Web Fairy Tales

Here's a great American success story for you: It begins with two women on vacation at the beach. One of them accidentally sits on her sunglasses, breaking them. They get an idea: unbreakable rubber sunglasses. Unfortunately, the rest of the world isn't very enthusiastic. Existing stores won't stock them, new retail space is too expensive, and catalogs take too long. Where will they go? The Web, of course! The women set up a site with a catchy address, "www.rubbereyes.com," and the next thing you know they're back at the beach -- in their new boat.It's a commercial for AT&T's business Internet services, in case you haven't seen it. And the protagonists are an inspiration to Web business hopefuls everywhere.Too bad they don't exist.When I sat down at my computer in the evening after seeing that ad, I dutifully typed "www.rubbereyes.com" into my Web browser. A few seconds later, I watched the AT&T business Web site come up on my screen. Yes, they got me. The seductive visual medium of television piqued my curiosity about something which turns out to be an ad agency fiction. I don't think, though, that this is really to AT&T's benefit.On my fairly typical computer setup, it took a full 90 seconds for the AT&T site to finish loading. That was quite long enough -- three times as long as the sunglasses success story -- for the irony to fully sink in.Businesses everywhere are being sold Web magic with pitches like AT&T's. No waiting for old-fashioned messy catalogs, no shelling out for expensive storefronts, just pure, frictionless, instant capitalism!Time isn't the only dimension fudged in these fairy tales. The AT&T commercial also omits any reference to physical manufacturing or handling of goods. The entrepreneurs were too impatient to wait for a catalog to be printed -- what about the time it takes to, you know, make the product itself?Other ads for Web-based services are no better. They are compelled to be visually hyperactive because Web pages are so un-photogenic. They are fuzzy and have fine print and they hardly move. Except for up-and-down scrolling, of course, which there's plenty of in these spots. But they don't want the pages to look like pogo sticks, so they pan across them too. And zoom in, and zoom out, and generally run around like a four-year-old on a sugar high. It makes the Web look like a positive supernova of fun.Though they are approaching eventual convergence, right now the Web and television are fundamentally different. The TV is an entertainment device. The Web is an information device.Think about attempts to deliver information via television. Television news, which no one has really believed in since Walter Cronkite left his desk, becomes more tabloid in its sensibility every year. Television weather, often used as a "don't go away" teaser, is not so gripping when people can get instant weather forecasts via the Net during the commercial break. No, TV's strong points are visual impact and human emotion.The Web, on the other hand, is basically a reading experience. That's the problem. It's information-on-demand and worldwide communication and all that, but it comes down to reading. Reading can be great, of course. But who wants to see it on TV?Nonetheless, everybody knows the Web is just so dang exciting and is going to make somebody rich! So we get flying Web pages, MTV-speed fast cuts, instant gratification, and 30-second successes. In reality, many of these over-hyped sites ore so overburdened with flashy graphics and animated gizmos that you'd be MORE engaged if you were reading. This is the gap between the reality and the promise. You're sitting there watching images slooooowly pour onto your screen, hunched in the dark in front of your computer, as the two mythical Web babes on their powerboat zoom away in the sunshine.***Sites in my SightsAll the bloat and bluster of Web gimmickry has created some interesting backlash. The Bandwidth Conservation Society, for instance, wants every page to load quickly (www.infohiway.com/way/faster/). Don't Just Sit There, Sit There and Do SomethingRachel's Environmental and Health Weekly, an e-mail newsletter, is one information service that predates the Web entirely. Since 1986 the newsletter has published over 500 issues. The latest contains grim, but important facts about Shell Oil and the dictatorship in Nigeria. Send e-mail (info@rachel.clark.net) or read back-issues on the Web (www.monitor.net/rachel/).Has Web hype ever let you down? Send a letter in care of this publication or drop a line via e-mail to pb@well.com. The Cyberia website is at www.well.com/user/pb/cyb/

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