The Internet: Beyond Hype and Circumstance

At midnight yesterday there were an estimated 50,416,829 people using the Internet. In addition, at that time there were 447,302 World Wide Web sites accessible by those 50 million people. Yeah, right. The hype surrounding the vast network of interconnected computers known as the Internet has never been greater than it is today. And that's what a lot of the talk is -- hype, pure and simple. As proof, let's look at the above statistics (gleaned from a running counter of e-mail, ftp, gopher and telnet accounts located at http://www.netree.com/netbin/internetstats/) and compare them to other research -- one respected measure of the Internet, HOST COUNT, found 6,642,000 computers worldwide connected to the Internet in July of '95, while another says 5.9 million U.S. adults use the Internet regularly. So for simplicity's sake, let's just say we're fairly certain the number of Internet users is somewhere between 6 million and 50 million and leave it at that.There has definitely been a huge increase in interest and use of the Internet over the past three years. Once the domain of Defense Department types and academics worldwide, the Net has brought us together in a global community where technology allows us to communicate with people around the block or halfway around the globe. And in the past year, the graphical interface to the Net -- the World Wide Web -- has become the playground of students, lawyers, journalists, business people, celebrities, sex fiends and every other imaginable person under the sun. It's an indiscriminate technology; the color of your skin, your gender, creed, beliefs or looks don't matter. The only limitation is whether you have access to a computer, which, it is often argued, makes the Net an economic impossibility for many. Nonetheless, users have developed their own spirit of community. "On the World Wide Web you can put a page up and it's like raising your hand and saying 'I have a problem I'm trying to solve. Has anyone else had this problem before?" said Rick Smolan recently on Nightline. Smolan is the project director for the recent "24 Hours in Cyberspace" (http://www.cyber24.com), an offshoot of his popular Day in the Life photo book series that received, in 24 hours, more than 4 million "hits" -- when users access the information on the site. That project, utilizing the services of 150 of the world's top photojournalists, is one of the best examples of why the Net is great, and, at the same time, how it is overhyped. It's great because Net surfers were able to experience a photograph's impact with the added import of its immediacy -- seeing (and, in some cases, hearing) something on your computer screen that occurred the same day at the North Pole, or in Malaysia. It also brought together in a "global community" all the people working on the project. But it's hype because the information will soon be available on CD-ROM and in large-format book form, with far greater resolution to the images and far more thought to their selection and presentation. It's the way the project coordinators have done it 10 times before, from A Day in the Life of America to A Day in the Life of the Soviet Union. So what is the Internet really good for? Ask 10 people and you'll get 10 different answers. The Internet is an inexpensive means of communication -- nobody questions that. It's also a terrific research tool, if you know where to look for the information. It holds the promise of linking rural or remote areas with urban centers. It's one of the only forms of public expression that has not -- until now -- been censored in any way, shape or form. And it's an immediate source of information that threatens to replace other, more traditional forms of communication like television, radio and newspaper. But while publishers and telecommunications execs once shuddered at the specter of the Net's reach, what the Internet is not, and will never be, has emerged along with the hype. The Internet is not for everyone -- although more and more people, once afraid of computers, do use it in very limited ways (e-mail and such). It's not everything to all people: it can't find a cure for AIDS, take out the trash or recreate, with any realism, a kiss between two lovers. And it's limited by the economics of technology -- in fact, the number of people accessing the Net at speeds greater than 28.8 kilobytes per second (the fastest speed currently available over standard phone lines) is minuscule.A recent study of 27,327 randomly dialed households administered by research firm FIND/SVP, found that 6.4 percent of American households had at least one regular user of the Internet (the actual number per household was 1.61, and to be considered an 'Internet user' the respondent had to use at least one other application besides e-mail) -- that equates to 5.9 million American users of the Net. By comparison, rock band Hootie and the Blowfish has sold twice as many copies of its album Cracked Rear View (12 million at last count) in the United States as there are regular Internet users. When a contemporary music group -- that appeals to only a certain segment of the population -- is twice as popular as the Biggest Thing Since Sliced Bread, somebody's got some 'splainin' to do. In his projections for 1996, an industry analyst for the International Data Corporation -- the world's leading provider of information technology data -- says that the euphoria over the Net will quickly subside. "In 1996, and lingering into 1997, the Internet/World Wide Web phenomenon will shift from today's 'intoxication' stage to a 'hangover' stage," says Frank Gens, senior vice president of research at IDC. "The growth in online subscribers will continue to be very strong, but there will be an underlying high turnover rate as users who are underwhelmed by the 1996 content on the Web cancel and turn on their TVs." Gens projections may not be that far off. The FIND/SVP study found that users reported they were on the Net an average of 6.6 hours a week; when asked what activities were reduced in exchange for online time, respondents listed television first and telephone use second (that is, talking on the telephone -- not using it to access online services). Twenty years from now, the numbers of educated computer users will be significantly higher, as more graduates of high school leave with a better-than-working knowledge of the Internet. But at the present, the surge onto the Net is fueled in part by a huge number of baby boomers, never having used a computer before, who've been forced to, either by their kids, their employers or the hype. This, in turn, is lighting a fire under the butts of marketeers wondering how to exploit this new medium to their benefit -- to entice the largest segment of the population to spend money.Commerce on the Net is one of the most explosive, and most misunderstood issues surrounding its growth. Advertising types will tell you the Net is the hottest place to be -- and charge you anywhere between $50,000 and $1.5 million to construct and maintain your website (that was the range of bids received by Metropolitan Life when it bid out its web service this year). According to a recent Wall Street Journal article, New York ad agency Grybauskas Beatrice says developing a web presence for its clients will account for 25-30 percent of its billings in 1996, up from 13 percent in 1995. Yet, the reality is that a commercial presence on the Web does not automatically translate into increased revenue -- unless, of course, you are an Internet-specific company like media darlings Netscape. A quick look at the 25 most popular sites on the World Wide Web, as provided by the WebCrawler search engine (owned by America Online) reveals that every single site is either a utility to help Internet users, or the website of a computer-related company like Apple or IBM. Industry analyst Gens predicts that by the end of 1996, 20 percent of Fortune 500 companies that have commercial Web sites "will have stabilized or closed them." Yet, at the same time, Gens warns that those companies that don't begin to prepare for some sort of presence on the Internet, "will be frozen out of the next era's growth." How that presence is established, however, is up for debate. Currently, very few commercial websites -- those that provide content for free, but charge advertisers to place their blurbs on the page (similar to this newspaper) -- are earning money. Those that are generating a profit were the first out of the gates when the technology presented itself, and continue to reinvent themselves to meet their users' tastes. Nonetheless, it's a stretch to say that most seasoned Net surfers who see a 1 inch by 5 inch advertisement at the top or bottom of a page on the Web will ever click on the ad and be transported to the advertiser's website. There's only so much to be said for the power of subtlety; even now, most of these "hot-linked" ads offer some free giveaway or contest to entice users. It's like giving a television viewer the choice of whether to see an advertisement; what do you think their decision would be? And what about those sites on the Web that purport to be electronic "marketplaces." Until standards can be established for secure transfer of information like credit card numbers (the technology exists, but few commercial sites currently use it), people just won't be buying things over the Internet. In other research done by FIND/SVP, only about 12 percent of regular Internet users have bought anything from a Web-based site. But, as Gens suggests, companies are scrambling to prepare for the as-yet uncertain future. The rush to claim domains (the letters that precede '.com' in an Internet address) is part of that, and no story is more telling than journalist Joshua Quittner's registration of the McDonald's company's name as a "domain" that he owned. When McDonald's found out that a website could not be established at mcdonalds.com, the company threw a tizzy and Quittner agreed to exchange ownership of the domain for thousands of dollars of computer equipment donated to a needy school district in New York City. But even the number of companies going domain-crazy has been overstated. According to research done by InternetInfo in September, only 35 companies worldwide held 20 or more commercial domains. Of 111,259 domains registered with the worldwide Net clearinghouse known as InterNIC, 85.2 percent were held by companies with only one commercial domain registered. That being said, the race to the Net hasn't stopped some corporations from going a little overboard -- according to InternetInfo, not only has Proctor & Gamble registered more than 50 product names as domains, including Luvs and Metamucil, but the company has also started registering afflictions (diarrhea.com, pimples.com, etc.). Oh the humanity.Every bit of statistical -- and much of the anecdotal -- information in this story was received through a search of the Internet. It was gleaned from press releases, statistical charts and electronic publications. There is no question that traditional search methods found, say, in a library would have taken far more time and yielded far less current results. Thus, there is a definite advantage to these electronic publications. But will they ever replace the printed word that we continue to consume in magazine, newspaper and book form? With any luck, no. "I can't imagine a day when I won't want to hold a magazine in my hand," said Time magazine photo editor Michelle Stephenson during an interview about 24 Hours in Cyberspace, "but I can imagine a day when you could do both -- when you could use the Internet for getting your info fast." A quick scan of the exponentially growing electronic publications now online reveals intelligence and talent. But it also reveals the kind of vacuousness you find on some cable TV channels. Some stories deserve more than 500 words, but even with fancy layout and beautiful computer graphics, few Net surfers want to take the time or exert the effort on their mouse, to page through a 2,500-word journalistic endeavor online. Because the Net is a venue for the free expression of ideas, and because electronic publishers don't need to line up thousands of dollars to produce even one issue, the glut of electronic 'zines has increased tenfold in the past year. Overall the quality is just not up to par, but the efforts are admirable, if only to find out that Billy from Baltimore saw the new John Woo movie twice this weekend. Some people may talk about liking the heft of the newest copy of Wired over its online counterpart, HotWired, but when it really comes down to it, the true challenge to online publications is that you can't read them while on the can.The future is not now it's in the future. But that doesn't mean the Internet isn't worthy of our attention or our hard-earned money. This will be a year that sees Microsoft adjust to its newly christened "underdog" status in the worldwide Internet market -- Wall Street and IDC have anointed Netscape and Sun Microsystems as the new industry leaders, much to Bill Gates' chagrin. It will also be a year that sees technology trying to catch up to the explosion of users on the Net; but whether 1997 ushers in the next "new" era in computing, is too early to predict. This essay probably sounds overly negative. I'm not a naysayer like the guy in a recent Wall Street Journal article who said: "Spending an evening on the World Wide Web is much like sitting down to a dinner of Cheetos -- two hours later your fingers are yellow, and you're no longer hungry, but you haven't been nourished." Every time I surf the Web, I find myself nourished and entertained, and grossed out, and incensed and energized; it brings out the best and worst in me. But it's useful to stop occasionally and point out when things are getting out of hand -- if not for the sake of raking muck, than for the sake of putting this big glob of technology into perspective. As the world of the Internet continues to grow, it's helpful to remember that it doesn't run itself (although some people would like to think it does). People are at its heart and soul, and regardless of how sophisticated computers become, that will always be the fact that keeps me coming back to the glow of my screen.

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