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By: Jonathan Szish
It could be a scene from almost any American house. In fall 2001, Dan Schultz, a 14-year-old from Philadelphia, is upstairs playing a video game, one of those online, conquer-and-colonize computer games with hundreds of people from around the world playing at once. His parents are downstairs watching Who Wants to Be A Millionaire?
Suddenly, on the video game’s chat function, a Swedish video game player posts a startling message: He just saw on TV that the United States and Britain are bombing Afghanistan. Everyone takes a break from intergalactic battle as the chat room buzzes with players discussing their views on the minutes-old war. Comments fly in from Canadians, Americans, New Zealanders, and Europeans. Many think it’s a bad move; others believe it’s justified. Armed with the news, Schultz leaps down the stairs to tell his parents.
They immediately grab for the clicker and change the channel to CNN. But there’s no breaking news. “Uh, hey Dan, it must be a rumor. There’s nothing about it on the news,” his parents say skeptically. The teen insists it’s true. Before his parents can argue any further, CNN interrupts its regular programming and announces the story.
The glaring message of that night—how news can travel through nontraditional channels—stays with Schultz. It influences his teenage hobby: creating and maintaining a Web site for his friends at high school. The site began as a static thing, relying on only him, the Webmaster, to post on it messages and new calculator programs. But he began to realize that his Web site could be much more useful if he let his classmates post their comments as well. So he learned new programming languages to make his Web site more dynamic. Soon, registered users weigh in on topics like calculus homework and the anxieties of applying to college. A growing number of online visitors are drawn to the Web site’s newest feature: polls that let them ask each other questions and view the results as bar graphs. They unwind after school by chatting about GameCube, the Cheltenham High School Panther soccer team, and their favorite Seinfeld quotes. Soon, his Web visitors become an after-school online community sharing the same grades, the same high school, and many of the same interests. The popularity of his Web site and the hundreds of hours of behind-the-scenes programming that made it happen—and the sense that his efforts helped to build community—draw Schultz to Carnegie Mellon University.
Not surprisingly, he wants to learn more about the information systems major offered by H&SS. After a full freshman year of course work, which included a broad variety of classes in software design, economics, and entrepreneurship, he realizes that information systems, the study of applying computer science to solve real-world problems, is the ideal major for him. In his sophomore year, he takes one of the required courses for his communications concentration: Writing for the Professions, offered by the English department and taught by Necia Werner.
He finds the work intriguing, especially the assignments to write compelling résumés, proposals, and user manuals. Seven weeks before the end of the semester, Werner tells her students to write a proposal that, upon completion, they must submit somewhere.
Remembering that lesson from 2001, Schultz brainstorms with his classmate Ian Anderson to develop an idea of a news-media Web site, one that would allow users to pull up a screen and draw a circle around any town or region on a map. From within a circle, the Web site would return all relevant news stories.
He also envisions all those returned stories coming from an eclectic group of sources: mainstream media, citizen journalists, Web logs, and Web news systems—like a search engine for news crossed with global positioning system mapping technology. In his proposal, he describes a one-stop shop for all news, local and global, where users can define what types of stories are important to them.(Continued …)