At its best, the Internet is an information mall without borders. At its worst, it's a rummage sale.
Either way, you can waste long hours searching for things. Now comes a series of products that might be called personal information shoppers. They find, retrieve and deliver information that you've specifically asked for, in a neat package.
A growing number of Web sites, including some of the most respected "oldies," are offering new personalized pages and automated "text filtering" functions. Several companies also are daring to charge subscription and document fees for these nascent services.
InfoSeek Personal offers a free customized page with lots of special features. After stepping through the registration process and ordering my preferences, I came up with a page that presents news stories, weather, television and movie listings for my home town, my horoscope, my selection of stock prices, sports scores and a comic strip of my choice.
Oh, and it retrieves advertisements that are meant to fit my shopping preferences, as well, based on things I disclosed in the registration.
An array of news feeds, including Reuter, Business Wire and PR Newswire, is matched against words you enter in a simple form about names, products and interests you're tracking.
Each time you log on to InfoSeek Personal, an updated news feed for your selected topics appears on the screen. You have to remember, however, that the service is tracking your words, not your thoughts. Entering the words "covered bridge" will retrieve in a daily news feed of all stories containing either word, relevant or not. If you're familiar with InfoSeek search protocols, however, entering it as covered-bridge will get just the stories with those adjacent words.
Another of the categories, called "The Buzz," runs your preferences against a daily feed of the global network's cacophonous newsgroup postings. Be aware that your search words will turn up in many strange places, most of which have nothing to do with the topic of interest.
InfoSeek also automatically runs your search terms through its own Web guide and produces a list of links to Web sites that contain your search terms.
Yahoo!, the mother of all Web directories, also has a customized service. My Yahoo! is a great enhancement to a directory that has grown so much it has become unwieldy. You get a chance to select pages for My News summaries and stories, for My Internet (for your own customized Yahoo! listings), My Contacts (a link to the Yahoo! people-finder) and a convenient search link to both Yahoo! and the DejaNews newsgroup archive. Targeted advertisements, too? Yes.
Customized pages are popping up at a number of Web sites, including MSNBC, Excite, Eye on the News, and soon to come at Time-Warner's Pathfinder.
If you start collecting customized pages at all of these sites, you'll need to keep track of multiple log-ons and passwords or use a browser with a "cookie" feature that automatically connects to your set preferences at each site, and at the same time informs the site owners of your browsing habits and interests.
A different kind of customized news page is appearing on test sites put up by developers of a technology called intelligent software agents. These programs aim to learn your preferences by noting such things as the stories you choose or reject. As the body of knowledge about you grows, the agents are meant to predict what you'd like, search for you and bring it back home to you.
International Business Machines Corp. is testing the Netcomber Activist agent, which offers the choice of cartoonish characters, to put human faces on android features.
You also can test agents at WiseWire, Reference.Com and Firefly that learn your interests and recommend new selections. For instance, Firefly figured out that I like Humphrey Bogart and director Francois Truffaut and that no current films can compare, but I knew that already.
My conclusion: Intelligent software agents need several more semesters of higher education before I'll let them think for me.
For now, I'm more interested in the content choices for my custom news. I want real news, features, and interesting, readable, edited stories -- like a newspaper.
For those who agree, I recommend Crayon (CReAte Your Own Newspaper), one of the earliest customized news pages on the Web. Crayon doesn't feed news to your page and it doesn't search for you. Crayon lets you create your own page of updated links to a multitude of news sources around the Web. From there, you jump directly to current front pages of your favorite media sites. With more than 1,000 news sources on the Web, take your pick and read all about it.
Margot Williams's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
PLACES TO GO
Here are some World Wide Web sites offering personalized news pages:
My Yahoo!: my.yahoo.com
InfoSeek Personal: personal.infoseek.com
Personal Excite: home.excite.com/home
Eye on the Web: www.eyeontheweb.com
MSNBC Personal Front Page: www.msnbc.com
IBM Netcomber Activist: activist.gpl.ibm.com
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