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Why NetSafe Makes Me Yawn 17 September 2002 Edition
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I've noticed in recent weeks that the mainstream media hasn't given up its fascination with seedy side of the Net.

TV1's Sunday program last week highlighted the risks that unsupervised use of chatrooms might pose to naive teenage girls -- even going so far as to set up a meeting between a rather dysfunctional middle-aged man and what he thought was a nubile young 14-year-old.

Then (of course) there are all the scams and frauds being perpetrated through the Net. The Nigerian 419 scam highlighted in yesterday's column is just one of the many such schemes by which a criminal element seeks to use the Net, and the anonymity it provides, as a way to separate fools and their money.

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I also suggested last week that perhaps ISOCNZ/InternetNZ ought to get their act together and start educating the public as to the risks associated with Net use.

Well there is a site that is taking on this challenge.

NetSafe is a worthy attempt to provide Net users (and the parents of young netizens) with the information they need to avoid those cyber-crooks and dimly lit cyber-alleys.

While the intent of the site is laudable, I had to chuckle when I read this little snippet from the site's main page:

" Part of this look is our new logo, which we hope to animate in the coming months. Afterall [sic], what fun is a static logo?".

I could (with my tongue firmly planted in my cheek) suggest that it's a good thing that they're allocating their meagre resources in such a sensible manner -- but I won't ;-)

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So just how well is this essential online resource shaping up?

The most obvious aspect of the site is that it's just so absolutely, mind-numbingly, undeniably, boring both in layout and content.

Let's be honest -- attracting people's attention and convincing them to read "safety information" is a very difficult task at the best of times. Just look how long it took to convince people that seatbelts and crash-helmets were a good idea!

Just about the only concession to tailoring the content to meet the expectations of the target audience is the use of a less formal typeface on the Information for Kids Page.

A boring grey/black/white color scheme and large wads of text are not the type of things that attract and retain the attention of your average Net surfer (Aardvark readers are the exception of course :-)

Take this page which deals with the very important aspect of "Privacy & Anonymity.

Good grief! With all respect to Rick Shera, it reads like a university paper and even has footnotes!

Now I realise that the site is still embryonic in form but I strongly suggest that before too much extra effort or cash is expended, some research and planning is done into the psychology and expectations of your average websurfer.

Raw information can often be (and in this case certainly is) very boring. Presentation is important and, while I'm not suggesting that the site be littered with slow bandwidth-intensive Flash animations and massive graphics, this "corporate" presentation is completely wrong.

The site needs to draw people in and inform them with concise bullet-point info-snippets that are easy to scan and easy to read.

It must be appreciated that unless you grab visitors by the scruff of the neck and prove to them that it's worth their while to look around and assimilate the information then they're going head back to their chat-rooms or general websurfing.

For example -- information intended for kids should be presented in an attractive, engaging and fun manner -- that requires much more than just using a scruffy font I'm afraid. Where's the interactivity? Where's the challenge and reward that stimulates the young mind and makes them more likely to learn and remember important information?

If you're going to publish papers from learned experts in their field, make sure that they're edited and presented in a format appropriate to the audience they target with plenty of related links.

And don't forget about the importance of *retaining* an audience once you've got one. You need to have a strategy in place to keep people coming back so that you can keep them informed as to new risks, dangers and threats that might appear from time to time.

Sorry guys -- you have my full support and I'd really like to see this site become a significant and essential resource for all Net-users but to achieve this you're going to have to do a lot better than simply setting your sights on animating your logo at some time in the future.

I'm willing to pitch in what help I can and I hope that other Aardvark readers who have something to offer will also contact the ISG and tender their skills or suggestions.

It's just a shame that they don't seem to be actively soliciting input from the public at this time (could it be a case of "expurts at work, do not disturb"?) and that membership might be beyond many people due to the rather onerous travel obligations if you live outside of Auckland.

If you want to have your say on the contents of today's column then please do so. Only comments marked "For Publication" will (if I have time) be published in the reader's comments section.

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