IF YOU APPROACH Baltimore at night, northbound on Interstate 95, your gaze might be drawn to the glowing NationsBank building and the lasers beaming from the World Trade Center. If you approach Baltimore anytime, from any direction on the Internet, you might get the idea that the city is wild about dancing, drinking and bird watching.
Without any fanfare or ribbon cutting, Baltimore has established itself as a stop on the information superhighway. A quick search of the World Wide Web, the fastest growing section of the Internet, will yield 113 references to Baltimore. That's not as many as New York (with 137) or Los Angeles (with 207), but quite a bit ahead of, say, Indianapolis (a mere 59).
But the number of Web references isn't as important as what they refer to, the same way the number of off-ramps into a town isn't as important as where they lead. The highway metaphor is especially appropriate to the World Wide Web where access from one document or "place" is fast and easy. The huge collection of documents making up the Web is cross-referenced so users can follow relevant links from one document to any number of other, related documents. Web "sites" are interconnected the way cities on maps are interconnected; the paths may be serpentine and indirect, but they're there.
A digital skyline
A journey on the Web begins with one of the search engines, a medieval-sounding term for what is essentially an index. Type "Baltimore" into an engine and you get a list of all the documents that lead to Charm City's little corner of cyberspace. Those documents are Baltimore's digital skyline. Surrounded by the usual nimbus of businesses, schools, utilities and government offices that mark any city on the Web, are the Web sites unique to Baltimore. For example, the two Orioles sites, where fans can find statistics, rosters, schedules and other baseball information. But sports sites loom large on the digital landscape of any city with a professional team. It's the quirkier sites that reveal a city's true character.
Keeping that in mind, I made an informal tour of Web sites in Baltimore and other cities, and used the number of Web sites devoted to various activities to determine what those places might be like. According to Baltimore's image on the Web, life in the city revolves around three things:
* Beer Drinking. It should be noted that the emphasis here is on quality not quantity. Information about micro-breweries, brew-pubs and home brewing abounds. But there's not a single mention of Natty Boh.
* Dancing. There are schedules and guides to English and Scottish country dancing, contra dancing, square dancing, Cajun and Zydeco dancing and even to those all-night dance parties called Raves. According to one site, Baltimore is "one of the strongest Rave cities on the East Coast." Maybe it's the legacy of Buddy Dean.
* Bird Watching. Judging by the number of Web sites for ornithology, wild birds are even more popular than the ones who play at Camden Yards.
"Hon" is as popular a form of address on Baltimore's Web sites as it is in local restaurants.
Strangely, in travel and tourist guides to Baltimore on the Web, the city's proximity to the nation's capital apparently isn't mentioned. In fact, judging by the Web, the only Washington Monument is the one at Mount Vernon Place.
An incomplete picture
So why doesn't the beer-drinking, folk-dancing, bird-watcher's paradise I see on my computer screen jibe with the city I see while driving down St. Paul Street?
It could be that the Web is too new to adequately register all of Baltimore's facets. Or it could be that there are inherent limitations in the Web's ability to truly reflect an organism as complex as a city, in which case the disparity between Baltimore and its Web image provides a lesson in the gulf between information and truth, data and facts.
Whether it's accurate or not, Baltimore as seen on the Web still seems like a pretty cool place. Right up there with Harrisburg, Pa., where the citizens are avid astronomers, and Cleveland, where they play pinball long into the night.
David Keifer writes from Ellicott City.