Peace Time: December 31, 2002

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The U.S. Navy has long had a problem with it's officers feeling isolated, spending up to six months at a time at sea with the same cast of characters every day. The introduction of shipboard Internet access in the 1990s went a long way towards eliminating the isolation. But email is a one-to-one communication. There are some 10,000 surface warfare officers in the U.S. Navy. These are the men (mostly) and women who command ships and departments on ships. Access to email created many email lists, where groups of officers would exchange tips, gossip and just chat. This led to a more ambitious solution; SWONET (Surface Warfare Officer Network.) The navy pays a civilian firm about a million bucks a year to run this operation, which provides a secure Internet service for officers to post experiences, and ask and answer questions. In addition to message boards, there are links to other navy oriented sites and, for those with a fast Internet connection, navy related videos. But the message boards are the most useful aspect of SWONET. While you have to be a surface warfare officer to get an account on SWONET, you are basically anonymous when you post messages there. This encourages communication among officers who might otherwise be too sensitive about everyone's rank. In other words, junior officers can frankly describe problems they are having with a senior officer, and get another senior officer to offer advice on how to deal with it. Most of the problems are pretty mundane. How best to deal with a new (or very old) piece of equipment, or some irksome regulation or, most often personnel problems (with chiefs or sailors). There is also a lot of chat about off duty matters, like the best places to shop in ports the officer's ship is headed for. SWONET is set up to get all the message traffic to ships at sea, where Internet users often have to deal with the equivalent of a 2400 or 4800 baud modem (compared to the 56,000 baud modems common today.) Another well liked feature about SWONET is that you get an email address that you keep for the rest of your navy career. Normally, the Department of Defense issues new email addresses to officers every time they are transferred to a new assignment.

 


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