To Boldly Go …

By Keith Devlin

This month, it will be exactly 22 years since the MAA first went online. After its initial release in 1994, the web browser Netscape had, by 1996, started to acquire users rapidly, in the process turning the new World Wide Web from a scientists' communications platform into a citizens' global network. Like many organizations, the MAA was quick to establish a presence on the new communication medium. In December 1996, the Association launched MAA Online. It’s the platform on which you are reading these words, though the word “Online” was eventually dropped, when it no longer made sense to call out its online nature!

At the time, I was the editor of the MAA’s flagship, members (print-) magazine FOCUS, which was sent to all members six times a year. I had become the editor in September 1991, and would continue through until December 1997. As such, I was involved in the process of getting the Association’s new online presence off the ground—or more precisely, into the (ethernet) cable.

With FOCUS being the primary way the Association informed members of its activities, it fell to me to get the word out that there was a new kid on the block. I reprint below the FOCUS editorial that I used to spread the news. If you are under forty, this might provide some insight into how the “world of online” looked back then.

Note in particular that I went to some lengths to reassure members that the new medium would be an optional addition to the Association’s existing offerings. There was a general feeling among the MAA officers that not every member would leap to adopt the new technology. Indeed, many of them did not have access to a computer, let alone own one. Note also that I gave assurances that FOCUS would not go away. And indeed, the magazine remains with us to this day. (Though most of the advantages I listed for a print magazine have long been obliterated by technology.)

For the rest of us, it can provide a short trip down memory lane. Enjoy the ride!

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FOCUS, December 1996 Editorial

Spreading the Word, at 186,000 miles per second

Here at FOCUS we put in heroic efforts to ensure that your bimonthly MAA news magazine reaches you as rapidly as possible. But for all our efforts, almost two months elapse between the moment we stop accepting copy and the mailing out of your copy of FOCUS.

Things move much faster for my colleague Fernando Gouvêa, the editor of MAA Online. If necessary, he can even beat the New York Times in getting the news out. While FOCUS moves at the speed of overnight delivery during the production stage and the speed of second class U.S. mail for distribution, MAA Online travels at the speed of light through optical fiber and electrons through copper wire. Corrections can be made at any time, in an instant.

There is no doubt then that if you want up-to-the-minute information about the MAA, you would be advised to consult MAA Online. If you are reluctant to do so because you prefer the professional magazine look of FOCUS that you have become used to, think again. Online is no text-only database. It’s a full-color, professionally laid-out, typeset magazine, with masthead, photographs, and illustrations. Just like FOCUS, in fact, only with full colors.

And what’s more, where FOCUS often abbreviates articles or entirely omits important stories, items, and reports, due to limitations of space, MAA Online gives you the whole thing—all the MAA news that’s fit to print. Care to look at that long report the Association just put out? You’ll find it in MAA Online. Want to know the current members of the Board of Governors? That’s on Online as well.

In short, with the arrival of MAA Online, the whole news reporting structure of the MAA has changed. Or at least, it is in the process of changing. Aware of the fact that many members do not yet have full access to the World Wide Web, FOCUS is still carrying all the really important news stories—or at least as many of them as it always has. But the writing is on the wall—or more accurately on the computer screen. As far as news and the full reporting of committees are concerned, MAA Online is where tomorrow’s MAA member will turn.

What place then for FOCUS?

Well, ultimately that is a question not for me but for the Association as a whole, as represented through its Board of Governors and the appropriate elected committees. But I can give you my thoughts.

I don’t see the growth of MAA Online as heralding the end of FOCUS any more than the arrival of radio brought an end to newspapers or the introduction of television brought an end to the cinema. I suspect I share the view of most MAA members that there is something very significant—indeed symbolic—about receiving our copy of FOCUS every two months. Its very physical tangibility makes it a “badge of membership.” Receiving FOCUS, which for many members is the only MAA publication they receive regularly, is a significant part of what it means to be a member of the Association. Apart from renewing your membership once a year, all that is required of you to obtain the latest issue of FOCUS is to empty your mailbox. You don’t have to remember to log on to your computer, launch Netscape, and bookmark into http://www.maa.org. FOCUS may take its time to reach you, but it does so reliably, like an old friend. And what’s more, you can take it with you to read in bed, on the train, bus, or plane, in the coffee room, in the garden, or wherever.

Launched by MAA Executive Director Marcia Sward in 1981, FOCUS is now a part of the very identity of the MAA. Over the years, it has grown and developed in response to the changing needs and expectations of the membership. And that is as it should be. Of course, it will continue to change and evolve, and one of the forces that will guide its change is the newly arrived presence of MAA Online. That too is as it should be.

One change you will notice from this issue onward is that FOCUS will carry pointers to articles and reports in Online, with just a brief summary or extract appearing in the hard copy magazine you hold in front of you. No doubt further changes will follow.

In the meantime, from the editor of FOCUS, let me say a formal “Welcome” to our new sibling, MAA Online.

The above opinions are those of the FOCUS editor and do not necessarily represent the official view of the MAA.

Read the Devlin’s Angle archive.