What’s The Matter Here?

I didn’t watch the Super Bowl. Well, I watched Cher sing the National Anthem because, c’mon, Cher? Singing the National Anthem? At the Super Bowl? On Fox? Could there be a more complete pop culture experience than that? And I am all about popular culture, baby. So I watched that stretch-faced woman in her 80’s torn denims stride purposefully out to that microphone to lip sync her little plastic heart out as there, in the corner of my screen, a gold-laméd group of Miami children overemphasized her every dramatic lyric in sign language, although it looked more like some Bob Mackie-designed nightmare choreographed by Paula Abdul as an homage to the talents of Bob Fosse and The June Taylor Dancers. And then the fireworks went off and the crowd went wild and an assemblage of millionaires on probation hovering at the edge of ‘Roid Rage pogo’d to the center of the field where the umpire or referee or whatever the hell they call those striped shirt types tossed a “Commemorative Coin” (with accompanying explanation offered for us at home concerning which side was Heads and which was Tails, as if that truly mattered) and they were off.

Then I slid “Dark City” into my DVD player and turned up the AC3, diving deeply into someone else’s dream of a world gone terribly wrong where lives changed in the time between clock ticks and bald, sunken-eyed zombies floated through the sky on invisible conveyor belts, headed out from the underground on another mission of evil with a capital “EV”. Pretty good flick, but only 90 minutes long and I certainly was not about to watch “Touched by an Angel” or whatever other drek the competing networks were foisting on an apathetic audience, so I loaded in “The Hunt for Red October,” and felt the torpedoes speed by my head. So I pretty much avoided watching the most-watched television program, which makes me ever so happy.

Doctor, My Eyes

What I really wanted to see were the ads for Web Product that would be popping up in the heady atmosphere of Super Bowl Sunday. I managed to see one for Yahoo! that I can’t even remember. It was introduced really weird because it wasn’t an ad for the Super Bowl, it was an ad inserted into a promo for some new Fox animated series about a farting dog or something—an ad for an ad, in essence. And then there was one for monster.com with a bunch of kids explaining what a drag it is in the real world, i.e. “I want to be paid less than I’m worth,” etc. And it wasn’t so much to see them, but to see how I felt watching them.
I’m still separating the Web into two distinct sets of stuff. There’s the commercial stuff, which wants to sell me something, or rather, makes me want to buy something (you can’t sell anything to people, you have to make them want to buy. In other words, you can’t sell me Nikes because I don’t need them, but you can try to make me want to buy them because I want them). Any site that is either directly appealing to me as a consumer or is aiding sites that do so is, to me, a commercial site. That’s my line in the sand, and following that logic I’ve just lumped every site at GeoCities and TriPod as a commercial site because they have commercials. The site authors and creators may argue that they are not commercial sites because they aren’t getting paid, but they are. They’re getting paid in services. They get free Web hosting. It’s not a right, it’s a service. glassdog is also a commercial site because it has an ad on it. This is a dot-com, ain’t it?
It’s weird for me to think of the Web as mainstream, and I guess it’s probably even weirder for people who’ve been on it since BN (Before Netscape). There’s a basic shift that needs to take place in people’s heads regarding the Web’s place in society because it seems those people want the Web to be only one thing. Which is ridiculous. The Web is not just informational or educational, it is now also entertaining and commercial with all that implies.
This is like waking up one morning and realizing that the great Indie band that only you like and only you buy their albums and only you go to their concerts and only you would recognize the lead singer if he or she was in line at McDonald’s is suddenly showing up on MTV and everyone is singing the chorus of their newest single and Pepsi is sponsoring their next tour. That little secret love you had and said, “if only more people knew about this and appreciated it like I do,” before that actually happened and you realize that part of the reason you liked the unknown band was that it was unknown.

Web Wide World

Well, the Genie is out. The Genie’s been out for a while. Except now we have Disney/ABC’s Go and (MS)NBC’s Snap, huge conglomerate sites combining mass media and popular culture together as a funnel to lifestyle definition. I suppose there was always that sort of thing going on, as if the search engine you use defines you in the same way that soda and athletic shoe preference does. Are HotBot users cooler than Lycos users? (Ignore the fact that Lycos owns HotBot for the moment.) Are excite users smarter than Infoseek users? (Ignore the fact that excite’s recent ad campaign implies that their users are, in fact, the stupidest people on the planet.) Yahoo! is using their brand (definition: personality + promotion = brand) to extend their entirely Web-based reach to literally everything out here. (And is there anyone out there who could have predicted that a search engine would buy a company whose business model is “set up a bunch of servers, give away Web space, support content via forced advertising” for $5billion+?)
This does not mean that the Web has to lose its Indie spirit entirely, but it does mean that the noise level will continue to increase because now it’s not a question of how to get attention for your Web space. If you’re advertising on TV, you’ve already won.
And I’m afraid it also means that Derek Powazek’s recent declarations at the Cool Site of the Year awards is only partially correct. In his own words: “People! The web is not about banner advertising! The web is not about product placement! The web us not about uploads, downloads or clickthroughs!” Adding ‘just’ after each ‘not’ would have been closer to the mark. And unless he was directing, “the Web is about you!” at the Mass Media as well as the independent publisher, he was only half-right.
Like it or not, the Web is a commercially viable vehicle. And where there is money to be made, money will be spent. And there is no money to be made strictly from content. People won’t pay for it in the same way that advertisers will, and advertisers won’t pay for it, they’re paying for the audience, and unless your traffic is significant you don’t have an attractive audience, and your traffic won’t be significant without promotion, and you can’t promote a site without money. And you won’t get any money from the audience, everybody knows that. Magazines know that. Newspapers know that. Television and radio know that. Hell, the U.S. Highway system knows that! I’m paying tolls to drive on stretches of road that are now sponsored by various local companies. The toll booths themselves have ads on them.

Denying Expectations

It’s important to note that the majority of people building the Web want this commercialism to succeed and flourish because, after all, more money from Web sites means more money from building them. It doesn’t make a hell of a lot of sense to fervently wish for an end to the commercialism of the medium if you’re getting your daily bread because of that medium. But I hear that a lot, and I think it’s just the same old story of creatives resenting that their creations are basically worthless unless they are used to sell something, including themselves. Once you’re comfortable with that, your job (because that’s what it is) becomes suddenly simpler, though not necessarily easier or more comfy. Although you are being paid to be creative and artistic, you are also being paid to be communicative and, for lack of a better word, dull.
Lowest Common Denominator never fails to succeed.
So now the Web has become (no longer “is becoming”) another piece of the mass media. In many ways it is no different from television and radio;

  • You have to spend some money on a machine to get the stuff
  • Most of what you get is absolutely free and advertiser supported
  • You use a remote (the mouse) to change channels—change the dial, change the URL, same difference
  • Things are very popular for a while and grow stale fast unless they change (“The Spot” was the “Twin Peaks” of the Web)

Some things are decidedly different:

  • Those who produce, appear in and broadcast televised content have a high potential of becoming very, very rich. Those who produce, appear in and broadcast Web content… don’t. (Not counting IPOs, where one Venture Capital-backed start-up buys another Venture Capital-backed start up so that the Venture Capitalists make an instant profit.)
  • There is at least one television in 98% of American homes. Only around 40% of those homes are online.
  • Most outlets for other mass media are controlled by corporations and do not allow you and me to produce TV shows (except MTV, evidently) and radio shows and get our own magazines on the shelves at Barnes and Noble. Anyone, literally, can make a Web site and anyone else (who knows it’s there) can see it.


Anyone else notice that sometimes, bottled iced teas smell like dirt?
Entirely besides the point, but it just occurred to me because I’m drinking a Nantucket Nectars “Half & Half” and I caught a distinct whiff of soilage before quaffing. I’ve smelled it before in Snapple, but I sort of expect Snapple of nearly any flavor to smell like dirt.
Where was I? Oh yeah! Performing the one unforgivable sin of someone who makes their living sucking at the Web’s teet—I was comparing it to television. But that’s only because, more and more, it is looking and behaving like television. Except that the ratings champs are not NBC and CBS or even HBO, but The Prevue Channel. Is that why TVGuide has its own channel now, too? So we can watch TV about what’s on TV rather than watching TV? Visiting Yahoo! isn’t about visiting a Web site about visiting Web sites, or is it? And, like television, isn’t the Web filled with gobs and gobs of mindless drek? Don’t we hate the commercials but we have to “put up with them?” Don’t we change the channel often and forget where we started? Is this learned behavior or enforced? Why do I keep asking so many questions? Are they all rhetorical? Do you have to ask?
When I die, I want to spin in my grave like a trout on a Ronco rotisserie.

February 3, 1999

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