Stay with it by keeping your head in the clouds

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      Now that the Internet seems to have caught on and some people even have mini networks in their homes, the concept of “cloud computing” is getting more attention. That’s where software and databases don’t live on your computer but exist out there in cyberspace. As long as the network stays up, it doesn’t really matter whether the information or software tools you want are on the hard drive of your computer or somewhere down the pipeline. Your computer (or Net- capable mobile-phone device) is just a front end to the data pool.

      So far, the on-line–software part is barely under way, but if you want an example, Google offers a free word processor and spreadsheet service ( ) that you operate through your Web browser. But the information cloud, well, that’s nice and thickly packed all around us, mostly because a great many people contributed a few items each (while a few people became completely obsessed and did a lot of work).

      Take Wikipedia ( ), the on-line encyclopedia. It’s not just that in four years it has grown to 1.6 million entries in English, or that scores of other languages are represented, with anywhere from hundreds to hundreds of thousands of entries. It’s the speed with which new topics appear. Over and over, when I’d do a standard Google search, it would return a Wikipedia entry near the top of the page, so eventually I started searching the encyclopedia instead. Whether you’re trying to research a British TV show debuting here (much more reliable results and far fewer clicks than the advertising-plagued or find out what anti ­xidants are and which foods supply them, Wikipedia gets you directly to the answer. It’s like a mini Internet in itself.

      Of course, the granddaddy of all user-built sites is probably the Internet Movie Database (www ). It started in the pre-Web days as an e-mail service used by a few thousand people and now boasts more than 42 million visitors a month. But besides hard data (alternate movie titles, hyperlinked cast and crew lists) it also offers a home to opinions about movies. Registered users (it’s free to register) can give a movie a score from one to 10 stars; results are averaged and displayed on the movie’s page (at least, once five votes have been received), along with the number of votes the score is based on. Sure, ratings for movies that haven’t been widely seen are susceptible to skewed results, but how many friends and relatives can one filmmaker have? Not enough to fight the wave of public opinion once enough people weigh in.

      Okay, so when you’re at home, clicking and searching through IMDb is a good way to find movies that you might like by following the careers of your favourite actors or directors. You might decide you want to see the best-liked movies in a particular genre or tackle the top-rated 250, an odd mixture of the usual canonical classic films with a heavy salting of science-fiction spectacles like Terminator 2: Judgment Day and The Matrix. It’s kind of a bizarre and surprising mixture (see If you register on the site, you can even build a list of movies you want to see that’ll reside in the cloud space of servers located somewhere down the wires. Get yourself a Net-capable phone or PDA, and you’ll always make a good choice when buying or renting DVDs.

      The part of IMDb I’ve really been finding useful is the reviews. If any reviews have been submitted, one appears at the bottom of the film’s page along with a link to any others there might be. That’s invaluable when you’re looking for the sort of film that might not rank well by votes but has a particular aspect you favour, like one that has a twisted sense of comedy, or a not-bad B-grade film noir.

      A lot of the reviews are surprisingly well done. Sure, some are horrible and filled with the kind of writing that makes you wish you were reading high-school-yearbook poetry instead, but a great many are informative and bluntly direct in a way that reviews by professional critics rarely are. One-line summaries like “It isn’t that bad”, “Entertaining enough”, “Hollywood at its worst”, and (for a horror movie) “One of the greatest comedies of all time”¦ oh wait” are pretty expressive, just unvarnished communication from one viewer to another.

      I can see how IMDb might seem rather trivial—the world has bigger problems than what to rent tonight—but I believe the site can lay claim to being the largest, most successful, and earliest compendium of easily accessible information built by a community of users. Since launching on the Web in September 1993 (which not only made it the first movie site out there but also one of the first thousand or so Web sites ever built), IMDb has established a model of participation and moderator oversight that is today being applied to just about every subject where a great many people have a little something to contribute. All that organized data just hangs in the clouds, waiting to be accessed and added to. And it’s really just getting under way.