Multi-mediocrity

It's half-time for the World Wide Web and as the Tofflers lead a third wave around the stadium, the players on the field -- husky content providers and HTML-soaked desk jockeys -- seem slightly bewildered. In all the pregame hype, someone forgot to tell them what game they would be playing. Is the Web an interactive medium, CB radio with pictures? Or is it a multimedia gold mine, a TV that takes a charge card? Two media research firms, Jupiter Communications and Forrester, have estimated that by end of the century, advertisers will spend almost $5 billion annually on the Web. So how come no one seems to be scoring?So far, the only people making money on the Web are the computer industry companies building its backbone and the lucky few who sold out their start-up ventures early and often, before Wall Street got wise to the Great IPO Swindle of early '96. Despite the rosy numbers predicted by Jupiter and Forrester, Web publishers today cover less than 20 percent of their costs through advertising. Recent layoffs at Wired Ventures and Netguide and managerial shakeups at Prodigy and Time-Warner's Pathfinder prove that if the Web is a contest, the tension doesn't lie in any manufactured rivalry--not Netscape versus Microsoft, CNET versus Hotwired, Slate versus Salon, or even digital versus print. The cliff-hanger question about the Web game isn't what's going on on the field at all, but whether or not the suits are going to pull the plug before the fourth quarter.The prodding of Lotus pitchman Denis Leary to "use the Internet for something useful, like running a business ... just raw, naked, in-your-face capitalism" seems strangely beside the point. While rawness and nakedness abound, the Web has yet to show any signs of success at "running a business," let alone providing "something useful."Newcomers lured to the infotainment highway soon discover that most of the roadside attractions are run-down and rickety. There are still more family-pet homepages than reliable magazine archives; the blinking tags and off-the-rack, tiled backgrounds still turn what might be useful prose into glaucoma-inducing speed bumps. Corporate sites promise (and generally deliver) detailed information on Olestra and prescription herpes ointment. There are several versions of the "Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon" game.If nothing else, the growth of Web hype has created a pundit vacuum, into which has stepped part-time mystery writer and full-time e-mail correspondent Jon Katz, upon whom the sobriquet "Wired's media critic" has attached itself like a growth. Katz's particular strain of media melanoma has spread as far as the Wall Street Journal and Entertainment Weekly, but the original cells continue to clone themselves in his Netizen column. In the column, Katz has argued (and argued and argued) that the Web will revolutionize and reinvigorate journalism. But in arguing that the "ultimate test of an idea here isn't whether the author can out-debate the idea's critics, but whether the idea can take on a life of its own," Katz is writing Web journalists' pink slips. If, as Katz says, amateurs are the Web's de facto and best debaters, then the future promises a new twist on the pomo quip: The author isn't dead, he's just out of a job. Observing this, many Web workers exhibit the gallows humor of the last crew to abandon the cubicles. We greet the proliferation of URLs and advertising for the Web (as opposed to on it) with a mixture of amusement and quiet disgust. We joke about the coming indie revival, when the post-2000 descendants of the fanzines that now triumph the DIY aesthetic of 8-tracks and vinyl will place the Web on the same worn altar.More telling, perhaps, is the wistful nostalgia evinced in the stories of Luddite exoticism traded after hours by Webzine editors and producers. Upping the ante each round, they reveal the technophobias of friends and significant others:"My girlfriend doesn't have an e-mail address.""My boyfriend doesn't have a computer.""My significant other communicates in guttural hoots and whistles."Ah, so he's on AOL.Cynical Web workers speak of the public's credulity and the ease with which the hype ball gathers speed despite the upward slope of the cost-to-profit curve. But perhaps what we're really afraid of is that the hype is deserved. We have a sneaking suspicion that the lack of a breakthrough is not the Web's fault but our own.No one has yet figured out a viable business model for the Web. Hell, no one has really figured out how to produce the content we're supposed to be selling. For an optimistic few, this lack of a tradition or model just keeps the Web dream alive. They constantly trot out new formulas, hoping to both break and define the boundaries of the medium, like Winchell did for radio. How about a sex talk-show incorporating real audio? A Web version of "Taxicab Confessions"? An "alternative" search engine? Still, all these formulas require a basic ingredient that is getting harder and harder to find: financial backing.The days of AOL and Prodigy throwing money at a paragraph-long proposal and a screen shot are behind us. No one wants to get into a pissing contest in a pool that's already overwarm. The big boys are getting out of the water but quick, jostling to score half-court seating in the arena known as "push media." Push media is supposed to be like the Web, except that users have information piped to them from pre-selected sources rather than actively search out sites themselves; like a screensaver, it's activated when a computer is left unattended. Push media is big in the corner offices of the world, where T1 lines provide the round-the-clock net access that push services like Pointcast need to continuously update your screen with stock prices, sports scores and breaking news.Some observers have explained the defection of multi-media players like Microsoft and Time-Warner to push media with the suggestion that push media's "broadcast" model is easier for old media types to understand. The people making decisions about which new media projects to fund are fascinated by the idea of a service that takes advantage of a computer's deadtime to broadcast "ambient information." In other words, it's a product designed to appear in exactly the spot where people aren't looking -- it appears there because they're not looking. But who would invest the future of their company in an elaborate computer service for people who aren't using their computers? People who aren't using their computers: the CEOs and marketing honchos high enough up in a company that their computers function as paperweights, not processors.Push media is often referred to as "desktop entertainment." So it is, but it's less "CNN for your desktop" than a frivolous desk accessory, like a Sharper Image executive pen-warmer. And at the moment, despite its appealing conceptual similarity to TV, push media technology is vastly more complicated on the client side than today's Web browsers, in a world where most people's VCRs still blink midnight.More problematic than the technical glitches, however, is that push media is still undefined, without clear roles for producers, providers or advertisers. The Web investors who are leaving the rough but at least approximately charted waters of HTML for the promises of the "active desktop" are fooling themselves. As a colleague of mine observed, it's as if an inept photographer, incapable of setting up a single still shot, went off to try and make Ishtar. The media giants who are calling the plays clearly are no better equipped than you or me to tell the bad ideas for the Web from the good ones, if indeed there are any. The difference is that they can invest big money in their bad ideas, whereas we can only live to regret them. Personally, I'm just hoping to be able to walk away from the game when it's over.

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