Around the Web in 80 Clicks

rosie x. is a geekgirl -- and proud of it. Every three months, she distributes another issue of her home-grown magazine -- also called geekgirl -- via the Internet. geekgirl -- the electronic magazine -- is a lively techno-culture review produced mostly on rosie's bedroom PC, with the help of friends around the globe. A few years ago, a zine like geekgirl (headquartered in the publishing backwater of Newtown, Australia) might have reached a select audience of several hundred people via snail mail or a regional electronic bulletin board. Butrosie's World Wide Web version of geekgirl -- loaded with sleek color graphics and other eye-boggling production values -- is read by 80,000 persons a month on six continents. In fact, Rosie and a vanguard of independent, back-pocket publishers may be riding the crest of a communications phenomenon as culturally significant as Gutenberg's printing press. And I'm not referring to the hype about businesses and corporations peddling their wares in a gargantuan online cybermall. To see what I mean, just spend a few minutes exploring the World Wide Web -- the network of computers within the Internet that forms a kind of decentralized global kiosk onto which anyone with a modicum of technical know-how can post his or her own "page," or personalized collection of words and pictures. On the World Wide Web, documents and pictures that reside on computer servers directly linked to the World Wide Web can be linked together using hypertext, an innovative, if somewhat awkward, method of hopping from one document to another at the click of a mouse button. Using "browser" software like Mosaic or Netscape, which went public with a multimillion-dollar bang last week, on your home computer you can access Web computer documents and pictures from around the world, instantaneously. Of course, the Web is thick with advertisers, hucksters, fast-buck dreamers and Fortune 500 companies staking claims in the multimedia land. But there's also a secondary landscape dense with populist communications and do-it-yourself publishing ventures: electronic zines("e-zines"), rants, screeds, manifestoes, shameless odes to oneself and one's hobbies and obsessions. Autonomous modes of self-expression -- good, bad, beautiful and ugly -- are pouring onto the Web with amazing speed. At its best, the Web has fostered a slew of bright, independent e-zines like geekgirl, FEED, BadSubjects, and CTHEORY, which are thriving as online, homemade alternatives to the Time-Warners, Rupert Murdochs, and Disney-Cap Cities/ABCs of the world. At its worst, the Web can be the digital equivalent of vanity license plates: the unemployed Silicon Valley engineer peddling his typo-ridden resume; the university secretary who maintains the physics department Web page, and helpfully includes a picture of her Nautilus-enhanced physique; the poet manque who invites you to submit to his turgid verse; the proud parents who digitize their four-year-old's Crayola murals, extending the reach of their refrigerator magnets around the world. Luckily, there is enough quality content out there to keep you happily, and perhaps compulsively, linking for days on end.The Web of the PeopleVirtual globe trotting is hardly the most impressive aspect of the Web. What really makes the Web so amazing is that it enables almost anyone to do two things that were formerly unheard of. First, become a publisher, without access to a fortune of Hearstian proportions. (How accessible is Web publishing? I created a Web e-zine on a budget of about one dollar a day.) Second, create meaningful associations -- hypertext links -- between your words and pictures and other swatches, volumes, and regions of information on the growing Internet. In other words, you can essentially contribute your two-bytes worth to a sprawling world wide encyclopedia of knowledge. These are no small accomplishments. What the Web does best is contradict journalist A.J. Liebling's classic axiom that "freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one." Via the Web, anyone with a modicum of hardware and a minimum of technical knowledge can, for the first time in the history of publishing, more or less "own" a press. The technology does an end-run around the traditional barriers to self-publishing: the high cost of equipment, newsprint and most importantly, distribution. The person who publishes a seat-of-the-pants underground e-zine using a home Macintosh has access to the same audience that Time-Warner reaches via Pathfinder, its Web site. Although desktop publishing already gave self-publishers a chance to own their own press at minimal expense, the Web offers an instant world-wide distribution channel -- which costs practically nothing. It is this remarkable feature that makes the Web a truly revolutionary medium. The new do-it-yourself digital media has even been compared to the proliferation of popular political pamphlets and newspapers of the late 18th-century. During the American Revolutionary period, new ideas stormed the colonies -- from the bottom up, thanks to the upsurge in small presses. Between 1783 and 1801, 450 newspapers sprang up in the former colonies. With access to small presses, radical thinkers like Tom Paine managed to transform the thoughts and habits of many new Americans. Paine, says John Katz, Wired magazine's media critic, was "one of the first to use media as a powerful weapon." According to Katz, Paine ought to be considered the spiritual father of the Web and Internet. Paine, writes Katz, "invented contemporary political journalism" and almost single-handedly created "a mass reading-public aware for the first time of its right to encounter controversial opinions and to participate in politics." Katz elaborated in an e-mail interview: "Publishing was not the province of the elite in Paine's time, quite the opposite. Jefferson and others were dismayed by how many loud and common voices there were. An illiterate farmer called 'The Laborer' had others write his thoughts on agricultural policy, and they popped up as pamphlets all over the colonies. Today, only on the Net cold someone get his or her message out like that." A couple latter-day inheritors of Paine's tradition would certainly include the editors of CTHEORY and BadSubjects, two progressive journals on the Web that critique politics, culture and technology -- the kind of thing that's hard to find on your local magazine racks. Of course, politics on the Web are all over the map -- you'll find as many lefty viewpoints as you will Clinton-bashing sites (the Whitewater and the Vince Foster pages, for example), virtual clubhouses for gun nuts, and right-wing militia calls to arms. Unlike the mainstream press, the Web is a deep reservoir filled with distinct points of view. From CTHEORY, I linked to the Hakim Bey Web page,where a diligent nouveau publisher has posted hypertext versions of the contemporary anarchist/philosopher's essays and poems (in English and French). This page is a fitting tribute to the electronic legacy of Paine. Bey (a pseudonym) writes about creating revolutionary new societies using public computer networks to nurture "Temporary Autonomous Zones" (TAZ), furtive enclaves that operate outside of the control of the state and the mainstream, almost like "pirate utopias." This deliciously subversive idea neatly encapsulates the potential of the Web to connect series of parallel underground communities and salons -- real alternatives to commercialized, centralized media cultures. No wonder many a digital publisher bandies about Bey's terminology when waxing dreamy about the Web. "There's nothing inherently democratic about the Net," says geekgirl rosie x., " 'cept for us Web publishers who create temporary and permanent autonomous zones. The Net subtly subverts the mainstream and its rigid mind-set." Certainly, not all sites on the Web are as intellectually challenging and civically uplifting as Paine's CommonSense or Bey's TAZ. And if they were, the Web would be a dull place, indeed. Some of the sweetest sites on the Web are as individualistic and quirky as a private tour of an eccentric hobbyist's basement work room.I find myself gawking at lurid back alleys like the Internet Crime Archive, a collection of graphics and factoids about serial killers; delving through the legions of Web sites devoted to nut-ball science and way-out politics (Steamshovel Press; Kooks Museum); occasionally monitoring the Web's much-maligned pornography sites (for the articles, of course); strolling through not-always-successful experiments in "interactive writing" -- readers become writers, contributing shaggy dog prose and occasionally sublime passages to cooperative literature experiments like Hypertext Hotel or interactive salons like Bianca's Smut Shack. Web-TideNo one knows exactly how many e-zines and other experiments in grass-roots publishing inhabit the Web. But the growth of the Web itself has been nothing less than explosive. According to the latest estimates, two years ago only 130 "host" computers maintained World Wide Web "sites." A year later that number had multiplied almost ten-fold, and today's estimates place the number of host computers at upward of 12,000, and there are some 6 million computer users with access to the Web. The number of individual Web sites is actually much higher, because many server operators divide their telecommunications bandwidth and lease it to others. One recent guesstimate put the number of specific Web pages at upward of several million. Some hypernauts -- those who greet the Web and its hypertext architecture as a kind of second coming -- go so far as to argue that the interlinked knowledge network of the World Wide Web will "democratize" journalism and literature, and knowledge in general. But wait! That's not all. Some postmodernist Web-philes also argue that hypertext will force media to reflect multiple points of view, nonlinear thought patterns, nontraditional narrative text forms. Of course, like past hosannas to the liberating powers of computer technology, much of the ado about Web hypertext is a tad premature. For starters, the Web is barely 6 years old, and is hampered by still-developing technical standards and the strained capacity of telecommunications lines. There's also the argument that the Web, with its top-down information (you read what the editor wants you to read, just like in an "analog" magazine), is less democratic than an online electronic bulletin board system (or BBS). On a BBS, according to cyber columnist Craig McLaughlin, "The content is constantly being changed by the people who use it." rosie x. disagrees. BBSes are not more democratic or decentralized than Web sites, she says. In fact, many BBS systems, according to rosie, operate like a too-small town, with all its stifling tendencies. "Sometimes a BBS can become like a neighborhood where everybody's backyard joins on to everyone else's," she explains. "They give crap advice, and you can't see them. So there's something to be said for the disparate points of resistance on the Web, "which tend to work against what she calls the "emerging net-oligarchy," those so-called experts who get all the attention on BBSes, to the detriment of newcomers. But the Web has plenty of other limitations. As in any new communications medium, there's still a lot of creative groping going on. Meanwhile, the big commercial interests that have staked a claim in the rush to the Internet want to use the Web as a new repository for old-style advertising, an electronic sluice box for recycled editorial content or nothing more than a glorified mail-order catalog. But, advises digital communitarian Howard Rheingold, author of The Virtual Community, one of the first books to look at electronic sociology, "Concentrate not on the 98 percent crap" that constitutes the content of the Web. "Everything is 98 percent crap. Focus on the 2 percent genius that can only emerge from the grass roots, and not from the top down."FEED Your HeadA example of the creme of the Web is FEED, a thoughtful, slickly produced media journal out of New York City. Conceived and edited by Steven Johnson, a freelance journalist who contributes to the Guardian of London, FEED uses the hypertext medium better than just about any other Web site. In the premiere issue, Johnson convened a panel of hypertext aficionados and skeptics, and asked them to speculate on the "cultural consequences of electronic text. "The panelists included neo-Luddite Sven Birkerts, author of The Gutenburg Elegies, a meditation on the decline of reading, and Carolyn Guyer, an author of hypertext fiction and co-founder of the Web's Hypertext Hotel, an experiment in interactive fiction -- "readers" can add their own prose to an evolving storyline. Panelists contributed (asynchronously) to the FEED colloquy, and then inserted -- by means of hypertext links -- their own reactions to their fellow panelists' commentary. The resulting debate -- comments within comments within comments -- was a bit dizzying and sometimes frustratingly digressive. It was also extremely fascinating -- and certainly much more provocative than anything you'd encounter in a Time or Newsweek article. "Pixels are the malleable substance some of us have wished print could be," wrote Guyer. "Pixels are things you pick up and move, remove, change, add to. The nature of the technology transforms the meaning of the word, reader." To this comment, Birkerts attached (or, rather, editor Johnson attached, Birkerts being a neo-Luddite) his startled response: "Those of us who are bent on expression ... are likely to be nervous about the 'more active and involved reader.' ... I have a primitive view of authorship. I see it -- etymologically, too -- as a claiming of authority. I don't believe in collaborative creativity, at least not on the scale made possible by hypertext." And thus was launched a secondary debate over what Guyer calls the authorial "fear of loss of control" -- the very phenomenon that many journalists and writers find so troubling about the Internet and especially the Web. Experiencing FEED, I marveled at the fact Johnson had discovered a particularly effective way to illustrate just what the panelists were talking about. Form followed function in a way that wouldn't be possible in a traditional magazine. Alongside the dialogue, Johnson ran a "threaded" bullet in board discussion where "readers," or whatever they should be called, could inject their own comments. After feeding on FEED for a few hours, I fired off an e-mail missive to Johnson, asking him about the potential for a new, interactive journalism on the Web. "The Web," he wrote back, "is brimming with links right now -- but they're mainly links to other Web sites. That's cool enough, but it only skims the surface, really. The real innovation, it seems to me, is the ability to create these multi-dimensional documents, with a number of voices occupying the same space." Carolyn Guyer, a postmodernist through and through, agrees. In her electronic response to my queries, she spoke of hypertext as a epistemological tool capable of much more than truly public publishing. In theory, she said, hypertext has the capacity to transform our very thought patterns. Western civilization, she explained, has always viewed the world in dualistic terms: male/female, life/death, good/evil, etc. With the nonlinear linking capabilities of hypertext, Guyer believes that it is possible for a complex multiplicity of viewpoints to find expression. Consequently, hypertext undermines our Western belief that nature and society must be controlled -- can be entirely controlled. Hypertext reflects a more realistic, ambiguous, relative view of the world. This notion, of course, smacks of the kind of relativism that drives academic conservatives bonkers. Guyer has coined a word to describe the cognitive orientation that comes with this new, complex form of expression: "buzz-daze." What she means by that is basically the confusion of multiple points of view -- information overload, if you will. You could argue that buzz-daze is unavoidable, salubrious even in our "multi-tasking," relativistic society. But it is a disconcerting feeling for someone raised on the, well," tyranny" of the canonical book. I can relate. I had been calling the sensation "hypertextstatic" -- the cacophony of too much information, too many egos sounding off, too many doorways opening before me. I told Guyer that I'm often bothered by the brain-inflaming information overload that can accompany Web surfing -- all those pages, bristling with hypertext links, data detours, informational cul de sacs. It's a bit like getting lost in a new suburban development on those windy, cutely named streets. Guyer shot back with a comment that sounds uncomfortably like psychoanalysis: "It's only info-overload if you feel you must read every damned one of those links in order to know everything that's there. This is a very common reaction to hypertext of any kind. We've been trained to think of knowledge as being whole and complete, neatly packaged between two covers." But, she adds, tying the idea of the reader's perceived loss of control to the author's anxiety over loss of control, "no one can ever know everything. In fact, we can't even know most things for certain, have it down pat and be sure it won't change. To artificially construct an authoritative, correct version is pretty lame when you look at the fuller possibilities of 'knowing.' "The Interactive BylineMuch as I love the idea of publishing on the Web, I do know what Birkerts means when he complains about the erosion of authorial authority. It's unsettling to have readers coming back at you with immediate criticism. And this ambivalence isn't an entirely selfish, hide-preserving crotchet. For instance, how reliable is anonymous information on the Net? People depend on the imprimatur of a newspaper or a publisher for some sense that time and expertise have been applied to a text before it is released. Obviously, the New York Times has extreme, if subtle, biases, but it does a great deal of intensive fact-checking. Who's fact-checking on the Web? Media critic Katz, for one, doesn't share my misgivings: "I think the journalist," he said, "needs to be abruptly knocked off of his or her high media horse. ... The New York Times has an important role to fill. But the Times reporter should have an e-mail address on his or her story, and interact with readers and be more accountable for arrogance, error and elitism than they now are." In the new digital media, with its decentralized sources of information, Katz said, "journalists will still have more power than others, but less than they used to. Interactive media are ascending, passive media are declining." Play hypertext leap frog on the World Wide Web, and you'll get a sense that Katz's warning to the press corps isn't just wishful thinking. To be sure, the mainstream media has joined the dash to settle the Web, and the Time Warners and Mercury Centers have more money to throw around than, say, a tiny startup like FEED. But their editorial offerings often pale in comparison to the creative outbursts of independent publishers. Still, even Katz worries about the monolithic media devouring the innovative little sites: "I consider that to be the greatest danger to this culture. Eastern media and money interests have always owned and co-opted these individualistic movements. But the nature of the software is such that it's hard to monopolize the Net in the way newspapers and TV have monopolized traditional media." FEED editor Steven Johnson agrees that the decentralized nature of Web publishing will prevent monopolies from seizing the Net. He sees the two popular models of the future of the Web co-existing -- the democratic vision of a nonlinear, two-way medium alongside the commercial goal to create a giant cybermall. The good news? The Web, he explained, will probably look less like the model of commercial television than it will the music business. "The corporate behemoths, will have their cybermalls, but there will also be a thriving independent community -- much like the indie-rock circuit that has appeared in the last ten years. But the smaller operators will have access to a bigger market, since the distribution expenses of Web publishing are virtually nonexistent. "So there will be much more parity between the big fish and the little fish," adds Johnson. "That doesn't mean that the big fish will just wither away, as the Web utopians would have it. It just means that the big fish will have a harder time swallowing the little ones." For geekgirl rosie x., the next-to-nonexistent costs of publishing on the Web means that diverse, original voices will probably continue to flourish. "Even though there are over four million indexed Web pages, there's nothing else like geekgirl in the whole world. Oh, shucks, now I'm getting all emotional" Spoken like a true geekgirl.

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