From Atlanta to the World: Accessing Georgia on the Internet
John Inscoe, December 2006
For individuals attending the annual meeting in Atlanta, I recommend the New Georgia Encyclopedia (NGE), as a handy reference point. A project of the Georgia Humanities Council in partnership with the Office of the Governor, the University of Georgia Press, and the University System of Georgia/GALILEO (the state's virtual library), the NGE launched in February 2004. Since then, we've continued to commission, edit, and load new articles; we plan to cap the first phase of the project with 2,000 articles available by the end of 2006.
An Online Reference Work for Georgia
The advantages of an online encyclopedia over a print volume include internal and external linkages, multimedia enhancements, and the ability to keep articles current. But for those of us involved in its production, perhaps the most rewarding benefit lies in the feedback we get from and about our users. Thanks to statistics-gathering software, we know who is reading what, when, and where they're doing so, and how they find us. The results have been gratifying and surprising.
The original intent of the NGE was to create a comprehensive reference work that would "tell Georgia's story to Georgians." We were aware that as an online resource, the NGE would be equally available to non-Georgians, most likely tourists and journalists looking for quick, reliable information on particular topics. Yet we have been surprised to find from "geolocation" data that non-Georgians make up a substantial majority of our users, and even more astonishing, that nearly a third of those visiting our site are foreign.
Soon after our launch, Google became an integral means of generating traffic on our site. Thanks to Google, our users are far more likely to enter the NGE at a particular article rather than through the home page. From all over the country and around the world, users go to Google or Yahoo to seek out information on Jimmy Carter or Martin Luther King Jr.; CNN, Home Depot, or Coca-Cola; Hank Aaron or Julia Roberts; and they are directed to the NGE.
Our first indication of the tremendous influence external search engines had on our usage came with Ray Charles' death in June 2004. Our article received more than 1,800 hits within 48 hours of the announcement. By the end of the month, over 3,600 users had read that article, more than twice the number for any other on the site. The death of Coretta Scott King and the planned sale of Martin Luther King Jr.'s papers also led to spikes in the number of hits on our article on King, though his has always been among the site's most popular articles.
Another significant discovery we've made is that most of our readers use the NGE in the same way and for the same reasons they would turn to a print encyclopedia. The average session by our users lasts only 4.6 minutes, and entails visits to only 1.6 articles. As much as we have worked to make our site "browseable," the reality is that the NGE is used most commonly as an easily accessible means of obtaining very specific information and doing so quickly.
Georgia and the "Flat World"
Thomas Friedman, in citing the development of Internet browsers as one of the 10 most crucial means by which the world has been flattened, noted that it suddenly made web sites "viewable for any idiot, scientist, student, or grandma."1 And while we have no specific evidence of scientists, and only a slight indication of idiots, we certainly see plenty of Friedman's other two types. Students and teachers have always made up a substantial portion of our readership, and, within Georgia, a majority. We contracted with Scholastic, Inc. to publish for us a timeline poster and lesson plans incorporating NGE content, which we distributed to middle school social studies teachers and media specialists in August 2005. That brought a dramatic spike in article usage, with monthly averages of over 500,000 for much of the school year, peaking at nearly 1,000,000 in May 2006.
Monitoring our most popular articles suggests that much of our usage is driven by the school curriculum for Georgia and American history and by seasonal interests. In the early fall, topics dealing with Native Americans, archaeology, and the colonial era take the most hits, with a chronological shift toward 19th- and eventually 20th-century topics as the school year progresses. In February, the NGE's top 20 or 30 articles are reflections of Black History Month, as Hank Aaron, Andrew Young, Jackie Robinson, Little Richard, Alice Walker, and slavery and civil rights topics all receive frequent hits.
Last summer, the most sought out article was "Reptiles and Amphibians," followed by the Atlanta Braves, Savannah, the Appalachian Trail, Jekyll Island, Hartsfield-Jackson Airport, Atlanta, and Whitewater Rafting.
While history articles make up only about 18 percent of the NGE, in many months, the section takes more than 40 percent of hits on the site. Much of this is driven by classroom agendas, no doubt, but the fact that other popular topics include the state's business and industry, the arts, and archaeology suggests that something other than curricular demands and lesson plans are driving that interest.
What lessons have we learned from all of this? Foremost is the fact that we not only have little control of how our site is used, but that in this age of cyberspace and world-flattening, we do very little to determine who uses us. The fact that the information on the NGE—or any other web site—is as readily available in Buenos Aires, Calcutta, and Hamburg as it is in Sylvania, Pin Point, and Cuthbert, Georgia (and that we've actually had more hits from the former than the latter), suggests that not only the availability of information but the demands for certain pieces of it have little to do with political boundaries or national identity. Every state in the Union contains individuals, organizations, or events in which many nonresidents will have an interest as great as that of in-state residents.
An Electronic Welcome to Georgia
Thomas Wolfe once wrote of his native Asheville as a commercial and tourism center for the rest of western North Carolina: "It was where the world got in, and where the world got out."2 That phrase comes to mind in thinking about the global implications of the Internet and the resources it so indiscriminately provides to anyone with access to it. The New Georgia Encyclopedia does indeed seem like at least one means by which the world gets into Georgia and through with we can define who and what we are not only to ourselves, but also to anyone in the world with an interest in even one of us. As you prepare to come to Atlanta for the annual meeting, we again invite you to "dive in" and sample our city's and state's wares, and assure you that we'll do our best not to overanalyze what you do on our site or why.
—John Inscoe is University Professor of History at the University of Georgia. He is editor of the New Georgia Encyclopedia and a specialist in Georgia history and the history of the South. He is a member of the Local Arrangements Committee.
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