THE GREAT WEB FAKEOUT
"Whether it's California start-ups or elite East Coast media institutions, an extraordinary series of bankruptcies and layoffs is reverberating through the once burgeoning online world," Chip Bayers writes in the April 1996 issue of Wired magazine. "Across the Internet, publishers of the largest Web sites are drowning in a sea of red ink...Even the true believers working at the hyperhip HotWired Web site, are now chastened."
Titled "The Great Web Wipeout" the story is a spoof, presented as a kind of smug "I-told-you-so" from the future. Wired's art department dated the story "TIME January 27, 1997" and superimposed two white-male hands clutching the pages. According to this prognosis, the Web will inevitably drive people to bankruptcy, leaving corporations stranded on the shoals of some grand delusion. The opposite is true -- there's a bundle, a big bundle to earned on the Web -- and we're poised to enter this next phase.
OBFUSCATION AT HOTWIRED
Irony ostensibly ran thick through the pages of Wired; Bayers is managing editor of "hyperhip" HotWired, and for a brief moment Bayers's piece sent a frisson through Web-marketers and editors at rival publications -- "Have you read the Wired piece on the Web," one editor asked me, "What's going on over there?" What's going on over there is complicated, a twisting series of contradictions that, on the surface, seem to make little sense. Why would Bayers write such a story when HotWired recently received a $7.5 million investment for 15% of the HotWired venture (placing a total value of approximately $50 million on HotWired), employs over 100 people, and charges some of the highest advertising rates of any media -- $150 per CPM according to Jupiter Communications.
Advertisers use a cost-per-thousand (CPM) to compare the relative cost of running an ad. A thirty-second ad on NBC nightly news runs about $5.50 per CPM. A full page in Cosmopolitan is $35 per CPM. If money speaks, then HotWired is an unquestioned success. On one level, Bayers's article serves to mollify investors, placing HotWired ahead of the Web-backlash he accurately predicts. On another, it is totally disingenuous, implying that all this is a surprise. Bayers understood perfectly well the limitations of the Web in the summer of 1994, when I met him in New York, days before his scheduled move from New York to San Francisco, where he would begin work at the still-undefined HotWired.
Back then, in the primordial age of Webmania, there was a rival model to today's "cut 'n paste" HTML shovelware -- it had to do with an unfriendly Web-word, "interactivity." The Web hadn't yet become synonymous with "Internet," as it is today, and Bayers recognized that Wired had to create an electronic environment that didn't just mimic print. Our lunch-time meeting was in a suitable location, across from Madison Park. Madison Park was once home to Madison Square Garden, and a kind of interactivity we'll never see again. There New Yorkers gathered to watch the world's most outlandish, most technologically advanced, entertainment.
In its heyday, during the late 1800s, the Garden held plays which rival contemporary Hollywood's biggest-budget action extravaganzas. You could watch performances, each more outrageous than the previous: one production used enormous containers filled with water, life-sized pirate ships doing battle, hundreds of actors and scores of live horses, brought together with budgets in the $1 to $2 million range -- a fabulous sum adjusted in 1996 dollars. Hollywood later siphoned off those productions, leaving theater to do what it does best: taut, intimate dramas centered around people, ushering an age of O'Neill, Beckett, Tennessee Williams, Ionesco, Arthur Miller, et. al. With the arrival of the vinyl LP, FM radio, and television, the Broadway musical was inexorably siphoned off by a new form of entertainment: rock 'n roll. New technology made possible new kinds of spectacle, new kinds of stories, and a new culture. This time is no different. Sitting across from Madison Park, the question Bayers faced was simple: what could HotWired do that Wired, or print, couldn't?
The conclusion, immediately apparent, was to mimic what people loved about the Internet -- communication and authorship. Both Bayers and I spoke at length about MUDs (Multi User Dungeon) and MOOs (Multi User Dungeon Object-Oriented), those text-based digital worlds where people take on characters and enter a kind of never-ending story via the Internet. This, by far, seemed the most authentic, the most unique, and different, form HotWired could embrace. We discussed how the Web as a medium is not conducive to this kind of interactivity. The Web has no third dimension: that of time. Web pages are essentially static, doing nothing unless you initiate something. Yes, a lot of people want to change that, with kludgy patches -- "server push/pull", Java, Shockwave, RealAudio, etc. -- but these similar to slapping wings on a car and saying, "gee, now it's a plane." Fly in one of those at your own risk.
As originally envisioned, HotWired would contain elements that were not Web-based. Two of HotWired's founders left when it became clear that the venture would effectively sell out on its own dreams, embracing the pallid 2D world of HTML. Howard Rheingold and Jonathan Steuer both pushed hard for a truly interactive creation, one more closely allied to the MOO or the WELL model than Web, what one might call a "community." So it is with a double-dose of irony that Bayers writes in Wired, "Howard Rheingold, author of the book ~The Virtual Community~ (www.well.com/user/hlr/vcbook/index.html), says 'Publishers never understood that people didn't want their content -- they wanted a global jam session." It's enough to make one gag -- the very institution that drove these guys out is pretending not to have listened to their recommendations. Bayer's article has wound its way through many a Web-development firm, unsettling everyone. In it's wake two things are certain: HotWired is not going out of business and the Web is about to enter "phase two."
THE WEB -- MINITEL AMERICAN STYLE
All new media follow the same cycle of development and the Web is no exception. Upon initial release, new media is embraced by technophiles with excitement and little understanding of its limits, of how it shapes information or makes possible new kinds of information. The second phase is a weeding-out process. Some things work well in this new medium, other's turn out not to work as well, and the content begins to consolidate to match the form. In the final phase, content actually transcends the expected, playing off the established narrative techniques to create material which could not have been imagined in phase one. This is where a medium matures and masses of people, as opposed to technophiles, realize that there is something truly engaging and worthwhile here.
Phase two for commercial Web-content developers is kicking in. As you read this, Bill Gates & Co. are putting their final touches on Cityscape, a $300 million venture to bring Microsoft onto the Web. Cityscape, while still under wraps, follows a quintessential phase two model. Microsoft decided what works well on the Web is content that is guide based, meaning information that answers questions people have. Cityscape's metaphor is geographic: Microserfs are diligently accumulating information and organizing it by city. So, for instance, if you're traveling to Chicago, you'll be able to access the Chicago zone and dig through myriad piles of useful information. Not too surprisingly, AT&T has the same model. Its new WorldNet service will offer material that, as Caroline Vanderlip, the person responsible for AT&T's content, helps people make decisions. "In the Internet world," Vanderlip tells me, "content that is information-based is just as powerful, if not more so, than content that's entertainment based. So all of a sudden you'll find companies as diverse as Smith Kline Beecham and Prudential and IBI or Mayo Clinic, which would not be considered content in another sphere, valuable content players for the consumer market." AT&T and Microsoft are quickly signing deals with high-quality database providers to make this happen.
Weirdly, what we're going to get on the Web is just a glossier version of France's Minitel (See MEME 1.05 for a discussion of the Internet and its impact on France's Minitel system). I couldn't be happier. The Web nauseates me when presented as the uber-cool medium which will slay the dinosaurs of TV, Film and everything-else. What a crock. The Web is fine, thank you. But not that fine. In the next six months we'll see the Web segregate into two areas. Personal home pages will continue to thrive and boom, because they appeal to people's desire's to leave something behind. Contrary to some arguments that corporations will conspire to end our ability to self-publish (because it distracts us from, you know, reading ads on commercial sites), self-publishing will continue to grow because you can actually make money offering people server space and it will be an essential offering used to keep Internet-access providers competitive.
On the commercial end, corporations will continue to create informational web-sites (product information, press releases, etc.) for themselves. The big change is that the dominant forces online will no longer be focusing on creating original content for the Web, instead they'll embrace what works: acquiring existing databases and aggregating information in useful ways. This includes putting up back issues of your print publications (that's useful, I might even pay for it) a la Pathfinder, uploading telephone directories, the Zagat restaurant review series, music reviews and adding new ways to search and retrieve information (like Agents, Inc.). A great example of data that's both entertaining and useful is Web-version of Alt.Culture, the A-Z guide to pop-culture in the 90s. Data data data. You want to make money online, think data. And what's so bad about that? Like velcro, the Web will attract what fits it best, leaving to rest of us the joy of actually creating something groundbreaking using computer networks. Wondering what that might be?
THE GREAT WEB HYPEOUT
Last week I attended the Computer Game Developer's Conference in Silicon Valley. There, amidst the Tootise Rolls, Starburst candies, tacos and pizza were pointers leading us back to the future -- the world growing out of networked games. It was like 1993 again -- people were talking about interactivity, real interactivity -- the kind where people can communicate in real time and build their own worlds. Sure, in the first iteration, the content has more to do with Doom and the ecstatic mayhem that comes from killing digital aliens. But so what. These technologies are the means to an end. Just as graphical user interfaces came out of military research, cutting-edge interactive media will initially come from games research. Instead of waiting around for Java or the next Netscape plug-in to set you free, start paying attention to what the kids are doing. 1996 will mark the arrival of the first commercially successful, immersive, interactive graphical games online. In the next issue of MEME, we'll explore what this means, who the players are, and what the first generation will have to offer. Bayers got it wrong, there isn't going to be a Great Web Wipeout -- call it like it is, nothing more than a Great Web "Hypeout" -- the cessation of over-the-top manipulative speculations on why the World Wide Web is the most important object since the invention of printing.
Meme 2.05 and its contents copyright 1996 by David S. Bennahum. First spawned by Into The Matrix at http://www.reach.com/matrix. Pass me along all you want, just include this signature file at the end.
Direct comments, bugs and so on to me at email@example.com.