Great Big ‘Duh’


Where is the Web headed? What is the Web good for?

Here we are several years into the painful, messy birth of this place and there is still no clear answer to either of those questions. Or there are several answers to those questions but they seem in conflict with each other. Or we already know the answers but they don’t have very much to do with making a profit so no one wants to believe them.

The biggest market in books about the Web right now is the prognostication racket. People want someone to tell them what to do, how to succeed, how to make a buck, what’s going to be the Next Big Thing and how can they get in on the ground floor before the ground floor collapses. And what you’ll discover when you read any of those books—and they come in both flavors; brace yourselves for the crash, set yourself up for the boom—is that no one knows shit. Everyone is making calculated guesses, or they’re reporting crap that everyone already knows but no one really wants to believe. And what it all comes down to, of course, is money.

Nothing is worth anything is this world unless you can attach a monetary value to it. I am not, of course, talking about love and family and things like that. Not the intangible, but the tangible. The Web has been promoted as a brand new medium on a par with print and broadcasting. The commercial world wants it to fulfill the promise of those other mediums. The parallels are unavoidable. But so are the disparities.

Super Model

In the main, it seems that most entities hoping to make this a viable commercial platform want it to work like television. They want you to think in terms of channels and advertising, even though the material is mostly presented like print. In that sense, they’re trying to create a magazine that you have to buy a multiple-thousand-dollar “TV” to watch it on. And nobody in their right mind would do that. You are not on the Web to watch magazines, right?

Besides, we already have television. Why do we need another medium that works “like” TV when we have one that already is TV? So then they’ll add, “but the Web is interactive! It isn’t a passive medium like television, the Web can respond to user input, plus (and this is what makes the advertising community collectively erect) it can gather information about you as you interact!” So while you are browsing your favorite bookmarks, they can attach a cookie to your browser and find out your viewing habits (porn! chocolate recipes! pornographic chocolate recipes!) and, presumably, send ads custom-fit to your individual demographic.

However, consumers hate that. They hate feeling like a statistic, even a really individualized and small statistic, and they get creeped out thinking someone, somewhere is watching what they do for any reason, even if it’s only in order to attempt to sell them more crap they don’t need. (And never forget that our entire economic model—not just in the U.S. but anywhere following the Capitalist methodology which means pretty much everybody in the world—depends on us consumers continuing to consume crap we don’t need, as well as crap we do.) So even if it might potentially benefit them in the end by slimming down their amount of junk email so they only get solicitations for products that might actually interest them, and assuming you see that as a positive, it backfires because the implication is that they know what you’re doing. THere’s someone watching over your shoulder, and you (probably) didn’t give them permission.

So, privacy issues counter the demographic angle. Then there’s “interaction”. No other medium allows the audience to have a direct, immediate impact on the content. You can’t talk to your TV and tell the episode of CHiPS how stupid it is, but you can hit the email link at the bottom of most pages and tell the Web content provider (AKA author) how stupid he or she is. You can answer a quiz in Cosmo and see if your lover is as sensual as he can be, but your answers cannot be instantly added to a poll so you can see how lame he is compared with how lame everyone else’s lover is. You can’t then receive links to article located in other Cosmo magazines, or any other magazine for that matter, with instructions and advice about how to get him to pay attention to your signals. But you can on the Web.

That’s all well and good, but where’s that all-important monetary factor in the added convenience? Unfortunately, the Web never started out as a commercial entity, it was an informational resource.

Power User

Successful computer interactions are built around one simple application; the database. What is a database? It’s a collection of data organized in a (supposedly) logical manner so that the user is able to extract useable information. What is Quicken? It’s a database of your financial transactions. All your files and documents are organized into folders and directories. Files and documents are data, folders and directories are organizations. Organized data is a database. Your whole computer is one big database. A networked computer is a much larger information vault. Network all the computers and you have the biggest database in the world. Duh.

So, organize all the books in the world, attach prices, interface with a list of people who buy books, add their addresses, keep track of their buying histories and their browsing preferences (not only what they actually buy but also what they think about buying) and what have you got? How does that differ from you walking into a Barnes & Noble? Because at least at my B&N, no one is following me through the aisles marking down every book I look at, or pick up, or read the dust flap on. They don’t know what I might want, only what I end up buying.

Add to this mix that I give my email address, and they ask me if I might want to hear about new books. I say, yeah, sure, whatever. Now when they send me email (which I asked for) the chances that I will actually want the product are greatly increased and they know that because they’re keeping track. This, kids, is the essence of e-commerce. It is not the fact that you can enter your Visa card number online which is little better than calling up LLBean and doing the same thing over the phone, it’s the fact that they know what I’m looking for before I do. The difference between this model of a successful Web/User transactional interaction and the previous Big Brother unsuccessful model is that I allowed to keep track of what I’m doing so it can react more according to my personality and likely desires. On the Web, permission is everything.

Now that we’ve concluded your sudden, unwanted lesson on e-commerce (which the Web excels at, naturally), let’s get back to the ongoing commercial failure of the Web’s other goal; as an entertainment medium. Because that is where it continually fails.

Central Processing

If the Web is, in fact, similar to existing media (reminder: print and broadcast) What is the one factor that differentiates this medium from any other? I vote for User Control.

As a site designer, the most aggravating aspect of designing is that I know that you can totally screw up what I make. You can define your own fonts to supercede the ones I think work best, you can turn off JavaScript support so my navigation doesn’t work, you can turn off graphics, you can change the colors I define for backgrounds and text and links. You could, basically, change the entire look of my site just by opening your browser preferences, defining the aspects you want, tell the browser to ignore my page instructions and cruise the Web looking at every page using your own definitions. I also can’t tell what size screen you’re going to be using to view the pages, or how many colors it can present, or if your browser is going to render the HTML tags like the browser I preview my designs on does, or even if your browser version is capable of interpreting some of the JavaScript code and HTML tags I put on my pages.

This level of immediate user control permeates most aspects of the Web. You can turn off cookies so all the neat-o e-commerce capabilities won’t work. You can change your security definitions and if the pages include RSACI Meta tags, your browser will deny you access. Can you say the same of television? Can you change Lucy’s apartment furniture, or colorize the episodes, or stop hearing Ricky altogether? You get what TV hands you. When you open a magazine, you can’t redefine the fonts on the pages. You can’t turn off the illustrations.

The reason for all this control is borne of the original intent of the medium; to provide easy access to information. The Internet, on the drawing board, was meant only as a ASCII text-based conduit to link disparate computer platforms together in a decentralized fashion (no core computer handling traffic and storing the data, the traffic is handled by the network and the data is stored on all/every node) making it easier to get to the information you, the user, wanted which was, for the most part, text. The Web was and is a Graphical User Interface to the Internet simply to make the goal of the Net easier to realize.

Then stupid people like me started forcing graphics on it. And page formatting. And multimedia capabilities and so forth which made the people whose business it is to provide entertainment (which is one of the United States’ largest exports in the form of movies, recorded music, video games, books and magazines, etc.) start to see the Web as something very un-computer, and made the people who made computers and computer software start to realize that there’s an entirely new market out there for their platform, namely Content.

So the challenge became; How do you port the content for profit model, e.g. pay content providers like actors, authors, game creators, photographers, graphic artists, etc. and charge the public for access to the product via commercial channels that are able to strictly control that access via purchase/lease/rental of said content (When you buy a ticket to a movie, you get to see it once, you don’t own that movie. In fact, you never actually own any creative content, ownership remains with the original distributor. You cannot legally run off copies of the videos and CDs you buy and resell them, capice?) to a medium that not only allows free access to everything but was originally designed for that purpose? How do you charge people for access to entertainment and thereby compensate your content providers when the network is open, the content is open, and no one is willing to start paying for it, now?

The answer, they thought, was actually pretty obvious.

It also doesn’t work.

Ignore It & It Will Go Away

How do magazines support themselves when they can’t possibly pay the authors what they’re asking and still pay for distribution and mail? How does television support free access to programming? How does radio keep broadcasting music and talk shows and Howard Stern when all you have to do is turn it on and listen? Advertising.

And you know how advertising works, right? Advertisers are paying broadcasters to make you aware of their product. They pay more to be seen and heard on popular programs (and magazines) because more people will see their ads and, therefore, potentially more people will purchase. Broadcasters advertise their own programming to make you aware of it so you’ll watch it so they can charge more to their advertisers for your attention. They report back to their advertisers how many people watched the show that their ad appeared on. Very popular shows are very popular because they have popular people on them, or they have good writing, or are simply the flavor of the week, popular because they’re popular. So what’s the problem out here in Webland?

Actually, there are several, but primarily; you as a potential viewer of Web programming are not faced with a defined set of program choices. Putting up a TV Network (or starting a new magazine or running a radio station) costs just a tad more than putting up a Web site. In every other medium, although you are still faced with a myriad of choices, you are faced with strictly (and sometimes legally) limited choices. What that means is that for the advertiser to have a respectable viewer level, they may have to plaster their ads everywhere because there is currently no reliable audience measurement for Web sites. There are competing proposals for traffic measurement under consideration and some sites, i.e. Yahoo!, consider traffic stats proprietary information.

Even with advertising in place literally everywhere you look (including on this site, very shortly, as an experiment of sorts) very, very few sites are showing a profit based solely on ad revenue. So what’s next, then? If advertising don’t cut it, what about passing along the cost direct to the user? Are you willing to spend money to gain access to certain sites? How good must a site be for you to consider that? Currently, it appears that people are only willing to spend money in the usual fashion; to get their rocks off. In the infoglut Web of today, how do you differentiate between what’s worth your access fees and what isn’t if you don’t know what’s there? If they provide a sneak preview of the contents, that’s still not like picking up a magazine, realizing it always fulfills your expectations and you’re willing, therefore, to pay to have it delivered. What could a Web site do to convince you they’re worth paying for?

Because, dollars to donuts (as me mum used to say) if the Web does not become viable popular commercial platform, it will become a network of only three things; e-commerce, B2B (business-to-business) commerce (Procter & Gamble monitors sales at Walmart and restocks automatically) and the CB radio of the next millennium (the personal page fad is fed by people making personal pages who visit each other’s pages, go to chat sessions and exchange email about their personal pages).

It’s already well on its way there, and I suppose there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that.

The Web of The Future

If anything threatens to kill the Web, it’s the emergence of DTV. Digital television, once it is affordable and the networks start broadcasting enough programming to make it attractive to the average couch potato, basically moves your computer monitor out of the den or bedroom and into the living room, front and center, 42 inches across. DTV (or HDTV, your choice) is essentially that, a great big monitor. The set top box acts as the brains, the CPU. Add a keyboard and a pointing device, get high-speed Internet access included in your cable television transmission and what have you got?

Now, you might be thinking (if you’re in the business of constructing Web sites) that this sounds just great! High-speed access, big screen viewing space, those two factors together mean that two of the major drawbacks of the Web lessen considerably, but not altogether since not everyone will be able to afford DTV sets for a very long time (meaning, like, ten years). Europe and Japan already have DTV, and it isn’t doing anything to the growth of the Web. What will kill the Web is convenience.

The Web is not convenient. Finding information and entertainment is not convenient. If there’s a TV Guide for the Web, the closest thing is probably Yahoo! You go there, you search through their categorized links, you get a few hits, you start your search. No one can capably categorize the entire Web, though. It’s an impossible task. It changes too quickly, sites are born and die faster than the human population explosion (in which four people are born and one die every second) and what was true yesterday is no longer true today. And people, by nature, don’t like that.

What they like is convenience. What DTV and its set-top box (with built-in email, of course) will do is shove the Web into TV, meaning that the people who control TV will control what you see on it. Oh, probably there’ll be a Web Channel, someplace to go to just surf around. But it will be in competition with NBC’s Snap and ABC/Disney’s Infoseek which will be guiding the audience—the new, vast, unknowing audience seeking guidance through this vortex of confusion— to the sites they want you to see. And the Web will now be in direct competition with the ultimate brain-sucking device, television. In that competition, who do you think wins?

I can tell you this; it sure ain’t glassdog.

So, that’s my long-term prediction. The Web as a content medium is doomed to fail under its own weight. It’s all about commerce, baby. Big surprise. The hand-wringing over lack of profit for Webcentric ventures will disappear because they’ll either die since they can’t compete with adjunct programming sites (meaning sites that don’t offer original content unless it compliments a television broadcast so you can get more information about a show or product by popping up or because no one knows they exist in the first place. Those of us attempting to prop up the Web as &#147the medium for the rest of us” will continue to do so to limited success, which is about what we’re realizing now anyway. Content and design will grow more important, but only as it relates to keeping the audience tuned in. Digital media will not mean HTML but probably (and more likely) Shockwave or Flash—something that moves. Something that stretches. Have you seen a DVD interface, yet? Swirling, glowing, musical things they are. This is what the market will demand.

You want I should talk about how hyperlinking means the breakdown of the management structure now, or do you want to wait for the movie?

November 2, 1998

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