Small towns in cyberspace

March 23, 1997|By Elise Armacost

I AM SOMEWHAT embarrassed to confess that I ventured onto the World Wide Web for the first time only last week. With FTC the better part of my days spent writing in front of a screen, I have not been inclined to spend the better part of my nights cruising the Internet in front of a screen.

Anyway, I decided it was high time to discover how to navigate the Information Highway and pulled up a chair for a lesson. ''Where do you want to go?'' my husband asked. I am somewhat embarrassed to confess that I replied, ''Well, how about Manchester?''

Manchester is a two-light town in northeastern Carroll County. I have spent my entire life within four to ten miles of the place. I've driven through it probably tens of thousands of times. It's a nice little town, but not what you'd call ''happening.''

I know this. My first newspaper job involved covering Manchester. At council meetings, you'd see this one town father's head start lolling about half-way through; soon he'd be asleep in his chair. There was always a lot of talk about sewage treatment, though things did occasionally liven up when discussion turned to how to curb the rowdies over at the House of Pasta, or how to get rid of the flocks of blackbirds that despoiled the sidewalks. ''Shoot the buggers,'' one councilman recommended.

I could have surfed to Mallorca. But for some reason I was interested in what was going on on the home pages of places closer to home.

So we went to Manchester, where we found a Web page pretty much like the town: not fancy, homespun, a little slow. It hadn't been revised since last April. There were some snapshots of the jungle gym at Christmas Tree Park and a synopsis of the town -- inadvertently humorous in places -- that reflects its effort to accept its new identity as a suburban community.

It describes the sprawl on the outskirts of town as ''tidy housing developments'' and gets in a nice dig at sister exurb Hampstead -- where McDonald's, Wendy's and Pizza Hut serve as the northbound gateway -- by noting. ''With . . . a lack of fast-food restaurants Manchester retains its small-town atmosphere.''

The little write-up concludes, ''Commuters from Hampstead'' -- a whole two miles away -- ''Hanover, Pa., Westminster and Baltimore have established homes in the relatively peaceful and neighborly atmosphere of Manchester.'' Other towns indulge in unabashed boosterism on the Web; Manchester, bless its honest heart, betrayed a hint of uncertainty about just how peaceful and neighborly it really is.

For all that its Web site was outdated and unsophisticated, Manchester is ahead of the curve. A lot of small towns don't even have computers with modems yet. Hampstead's town manager, Neil Ridgely, says the town's still not convinced that it needs the Internet. He wonders how much people really use these government home pages.

The curious Slovaks

In fact, a lot of people are using them, or at least visiting them. The Carroll County Public Library's server, which includes four municipalities' home pages and other government-related Web sites, has received 2.68 million hits in two years. A surprising number came from places like Sweden (2,527) and the Slovak Republic (93). The majority seem to have come from folks like me, folks from right around here.

Westminster's Web site -- which, like many I saw, looks sharp and has plenty of current information -- has received tens of thousands of hits in just one year. The page containing minutes of council meetings attracted 765 users alone, amazing considering how boring they are.

Westminster's mayor, Kenneth Yowan, a strong supporter of technology in government, says he's getting about eight pieces of e-mail a day, ''far more letters than I ever got.'' Soon, he hopes, Internet users will be able to e-mail police, planners and public-works officials, apply for licenses and permits online, pay bills via computer. Web pages, still mostly static, are destined to become more interactive.

Not everybody is completely optimistic about that. ''I don't know that we want everyone and their dog on-line interacting with the mayor and the council,'' says Matthew Candland, town manager of Sykesville, which just started a snazzy home page. ''If you make that too easy, attendance at meetings will go down. If that happens I think you'll see a dramatic decrease in the civility of the debate. It's just like when people are in their cars; they're more apt to do something rude. Being in person promotes good debate rather than attacking and name calling.''

We'll wrestle with such problems when they arrive. Right now, Internet techology is helping governments get out important information, engaging people in the Democratic process and satisfying our desire to know what's happening in our own back yards. I'll keep using it, now that I know how.

Elise Armacost writes editorials for The Sun.

Pub Date: 3/23/97

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