithy, and gets across quickly. Here, our cultural question is: how does such writing emerge successfully from our ways of life?
Good writing for websites does need practice. That practice implies that website redesign will be ongoing. As a writer, I find that too-few conversations arise about useful techniques of writing for the Net. (This includes successful e-mail composition, by the way.) The brevity required for good website communication can be very demanding.
Maybe we're lost... Lost in a no-man's-land between US technical models we allow to impress us for big-demographics reasons we don't quite understand, due to our thin population.
We are also a highly multi-cultural nation, with many people from the UK, Mediterranean and other European countries, plus Asian countries.
Should we use US cultural/technical models? Or models from the US plus the UK, Italy, Greece, those countries which have provided so many migrants? Here, we mostly don't ask.
Generally, our impressions from the US win out. Our websites too often look-n'-feel like ersatz Americana. Meanwhile, we Australians are not discussing our best websites!
Perhaps, we can measure our Net-progress by noticing how we talk about our best resources, or our unique resources. One fascinating challenge we have, because of our natural resources, is to display the best surf-orientated websites in the world! Where, by the way, surfers tend to be a highly-mobile community of interest. How are we doing in the world of surfer websites, do you think?
Surveys a while ago indicated that Australians hop onto the Net and "go straight overseas" - most of the time.
This is understandable, but does it mean we succumb to the lure of the exotic to the extent of neglecting our own websites? With websites, (but not including those run by major news operations) do we give ourselves the impression that we can't - or we don't want - to inform ourselves from Australian websites. This is nothing but our famous cultural cringe - revisited.
Symptom Four: Website design, maintenance and lack of cultural nuance.
Maybe now, we can reconsider cultural style as translated to the Net, confidently.
Here are subtle design questions. Much lack of cultural nuance in web design arises since most web designers are younger males, technically confident (or over-confident) but culturally inexperienced, and maybe, unskilled writers.
They can easily stumble over questions of cultural-cringe without noticing it.
Here, many cultural questions are not quite the same as technically-oriented usability questions as discussed by Jakob Neilsen. (The US and UK display an enormous number of badly-done websites, we can learn from their best and their worst.)
Any assumption that a website is going to evolve also implies questions of time and money for work on the site. (And it's a relevant question, as by mid-2002, we already know, many Australians are not renewing registrations for websites.)
Australians seem reluctant to delve into this proposition.
Culture - point one - and it is said too rarely in web design circles - The very first thing a website needs is an air of confidence.
Whatever the subject matter and content, whatever the style or graphics, confidence is all-important... because confidence is part of the urge to move forward and mix it successfully with whoever we meet as time goes by.
Culture - point two - also said too rarely - From day one, websites should be designed to be evolved with relative ease to become more complex and refined. This can't be done without the confidence found as in point one. So what we need here is a continuity of confidence in an evolutionary context. Which means, there is no point in asking if a website is finished. We should ask: is a website evolving satisfactorily?
Culture - point three - and what we Australians don't talk about enough - The mix of confidence, refinement of subject matter, and technical ease of accomplishing the website's evolution is important.
Subtly, the website should exude confidence that it can and will evolve, since this is important to the netsurfer. We all like to feel that there is more to come - not yet - maybe one day - as with the next episode of a TV series we enjoy.
There also needs to be a sense that the website developer is in tune with how his/her netsurfers are feeling, as a topic develops, what questions they are asking, before the next site-evolution steps are taken.
Site evolution suggests that there is more technical and writing work to be done in maintaining, updating and improving a website, but who pays for the skill/time involved is a non-answered question? The staff member who enjoys it and stays back to do it unpaid, voluntarily? A dedicated amateur? A web-wise club member? If the web-worker is paid, what is the wage rate?
We have a Federal government which has long failed to ask or answer such questions, or via some system - such as TAFE colleges - to recommend and disseminate culturally-suitable standards, models and examples.
Here is some evidence from an Australian source, recognising the facts of website evolution.
From a recent arts newsletter sponsored by one of our state
LIVING WEBSITES - UNDERSTANDING THE LIFE CYCLE - A PRACTICAL GUIDE by Steven Smith
Launched at the recent Ozeculture conference, this is an excellent new book which introduces an approach to managing and planning websites based on the principle that they are not one-off projects, but dynamic, living endeavours with life cycles that grow and change with you and your business. Steven Smith explains in jargon-free language how to continually manage and improve your website. The book includes checklists, step-by-step procedures, hints and tips, diagrams and templates, with over 40 examples from actual websites. Cost $64.95. For more information go to (etc.) or contact Steven Smith. Tel: (08) 8272 4611.
So far, the evidence from netsurfer behaviour is that webmasters have less than ten seconds to attract and keep the attention of a netsurfer. So why are there so many slow-loading websites around? Also, what sort of cultural confidence does it take to attract someone to a message in such a short time, without seeming pretentious, over-loud, or annoying?
Appropriate models? Websites use or carry a great many symbols, but meantime, the use of bad analogies and metaphors cane be misleading, or culturally inappropriate. The early-appearing "information superhighway" term never seemed a useful metaphor to me, since it seemed to condition us to look at websites as billboards posted along the said superhighway. Billboards are static, the opposite of interactive, and if netsurfers are working as quickly as cars usually drive on superhighways, there'd be little chance of keeping their attention!
Symptom Five: Overbusy websites.
How to control the information loaded into a website?
People have been complaining about information overload, even in terms of print-media into delivery, since the mid-1970s. What websites have done is overload people even more. It may be, that younger people don't notice the difference, but that older people, whose views on literacy and communication were formed before the mid-1970s, tend to remain worried about information overload. So initially, where less-experienced netsurfers are involved - and we never know how many of these there are - the market for netsurfer attention is split into at least two age groups with different cultural tastes and perceptions - which no one seems to notice.
As a generality, an overbusy person lacks focus and suffers from scattered attention - and it's the same with websites. Web designers should: think relaxation, not excitement; think quiet conversation, not "interactivity". No one says it, but unless a website has sound files loaded, a website is in fact a very quiet medium for communication.
So really, why all the noisy hype about websites? Hype for the sake of hype, or for novelty? "The Net" is no longer a novelty, it's becoming regarded as a useful tool. If a website is not practical, netsurfers will abandon it.
A great many Australian websites, especially those intended to appeal to younger people, are overbusy, and offer too many info-options, too rapidly. Which is overchoice.
Here, younger netsurfers respond by intuitively figuring out what to ignore, whereas older people tend to plod dutifully through all the text available, and simply waste their time, then abuse the technology, not the offending website.
Ask yourself: who wants an overbusy TV screen in their living room all the time? Not many people, really.
Dealing with overbusy websites is bad training for younger people whether they are netsurfers or website designers.
A website should be confident, appear relaxed, (if anything, underbusy), and it should inform quickly.
Netsurfers do not read websites, as much as they consult them. Websites then should be designed for quick consultation, and anything on them intended for serious reading should be designed for convenient print-out - which in turn becomes a distinct website design situation for that content.
Quite frankly, websites are not loud, noisy, exciting, they're not a carnival ride. Try looking at it this way - websites are very quiet so that they can be effective in providing relevant information relevant for a decision being made calmly about what the netsurfer will do next. Whatever the decision is about, the website should have more confidence than the person making that decision, whatever is the topic, before the netsurfer began to make a decision.
Decide for yourself - are websites for entertainment, or to aid decision-making?
Symptom Six - E-commerce working badly:
We are told, the great success story of the Net in the US is - e-commerce - but is this for just a few websites? Such successes include amazon.com (which anyway took years to make a proper profit after alarmingly huge outlays), and ebay - the auction site which barrels along.
Most website e-commerce success stories arise in the US - fair enough, as they invented the technology and have the population.
Australians did not develop the enthusiastic kind of mail-order culture for desired goods that the Americans developed (after their horrific civil war, and across their kind of vast distances - which have much less desert).
Despite the best of hype from banks and Internet promoters, today's Australians retain a rather paranoid attitude against providing their credit card details across the Net. (An attitude they don't seem to have with motel bookings or purchase of shoes, or buying anything else on the ground in real life where processing of credit card details are concerned, I've noticed.)
Conclusion: Australians trust each other very little in money matters, and Internet uncertainties only amplify this. Result? E-commerce in Australia wobbles badly. More cultural cringing, and a negative comment on our attitude to ourselves.
Item: "Computer crime in Australia has doubled in three years and now
outstrips the US":
The Australian, IT pages, 21 May 2002:
With some notable exceptions, especially the highly successful Petals
Network international flower-selling e-commerce website based in Armidale,
NSW, Australia's seemingly glum e-commerce situation can perhaps be summed-up
with the following news item:
Real estate website, real-estate.com.au, says its revenue this financial year would increase by 48 per cent over last year, but it would still report a loss. This is despite having 1812 agents subscribing and having more than 1.4 million visits in May 2002 ... probably Australia's most popular real estate-selling website. The site costs AUD$6 million or more per year to operate.
(The Weekend Australian, 15-16 June 2002)
I fail to understand how it costs $6 million per year to operate! Is there some misplaced confidence here, perhaps? I recall, the first time anyone asked me about real estate sales via the Net was in late 1997, if not before. Where there is talk of sales of airline tickets, tickets to sports venues, various tickets to various entertainment, it's probably best for anyone trying to measure the scene to consider the anecdotal evidence around them. I suggest there are enormous variations in Australia depending on where you live - the big city, the small city, or the bush.
E-commerce? Here's where it might be at out in country New South Wales. Recently in Dubbo, I wanted to get a bus north. A travel agency could book the ticket on the Net, but not accept payment by credit card. Why not? Their system had not been worked out yet, partly since there was a problem with the travel agent later receiving their commission from the ticket sale to me, from the bus company's website (or operation).
I was amazed, since the bus company concerned has one if not two brother companies in the US.
So what's the problem? Australian legislation? Australian laziness? Lack of volume for this sort of e-commerce? Distrust?
Situation: one website in Australia can't pay another website a commission? Quite a problem? I don't see why if the technicals can't do this particular job, the extra business re the commission can't be done manually.
As well, the Australian e-commerce scene is reported rather confusingly. For example, The Australian newspaper's IT pages on 18 June 2002 reported IBISWorld chairman, Phil Ruthven, as predicting that "online activity" of all kinds in Australia in the coming year will turn over about AUD$254 billion. But this was by no means e-commerce, which is not mentioned in this article, while telecommunications, financial servicing, etc., are all mentioned. (The database industry will grow at 15 per cent, but "online gambling and travel agencies are yet to really take off").
Why no projections on growth specifically for e-commerce? I have no idea! Except that this article says: "Electronic shopping [in Australia] was the big sleeper."
E-commerce internationally? With the June 2002 World Soccer Cup games held in Japan, what happened on the e-commerce scene for ticket sales? Complaints! Complaints! complaints!
But you needn't take my word for it all. Just look at these survey results from the UK, entering my inbox in early 2002 (Oh Jakob Neilsen, usability guru, where were you when we needed you!):
SHOPPERS SHUN SHODDY SITES.Research carried out by Abbey National in the UK has revealed that when people have one bad experience online, they tend to regard all websites the same way. It suggests that websites that take too long to load, are hard to navigate, bombard consumers with pop-up adverts and force them to register to get access to services could be stunting the growth of e-commerce.
Instead, consumers prefer websites that have a consistent look, are easy to navigate and do not try to cram too much information on one page.
Full story at: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/sci/tech/1842142.stm
Here, we knew that soccer fans were genuinely interested; just look at the riots the fans in Moscow put on when their team lost! Just look at the TV coverage in Australia! Here, ticket sales were a guaranteed winner, an international market, and the e-commerce failed. There could hardly have been a worse advertisement for e-commerce.
Meanwhile, in Europe, the people promoting customer relationship management models (CRM) are finding (again from The Australian newspaper's IT pages on 18 June 2002, p. 34), that "most problems associated with major CRM projects suffer from staff and cultural issues rather than technology, and this is not even with reference to privacy issues. (While another article on the same page here accuses some international CRM vendors of "selling snake oil".)
I think Australia's potential online consumers are going to remain very cautious. In which case, our e-commerce pedlars should be afraid, very, very, afraid, equally cautious, and continue to suss out the views of online consumers more carefully. Apart from questions of consumerism reflecting lifestyle choices as a cultural matter, customs of money-handling are also cultural behaviour. There seem to be few reasons reported, which will lead us to imagine that our online customers will necessarily behave like those in the US or UK. Just maybe, some of our assumptions about online buyers are invalid...
Symptom Seven - poor website usability.
Less-usable websites are bad websites, and these include overbusy websites. Still, it may be a matter of what netsurfers actually complain about. (How we find out what they complain about is another story).
Interestingly, newspaper websites tend generically to look a tad overbusy, yet few complaints seem to arise in Australia about websites run by the major newspapers. Well and good.
City newspapers have been able to use vast databased information resources in ways which I think are well-adapted to our cultural ways - more power to them for this. Regional newspapers have been slower, but few complaints about their websites have come to my attention. So they can keep their guernseys too.
I have heard football fans complain that sites are ineffective. In late 2001, I was finding it took far too long to find out from a small Sydney cinema chain, when a certain movie was on (thumbs down).
Pick your university course from the Net? Ok, ok. Few problems here with university websites, except perhaps with the unavoidable keeping-up-with-the-Joneses syndrome arising as universities compete with each other for student numbers.
Sometimes, a complaint arises with university websites, that it is difficult to find the positions vacant information.
Symptom Eight - Fears of erosion of copyright for music and literature.
A copyright notice on a website is more an indication that the website builder has not broached anyone else's copyright, than an indication that action will be taken if anyone steals any material from the website in question.
For one thing, it could be as difficult to prove that anything has been filched from a website, as it is for a musician to prove that I have just copied their music CD onto an audio cassette and given it to a friend - or napstered it to someone in the US.
Given Net-observations I've made since 1996, I sense that our writers are more fearful than our musicians of using websites. One reason for this is that since the days of Johnny O'Keefe, our musicians have been very exposed-and-vulnerable to trends in international music industries, more so than our writers have been vulnerable to the international literary industries. The result is that musicians are far more aware of the value of new ways of promoting their product than our writers are.
Again to refer to history, Australian writing has been locked up for decades inside UK and US copyright territories. Writers are inexperienced at breaking out of such subtle barriers, and book publishers (I suspect) are unwilling for commercial reasons to specify what writers should or should not do.
I am only personally aware of one Australian writer who has a superbly confident website, who anyway meets an international market - a woman who is quite confident as a writer and feels no need to answer to anyone, really. She manages her website so that it promotes her work while not risking any breach of her copyrights.
But being a writer myself, my impression also is that many writers fear that getting overly-involved with computer and Internet technology will interfere with the process of literary composition, a position I have some sympathy with.
More generally, writers in Australia seem fearful of losing the value of their copyright(s) if they post creative material on the Internet. I have no idea if writers in Russia, or India, or South America feel the same way. Writers in the US seem to have taken enthusiastically to the Net in droves, particularly for the purpose of promoting themselves and their work. This Australian Internet-reticence I also interpret as - cultural unconfidence.
(See for example the website for our well-known guitarist originally from Victoria, Bruce Mathiske: http://www.mathiske.com.au)
In this article, I've tried to avoid discussing the technical sides of good or bad website design, in the interests of talking about what is so often overlooked - the relationships between information technology, communication, and cultural life.
What is a working definition of a good Australian website? It's a website that shows no signs of suffering from The Great Australian Cultural Cringe - and gets on with the future plus its own evolution.
It's a website that's culturally confident and seems destined to continue to fulfill all its potentials. As a bonus, it helps fulfil the potentials of like-minded website friends as well.
Which is to say that it's a website applying generosity of spirit to help us all overcome the dreaded effects we might have felt in earlier years due to the tyranny of distance and the thinness of our population.
This is also something that international netsurfers will notice, consciously or unconsciously about our websites.
Here's a little cross-cultural observation I hope might be useful...
Australian TV series which happen to display our sunny days, blue skies and the colours of nature are very popular in the UK. This suggests that our websites have one easy-to-organise selling point that we can use to promote the Australian way of life. For six months of each year at least, our sunniness could appeal greatly to people enduring the Northern Hemisphere's winter. Could this be translated into a way of helping out our tourism industries? I think so, almost automatically.
We don't even have to think about it a lot, just use the pictures around us of our lifestyle.
At which point, I don't want anybody to rest easier. Shoddy websites are not an Australian disease only - but we have to be alert to downplay all website materials which are prompted by any old habits of cultural cringing. The more I watch the Australian web, the more I find those habits surfacing, more so in websites which deal with cultural and historical materials.
"Bright-eyed and bushy-tailed" presentations are what we need from Australian web-designers, not slavish use of US models.
I have to go now. Netsurfer tastes are changing again, I need to be
renovating one of my websites. How is your website coming along?
Writer, poet and historian, Dan Byrnes has been placing
pages on the Internet since late 1996.
See for example, his massive work on convict transportation to North America and Australia, The Blackheath Connection.