Epigraph -- "The
Way of the Web"
Introduction Definitions and Opportunities
Chapter 1 - The Giants Wore Velcro
Chapter 2 - Wake Up: Tomorrow Happened Yesterday
Chapter 3 - Business Trends
Chapter 4 - Curious Technology
Chaptrt 5 - Building Communities on the Internet
Chapter 6 - New Ways to Perceive Cyberspace
Chapter 7 - Anonymity for Fun and Deception
Chapter 8 - Identity, Motivation, and Community
Who owns the internet? -- No one.
Who controls the Internet? -- No one.
Where is the Internet? -- Everywhere.
Can you understand all and penetrate all with the click of a mouse?
To produce things and to make them well,
but not to sell them,
rather to give them away freely to all,
and by giving to become known and valued;
To act, but not to rely on one's own abilty,
to build on the works and lessons of others,
and to let others do likewise --
this is called the Way of the Web.
The best is like water.
Water benefits all things and does not compete with them.
Water dissolves barriers.
Water reaches out and covers the earth.
This is called the Way of the Web.Introduction: Definitions and Opportunities
For those of us growing up in middle-class America, the period of twenty years after World War II was an anomaly. The world of "Father Knows Best" and "Donna Reed" and "The Nelsons" was a world where change was incremental and predictable. Cars would get bigger and faster, and highways would be built to accommodate them. Airliners would get bigger and faster, and airports would be expanded to accommodate them. When in the 1950s, General Electric proclaimed, "Progress is our most important product," they meant steady, incremental, predictable progress. The original Tomorrowland in Disneyland -- both the themepark and the television show -- was a friendly, familiar place, a way of life you could easily extrapolate from the world you lived in.
We came to presume that such a level of social, economic, political and technological stability was the norm. As the pace of change has accelerated in recent years, we have had to scramble to cope. And we have come to believe that our situation is unique -- that we are being forced to face more rapid change and more difficult changes than previous generations.
But read Mark Twin's Life on the Mississippi and consider how rapidly the Mississippi steamboat industry rose and fell. Check on the Pony Express which only lasted 17 months before new technology made it obsolete. Read panoramic novels set in the 19th or the early 20th century, and see the world transformed again and again by technology or war or depression.
Rapid and unpredictable change is the norm. Future shock was a shock to those of my generation because we had the luxury of growing up in a time of extraordinary stability and came to expect that similar conditions would continue for the foreseeable future. We didn't develop the skills and attitudes needed to deal with rapid change. We didn't learn to expect the unexpected, to anticipate the rise and fall of entire industries.
Now we live in a world where the growth opportunities are in industries like computers and biotech that barely existed when we were in college. And the basic skills expected in most any job today were not taught when we were in college.
What's happening on the Internet today
is both a symptom of the times and an opportunity for many of
us to learn, to grow, and to reinvent our lives in greater
harmony with the times. This is not a dehumanizing technology,
but rather one with the capacity to help us rehumanize life --
the chance for a fresh start.
In 1993 a small change in technology -- the ability to navigate through the Internet by pointing and clicking -- began to make an enormous difference in the worlds of publishing, education, and government. The Internet, which had been a complex, "techie" environment for researchers, became a friendly, easy-to-use multimedia environment -- a new publishing medium, with enormous commercial potential.
Since then the impact has spread to other industries due to innovative use of what was already there, and also due to further expansion and refinement of Internet capabilities to make them more "friendly" to businesses of all kinds. The importance of the Internet continues to grow not only for business, but also as an integral part of the daily lives of millions of people.
What is this phenomenon? What does it mean to us? How can we use it? Where is it going?
While it's based on computer networking technology, businesses and individuals who are capitalizing on the Internet today often have little or no knowledge of or interest in that technology. In the words of Robert Burton, "a dwarf standing on the shoulders of a giant may see farther than a giant himself."
For instance, when I needed to check that quote, all I had to do was click my mouse a few times to connect to the Internet and go to a site at Columbia University (the Bartleby Project), which has a searchable on-line version of Bartlett's Familiar Quotations (from an old, public domain edition). It took me less than two minutes to make the connection and find the quotation. To do so cost me nothing, and I didn't need to know anything about how computers and networks work.
Yes, we stand on the shoulders of giants. And yes, that has been the nature of the advancement of human knowledge for centuries. The difference is that today the giants seem to be wearing velcro, because it's far easier to stand on those shoulders without falling off.
This means that almost anyone can play in an arena that used to be reserved for scientists and leaders in other fields of human endeavor -- helping to advance the realization of the potential not just of themselves as individuals, but also of humanity as a whole.
To understand what is happening now, where the Internet is headed, and what it could and should mean to us, we need to start with a few non-technical definitions. Such a beginning is important not just to novices, but also to those who feel they are already experts. Because this phenomenon is so immense, you can view it from many different perspectives, and how you see it strongly influences how you will use it. So rather than arguing like blind men when first confronted with an elephant, we'll define our perspective at the same time as defining the Internet.
Definition of the Internet
Networks tie together computers so they can share information and serve as communication devices. If my computer is connected to a network, then the words and images displayed on the screen on my desk may actually reside on another computer miles or even continents away.
Physically, the Internet is a network of networks. While on-line services targeted at individual users, such as CompuServe and America-on-Line, grow one user at a time, the Internet grows an entire network at a time as companies connect their existing networks to the Internet. It now has an estimated 40 million users worldwide, but by the time you read this that number will be much larger, because it is growing at a rate of over six percent -- well over a million users -- a month, with no slowdown in sight.
By the way, the on-line services, which originally had limited connections to the Internet itself (like ponds and lakes with small canals leading to the ocean), are now adding full Internet access to the range of services they offer their customers.
The Internet has no central point of control or governing body. Its anarchic structure derives from the U.S. Department of Defense, which funded its beginnings and wanted a network which could not be knocked out in a nuclear war.
Since 1993, commercial use of the Internet has grown considerably. The U.S. government at first tried to reserve for just education and research those pieces of the Internet which it funded. But it has turned away from that position, reducing its subsidy, limiting its role, and encouraging commercialization. Commercial Internet providers -- independent companies which cooperate through an organization known as the Commercial Internet Exchange (CIX) -- have been making it increasingly easy for companies to connect to the Internet and conduct business there. And large telecommunications companies are playing an ever increasing role in making it easier and less expensive to access the Internet. As the business potential becomes ever more obvious, you can expect many more companies, of all sizes, to get into the act through acquisitions and new ventures. And except in cases where government regulation interferes, you can expect this lively competition to drive down costs and improve service, while the capabilities offered and the technical demands they make on the providers continue to expand.
Keep in mind that the Internet is not just a network of computers, it is also a network of people, with its own unique culture. While the underlying technology will change and the companies providing the infrastructure and the access will change, the culture -- the Internet style of work and way of people interacting with other people -- is likely to endure even when the physical Internet becomes enmeshed with and indistinguishable from other communications/publishing/entertainment networks.
This is a statement of faith rather than an empirical fact -- while technologies converge, the unique Internet culture is likely to evolve and propagate and influence how we do business and how we relate to one another for a long time to come.
If you choose to enter this environment, it is important to keep its origins in mind and respect the basic culture. Entering this space is like entering any other culturally foreign environment -- like a Western firm going to Japan. Yes, you can do business there; but to succeed, you must understand and respect the culture -- the etiquette (called "netiquette" here) and the expectations of potential customers.
Here people often freely share their creative efforts, with no expectation of financial return. One finds here a frontier spirit -- the people tend to be independent, self-reliant, but ready to lend a hand to a neighbor in need. Surprisingly, new users, even commercial users, often adopt many of the basic tenets of this electronic society, with all the passion of the newly converted.
For example, here one does not send unsolicited advertising material. People welcome information that they have asked for, but raise a storm of protest when someone intrudes upon their space uninvited. (This effect is partly cultural and partly economic. Commercial services, such as CompuServe, which cater to the individual rather than to companies, sometimes charge recipients for the mail they receive, beyond some minimal level. And no one likes to pay for advertising they don't want to see.)
Changes in the Internet
The Internet has existed for a couple of decades. People exchanged mail and made files -- vast libraries of information -- available so others could share them. But since 1993, two factors have fueled enormous growth, and attracted new commercial uses. The U.S. Federal government -- spurred on by both the Clinton-Gore administration and Republicans such as Newt Gingrich, as well -- has made vast amounts of public information -- which had been difficult or expensive to find and use -- freely available in electronic form on the Internet. And at the same time, a piece of software known as "Web browsers" have helped transform this information environment and make it readily usable by people with no knowledge of or interest in computers.
Researchers at CERN, the high energy physics center in Geneva, had developed the World Wide Web (WWW) -- software which made it possible to link information from computers anywhere on the Internet in a hypertext environment. For example, a word in a document on a computer in France could be connected to a document in Australia.
Mosaic, the first of the Web browsers, was developed at the National Center for Supercomputer Applications (NCSA) in Illinois. It and its successors (such as the Netscape Navigator) let you use a computer mouse to point-and-click your way freely through that World Wide Web.
The Web is server software which resides on the computer system which is providing the information. The browsers are client software which reside in your desktop computer system and let you navigate through the Web.
Funded by the U.S. government, NCSA made Mosaic available for free over the Internet. By the fall of 1993, they had produced versions of Mosaic that ran on IBM-compatible personal computers, Macintoshes, UNIX workstations, VMS workstations, and other desktop systems. Anyone with the technical ability to download it or who can obtain a copy from a friend is welcome to it. (If you wish to include it in products you charge for, however, you need to negotiate with NCSA for a license). The fact that this client software is free can greatly reduce the cost and speed the development of information systems.
With the World Wide Web and Web browsers, the global book/library of the future is quickly becoming a reality.
The power and meaning of hypertext links first became clear to me when browsing through the pages of one of the first elementary schools on the Web -- Hillside Elementary in Minnesota. A sixth grade teacher had put the whole class on-line. Every kid in the class had his or her own "home page" -- a place where they could post pictures and words about themselves that anybody in the world could see. She also gave the class an assignment to use the Internet as a research tool and then "published" the papers they wrote by posting them on the Web. For instance, from a hypertext list of the papers, I could click on the one about dinosaurs and see the paper itself. And within that paper, instead of traditional footnotes, certain words were highlighted as hypertext links that would take me directly to the source of the information. If I clicked on the word "dinosaurs," I immediately connected to the dinosaur information and pictures posted at the University of California at Berkeley, and from there I could connect to other related information all over the world.
In other words, instead of having to go to a library to track down a work referenced in a footnote or bibliography, I could connect immediately to the source information, wherever in the world it might be; and from there can use other hypertext links to follow the train of my thought. In this environment, the electronic book no longer needs to mimic the paper book, but rather can become a new medium of expression. And rather than being limited to the material on a particular CD-ROM, you can access entire libraries quickly and easily.
In addition to text, the World Wide Web and its browsers can handle high resolution, full-color graphics, sound and even some video (though that is still in a relatively rudimentary form).
Keep in mind that your ability to receive the audio and motion video depends on the hardware and software available on your desktop system. The speed of response depends on the machine you are using and the speed of your network connection, as well as the size of the files you are downloading -- which in the case of graphics, audio, and video can be quite large. Don't expect perfection at this early stage; but, in most cases, the speed of response is already remarkable.
In addition to the high-tech possibilities, Web browsers can also provide easy access to older information systems, such as videotex and conference files. In other words, in most cases, companies and institutions don't have to reformat their existing files to make them accessible. Rather they can use "gateways" -- custom software that provides a bridge from the old world to the new and that is transparent to the user. This means that the content available to the Internet user can grow very quickly.
Three related and enormous opportunities are opening. The World Wide Web represent the beginnings of a new mass communication medium. It also creates a new global environment for conducting business and for shopping. And at the same time it opens new ways for people to relate to people.
While there are over 50 million people on the Internet today, the vast majority of those users have limited access. They can all do simple things like exchange mail (though even their ability to do that may be constrained by how much storage space is available to them). Fewer of them -- somewhere on the order of about 20 million today, but growing much faster than the Internet itself is growing -- have the kind of account which enables them to browse the Web.
It is probable that eventually, maybe in just a few years, the vast majority of people on the Internet will be able to browse as some can today. But in all likelihood, by that time new capabilities will be available, which catch the imagination with their multimedia glitter, and which once again will only be available to a minority.
So it is important to remember that people who connect to the Internet are likely to be diverse in their ability to access resources and the ways the information is finally presented to them by their computers or other output devices (such as televisions or "speaking machines" for the blind). This is in addition to their diversity in language and culture (because this is a global phenomenon).
A business that uses the lowest common denominator -- old, tried and true technology like electronic mail -- can reach the widest possible audience. A business that focuses on the latest glitter will reach a smaller audience, but may make up for that attracting greater attention or by reaching a more focused audience, with just the right demographics.
The mass communication potential of the World Wide Web first became apparent during the Winter Olympics in February of 1994, when free new reports of the events attracted hundreds of thousands of "hits" per day. Then in November 1994, Digital Equipment posted the results of the California state elections in real-time as they unfolded -- with maps and other graphics to enhance the meaning -- and got over a million "hits" in a single day -- a new record.
A "hit" is a rudimentary measure of usage of a Web site. The underlying software counts every time a file is accessed, without providing any hard facts about how many people that represents. Today, (in the summer of 1995) such Web sites as Netscape Communications, Yahoo, ESPNet SportsZone, InfoSeek, Time Warner's Pathfinder, Playboy, Wired Magazine's HotWired, Microsoft, Silicon Graphics, and Lycos all report hit rates from 2 million to 30 million per week; and translate that into estimated numbers of users ranging from 100,000 to 3 million (source: Interactive Age, June 19, 1995). And at the current rate of growth, the numbers for the top sites could easily increase by ten fold within the next year.
By the spring of 1994, a wide array of companies -- many of them startups -- were already publishing, advertising and selling directly on the Internet. And now many of the larger, well-established companies are also competing there, trying to find new ways to capitalize on their existing assets in content, talent, products, brand recognition, and access to celebrities.
While the Internet clearly offers new and intriguing ways for people to relate to other people, systematic efforts to realize that potential and build non-profit and commercial enterprises around it are still in their infancy. That opportunity is one of the topics we'll deal with at some length in this book.
Uniqueness in the Marketplace
Here the culture encourages developers to share with one another, to borrow from one another and to build on one another's work -- rather than wasting precious time reinventing what's been done before. This means development happens fast and standards become widely accepted without the need for intervention by industry or government committees.
On the Internet, the smallest of companies -- one- and two- person basement operations -- can compete on a par with well-established enterprises. A now-classic New Yorker cartoon captured this aspect of the Internet. Two dogs are looking at a computer screen and the one says to the other, "On the Internet, nobody knows you are a dog."
And in some cases, the smaller companies have a distinct advantage because they are more nimble, can make decisions and act on them quickly, and are more willing and able to experiment and learn.
Many of the experiments we see on the Web today are labeled "under construction." That's the accepted mode of work here. (Even large companies like Apple Computer have done that.) You don't wait until everything is polished -- rather you get on-line quickly, sample customer response, and keep changing and improving based on demand.
How can a company make money in this new medium? There is no simple answer to that question. In some ways, the competitive environment on the Internet resembles the early days of the television industry when manufacturers of TV sets provided programming to stimulate sales of sets, and it was unclear what business model -- advertising, pay-to-view, or some other approach -- would predominate.
But even at this early stage it is clear that audience is the cornerstone of business. You are likely to succeed if you identify and serve a clear audience and build the loyalty of that audience. If you don't start with the audience, then your investments and efforts -- no matter how great -- are likely to be futile. And if you do start with audience, then new, unexpected business models are likely to open for you as this medium matures.
Keep in mind, too, that here you should expect the unexpected. Over the last couple years on the Internet, we have seen not just rapid change, but a rapidly changing frame of reference. Innovations not just in technology, but also in how people use what's available have repeatedly changed the rules of the game. We'll take a look at that phenomenon in the next chapter.
A Web site that changes your frame of reference may or may not be eye-catching or exciting or of immediate practical use to you. But it is so different from what you have experienced before that it permanently changes how you think about the Internet and what can be done with it.
You wake up one morning and realize that the world has changed radically. No, you didn't sleep for 20 years, but technology took an unexpected leap forward, and capabilities that you thought were years off in the future are suddenly there at your fingertips. Such an experience changes your basic assumptions and stimulates you to imagine new business models.
In this chapter, I'll take you down the path of my personal experience with the Web over the last couple years and the sites which had this kind of effect on me -- sudden wake-up calls.
This is not an exhaustive list. Other people may have had similar experiences in encountering different sites. And there may already be other very creative and innovative sites that I have not yet seen and that will hit me this way as soon as I do come across them.
What matters here is that "changing frame of reference" is a phenomenon that is characteristic of the Internet in general and the Web in particular. You should expect the unexpected. You should always be prepared to alter your assumptions about what can be done in this medium and to shift your business models and projections accordingly.
Here we'll focus on changes of this kind that are innovative applications of existing technology -- powerful ideas that others on the Web could quickly imitate. Later we'll look at changes in technology which also alter our frame of reference. They involve new software and/or hardware, which can then become the basis for new and totally unexpected uses of the Web -- new wake-up calls.
This project demonstrated that a physical event could have a virtual counterpart that transcends the limitations of time and space. The Internet-based exhibit would continue to exist long after the physical exhibit had been moved to another site or dismantled. And anyone anywhere in the world could access it immediately, without having to travel.
The designers deliberately tried to mimic the physical exhibit in the electronic medium. The opening page welcomed you to the main exhibit hall and told you "From here you can go to several rooms." The rooms, with focused exhibits, appeared as a list of hypertext phrases. Clicking on one of them loaded the text and graphics for that new "room." You could also choose to go to the "Book Store," which was a catalog of merchandise that could be ordered by postal mail or telephone. Later, after the creation of more high-quality on-line exhibits, you could click on the "Shuttle Bus" to go straight to the others. The "Bulletin Board" provided a means for "visitors" to share their reactions. This interactive capability was limited to users who had X-Windows or UNIX systems and were running the Mosaic browser to leave "annotations" for others to read. When later versions of browsers let users input information using "forms," they added a "Post Office" -- a simple way to send electronic mail to the people running the electronic exhibit.
During the 1992 presidential campaign, the term "information superhighway" had become popular. And in general, at these early stages, metaphors linking the electronic world to the physical world helped to stimulate the imagination, helped people who were unfamiliar with computers and electronics to feel comfortable in this new environment. They also helped people visualize new ways they could use this new medium. However, such metaphors could become a barrier to further progress, encouraging people to think in terms of just mimicking traditional ways of doing things rather than pioneering new approaches that take full advantage of the unique capabilities of the new medium.
The graphic elements included in the exhibit -- rare maps, manuscripts, and other artwork -- were important in attracting "visitors." Much of this visually striking and historically important material had previously not been available anywhere but in the Vatican itself. Yes, it had been possible for Internet old-timers to share graphics of this kind before, using such command-line applications as file-transfer protocol (ftp). The point-and-click Web browser environment made it far easier to download pictures (which you could save, manipulate, and print at your leisure). And the visual metaphor and organization was designed to make it easy for casual users to find and retrieve what they wanted quickly, without having to understand obscure commands or complex directory structures. For ease of use, the designers included small versions of the pictures side-by-side with the text; and by clicking on the picture you could download the full-size version to your own machine. At that time, many people had slow connections to the Internet and the browsers themselves were much slower than they are today; it could take 5-10 minutes or even more to download a single full-size graphic. So it was very important to give users and quick a preview of the picture and then the choice to get the full image if and when they wanted.
In addition to great graphics, the exhibit included extensive, clearly written explanations of all the materials. The words came straight from Rome Reborn: The Vatican Library and Renaissance Culture, a book published by Yale University Press, which served as the catalog for the physical exhibit. While the text made the on-line exhibit much more useful and understandable than it would otherwise have been, it also demonstrated a new way to market printed books, using on-line samples. Having seen this sample, the user could click to go to the "Book Store" and learn how to order and pay for the full printed edition. Many bookstores and publishers would soon follow that model, posting catalogs and samples to promote sales of traditional books.
The designers also included a hint of how this new medium could go beyond simply mimicking print. Words with footnotes were followed by highlighted (hypertext) numbers. When you clicked on a number, you immediately moved to the footnote at the end of the text. And at the end of each footnote was the word "Back" as a hypertext link to return you to the point where you were reading before. That handy feature was later taken a step further by students at Hillside Elementary School and many others who provided "footnote" links directly to remote Internet resources and electronic versions of books, rather than to plain text that referred the reader to traditional paper books.
The Vatican exhibit was a model for how to open up artistic, scientific, and scholarly treasures to a wide audience. Materials that before only a handful of experts would ever have been able to view and appreciate were now available directly to the public, as part of its cultural heritage. In succeeding months, other exhibits -- most, but not all, from the Library of Congress -- were added to the collection: the Soviet Archive Exhibit (previously secret KGB documents), the 1492 Exhibit (celebrating the anniversary of the discovery of America), the Dead Sea Scrolls Exhibit, the Spalato Exhibit, and the Paleontology Exhibit. And this application of Web technology, so ably showcased by the Vatican Exhibit, was soon adapted by other museums, libraries, and universities around the world. One of the best was the Web Louvre, with on-line versions of many of the world's greatest paintings. Later, commercial art galleries, clip art services, and individual artists would use a similar approach to market their wares.
But O'Reilly saw the potential of the Internet not just as content for traditional books, but also as a new marketing and publishing medium -- a new environment for doing business and making money. In the fall of 1993, they went on-line with the prototype of a new kind of service: the Global Network Navigator.
Based on the metaphor of "information superhighway," they saw the need for "on-ramps." A wealth of interesting material was already available on the Internet in a variety of formats, from plain files that could be copied, to newsgroups where people with common interests could share their thoughts, to the latest and greatest -- the World Wide Web. But it was hard to find what you wanted when you wanted it. It was even harder to know if the kind of information you wanted was even available. That difficulty made guide books like Ed Krol's indispensable.
Rather than simply ring up the profits from that book and watch its market dwindle as competitors published other similar books, O'Reilly put the most useful part of the book -- the catalog of resources -- on-line for free. They even made the on-line version far more useful than the printed one, by providing hypertext links to all the resources mentioned, and by continuously updating the on-line information. (New sites were being created and old Internet addresses were changing at a rapid rate. No matter how fast a publisher produced a traditional printed Internet guidebook, many details were likely to be out of date before it reached the stores.)
They provided this service to encourage people to come to their Web site, to make their site the first place people went to when they connected to the Internet, to make it the "on-ramp" of choice. And at that on-ramp, they started to build the basic elements of the first electronic mall, where retailers could market their merchandise, and perhaps eventually add the ability for direct on-line sales. They would provide Internet news and an on-line magazine, and other information services to encourage cybervisitors to linger and look around. They'd provide all these services for free to attract large numbers of users, and would ask the users to "register" -- to volunteer information about themselves. With an established "audience," they could then sell advertising. And depending on how the medium evolved, they could later choose to charge subscription fees for some of their information services.
They soon added mirror sites around the world. In other words, they encouraged large corporations with high-speed Internet connections (like Digital Equipment) and entrepreneurs who were looking for new ways to make money (like Oslonett in Norway) to provide full copies of the Global Network Navigator (GNN) content on their machines. This approach reduced the load demands on the main machine in Boston, which improved response time; and users connecting locally say in Norway, rather than half-way around the world, avoided transmission delays. Faster response made the service all the more attractive to users. And at the same time, this approach made it possible to set up local franchises. A local entrepreneur like Oslonett could benefit from the rich GNN content to attract users and could add local content and sell local advertising. In this model, GNN operated like a television network, and the local site operated like a local television station, each providing content and each selling advertising.
As the Internet grew and evolved, GNN adapted and expanded its offerings. In the summer of 1995, O'Reilly sold this service to America Online which apparently has ambitious plans for "the design and development of innovative on-line applications, inventing new forms as well as developing original content on the Internet," according to the explanatory letter they posted for their readers.
Once potential customers had read marketing information on-line and were ready to buy, they had to look for the merchandise in a store, or order by phone or FAX. Of course, the audience was still relatively small -- at that point, probably less than a million people worldwide had Web browsers. But that audience tended to be concentrated in education, high tech industries, and Northern California. Companies appealing to those audiences could increase their sales immediately by combining Web marketing and traditional sales methods. For instance, with the help of Digital, a small store in Palo Alto, California, the Future Fantasy Bookstore, put its catalog on-line and was soon doing about 30% more business than before, including orders from customers overseas whom they had never dealt with before.
It seemed that retailers could generate far more business by making it convenient for consumers to order straight from their Web browser using credit cards, and that this would be increasingly important as the potential audience grew and broadened. But many businesses and users were hesitant to transmit credit card information over the Internet because of concern that hackers could eavesdrop and then use the information for fraudulent purposes.
Experts were certain that they could find ways to securely transmit credit card information over the Internet using existing encryption technology. The problem was that many companies would have to agree on standards, and key players from the banking and credit card world would have to become involved.
Rather than wait for such a solution, the Internet Shopping Network, a little startup company with about 10 employees, went on-line in May of 1994, selling computers, software, and peripherals from several different manufacturers. Users became "members" by Faxing credit card information. The Internet Shopping Network Faxed back a password. Once connected with that password, the user could securely make credit card purchases on-line. This simple solution -- a breakthrough in the use of common sense rather than new technology -- opened a whole new business.
Shopping for computer products over the Web was a lot easier than digging through hundreds of pages of catalogs and magazines and then trying to order by phone. All the information you needed about products which competed with one another was in one place, with hypertext links to product reviews. And once you made your choice, you could select the delivery method (with associated costs), which included the option of next-day delivery through Federal Express.
Others were speculating on the fate of "middlemen" as Internet use expanded. The Internet would put customers in direct contact with manufacturers, eliminating the need for distributors and stores -- a process known as "disintermediation." In that same environment, the Internet Shopping Network created a new kind of "middleman" business. They operated with no inventory. They took the on-line orders and forwarded them on-line to distributors, who then fulfilled them. In some cases, it was weeks or months before the manufacturers found out that their goods were being sold this way and that customers could get quicker delivery and maybe even a better price by ordering on-line from this startup than by calling the manufacturer's 800-number catalog operation directly.
Sales numbers were never made public. But in about four and a half months the company was bought by the billion-dollar television retailer Home Shopping Network for four and a half million dollars. Today The Internet Shopping Network offers "access to a broad range of products, including: over 25,000 computer products from more than 600 companies like Lotus, Symantec and Microsoft; flowers from FTD, steak and lobster from Omaha Steaks International; unique gift items from the Hammacher Schlemmer catalog..." Instead of FAX, they now use secure Web server software (from Netscape Communications) to handle credit card transactions directly on line. And they say that "orders are processed within 15 minutes of being received and shipped the next business day from one of 12 distribution centers in the US."
One company, ReZrVoir, provided movie clips on-line from its Web site, and used this low-resolution medium as a way to provide samples of video material that they had for sale to makers of industrial movies. For instance, the user could search for an emotion, such as "joy", see thumbnail static images from a variety of selections that matched that emotion; then click on one of those images to download a one-minute mpeg file that conveyed that emotion. You could then order a professional quality tape of that segment to incorporate into your video. It was clip art for videos, marketed over the Internet.
Then Disney entered the arena, with free videoclips from their animated features. They used a different format, "quicktime," which made it possible to present sound in synch with the images. This "viewer" software was available for free over the Internet -- Disney didn't develop it; they just provided a hypertext pointer from their site to one from which you could download it. And they provided compelling content that clearly demonstrated the potential of this new medium.
Suddenly, my computer was monopolized by my five-year-old son Timmy, who wanted to watch over and over again a one-minute clip from the Lion King -- the "Hakuna Metata" song. And he wanted to download as many such videos as my hard drive could hold.
These videos were typically larger than 1.4 Mbytes, which meant they couldn't be stored on diskettes. If I wanted to keep them, it had to be on my hard disk. Overnight my need for a bigger hard disk or an alternate storage medium went soaring..
Before the appearance of such professional quality videos -- with built-in demand and appeal from exposure in movie theaters and on television -- the Internet had been primarily a static medium. Here you could retrieve text and static pictures. Video was a promising, but little-used toy. Disney demonstrated that low-resolution video with the right visual content and lively music could have elemental, attention-getting impact. They also showed that the different media could help promote one another -- Web sites could help publicize movies.
Later, Timmy downloaded videoclips of Pocahontas more than a month before that movie was released, and weeks before the first television advertising. He watched and listened to those clips backwards as well as forwards (a bizarre capability of the software) dozens of times, incorporating those scenes into his imaginative play and getting totally sold on the movie and all the related paraphernalia.
One elaborate scheme, proposed by Chris Locke and originally known as MecklerWeb, promised to serve as the home for many different industries. A professional association would serve as the hub of each major area and provide free content designed to attract a focused audience. Companies would pay a monthly fee to be included in their industry area (either hosted on that site or with hypertext pointers), and the revenue would be shared by MecklerWeb and the industry association. That seemed like an excellent model at the time, but the company running it -- Mecklermedia, publishers of Internet World Magazine -- decided to change its direction. Today, MecklerWeb is the home for that company's publications (Internet World, Web Week, and Web Developer), their Internet World conferences, and related information products and services. They also serve as the host for the Internet Mall, which acts as a yellow pages guide to businesses on the Internet.
An early Internet entrepreneur, Dave Taylor, started The Internet Mall in February 1994, as a list distributed by email to let people know about companies that were doing business over the Internet. The first issue contained free listings for 34 companies. The Mall now includes over 1500 businesses "ranging from florists to bookstores to food suppliers to crafts and hobby shops to educational video vendors." And it can now be accessed not only by email (free subscription), but also from newsgroups, gopher servers (a precursor of the Web), and on the Mecklermedia Web server. On an average day, over 6000 people visit this resource. Listings are free, and include a brief description of the business plus pointers to the individual companies' Web sites.
The Web version is designed around a department store metaphor. The first level of menus shows what's available on each "floor." The groupings make it easy for people to find the kinds of goods and services they are looking for even if they previously didn't know the names of companies. The number of businesses and the clear organization of the information helped attract the audience, and the size of the audience made this a very desirable addition for Mecklermedia. In the future, this project could be developed in a variety of ways to make it more useful for visitors and also profitable for those who manage it.
Meanwhile, in April of 1994, Henry Houh, a student at the MIT Lab for Computer Science, began an informal list of commercial sites on the Internet. This was just a bare-bones list, with no categories and no descriptions -- simply a hypertext list of company names. The listings were free for the companies and the service was free for users. Within a few months it included hundreds of companies. Many of the users came not to "shop" but rather to find out what was happening on the Internet. This was a time of extremely rapid commercial growth, and one of the main factors fueling that growth was competition -- if your competitors were on the Web, then you better get there soon. This list and its "What's New" subset provided a handy way to check to see what other companies in your industry were doing.
In August of 1994, Open Market, a startup company in Cambridge, Mass., offered to host the list and maintain it as a public service. By so doing, they would gain access to an established audience, which could help them establish their name as a company which develops and markets software, services and custom solutions for electronic commerce on the Internet. Today their index includes listings for over 10,000 businesses, and on a typical day they add 60-80 new ones. You can browse or search the list, and they are adding "categories" so you can search by the kind of business rather than just the company name.
Malls and directories such as these helped make the Internet more navigable, but the growth rate was incredible, and many useful and interesting sites were non-commercial. How could you know what to look for and where to look for it?
Many researchers tried to find a technological solution, developing "robots," "wanderers," "spiders," etc. -- programs that periodically and automatically search for everything that can be found on the World Wide Web and generate databases that users can search at their leisure. There are now dozens of such programs, and sites which try to keep track of them all. The search engines I use myself are JumpStation, WebCrawler, Lycos, and InfoSeek.
WebCrawler went on-line in April 1994, as an individual's hobby/research project. At that time, the search engine found 3486 Web servers. By July 1995, now operated as a free service by America Online, WebCrawler, it covered 40,644 servers -- an eight-fold increase in just 15 months.
For search-based operations, this incredible growth represents both an opportunity and a problem. Yes, the need for searching becomes all the greater, but either the search engine or the user must have greater and greater "intelligence" to be able to generate meaningful results. WebCrawler looks not just at the name of a site, but at the words on many of the pages residing at that site. Sometimes searches yield useful information that wouldn't otherwise be available. Other times the number of matches is in the hundreds or thousands, making it virtually impossible to sift through them all. And sometimes the result list is puzzling, including entries that don't, at first look, seem to relate to the query.
Lycos, which began as a research project at Carnegie Mellon University and now is startup commercial venture -- Lycos, Inc., has an enormous database culled from searching over 5.6 million Web pages. They report that they have half a million users per week, and are trying to establish themselves as "The Catalog of the Internet." Once again, the user is likely to get large numbers of matches for almost any search, and it takes time check them all out to see which are the right ones.
Because these systems are based primarily on "robots," they include data on sites that have not yet been announced or were never intended to be publicly announced. They also include information about many sites that have gone away or changed addresses -- there is no simple way to identify that a site which was once reachable no longer exists. Also, these systems only search the Web periodically (WebCrawler seems to do it once a month). So they don't have information on the most recent sites, and with large numbers of sites coming on-line all the time and some of them not accessible 24-hours a day, there is no guarantee that one or another of these "robots" would have visited and cataloged the site you are most interested in.
Meanwhile, in the spring of 1994, two graduate students at Stanford -- David Filo and Jerry Yang -- started keeping a categorized list of Web sites "as a way to keep track of their personal interests on the Internet" and made it public at their "Yahoo!" Web site. As the lists became long, they developed a customized database. They welcomed suggestions for new sites from site managers. Each entry was categorized by the applicant and hand-checked by the Yahoo! team.
They didn't use robots. They just built a database from these entries -- running everything on their student workstations. Since all the sites were "registered," they were live and real, and the people who maintained them wanted their information to be seen. The search mechanism they used only looked at the Yahoo! database -- at the brief description provided by Web site itself -- not at every random page. And Filo and Yang's classification system was clear, and comprehensive. In other words, by using human intelligence -- their own and that of the people who submitted information -- they created a simple and easy way to find what you want on the Internet.
Today, Yahoo! is one of the most popular sites on the Web -- with about 3 million accesses per day, representing an estimated 300,000 users per day. And every day Yahoo! adds hundreds of new listings.
What had begun as a hobby is now a
full-time business. They now have financing from Sequoia
Capital, hardware and network resources from Netscape
Communications, and commercial advertisers such as the
Internet Shopping Network, Mastercard, MCI, and Worlds, Inc.
They indicate that they intend to continue to provide their
Internet navigation service for free to users. That approach
should keep their audience large and growing, and hence open a
wide variety of new entrepreneurial opportunities.
Let's presume that the basic infrastructure of the Internet -- the physical connections and bandwidth and communications standards -- will be taken care of. That seems reasonable to expect if we are fortunate enough to avoid major catastrophes like global war and large-scale government regulatory stupidity. Then let's focus on Internet businesses that provide more than just connectivity. What will people actually do with these capabilities? What business models are likely to work? What are the risks and the opportunities?
At a panel discussion at Internet World in San Jose, Calif. (April 1995), one of the participants noted that companies which sell products and services for the Internet face a unique dilemma today. There's no agreement on what's the razor and what's the razor blade -- what should be given away or sold at a very low price to build a customer base and what they can then sell at a profit to those customers.
For instance, some companies are offering Internet access at bargain prices and hoping to make their money by renting Web space. Others are offering free Web space as a come-on to sell Internet access accounts. (I run my own little Internet company on 10 Megabytes of Web space that I receive for free with my $29 per month SLIP account with TIAC, a local provider in Massachusetts. I was just about ready to pay $50 or more a month for just Web space, when they made the free offer. And 10 Megabytes is not trivial -- that's the equivalent of 20 copies of Huckleberry Finn.)
This trend means that the Internet is now and is likely to remain a buyer's market. Second, it means that interesting new capabilities are likely to be provided to end users for free or at low cost, which should fuel very rapid adoption.
For example, early in 1995 personal Web pages were a rarity, except at colleges. Yes, it looked like as the number of home/individual users grew, their interests and desires would expand and eventually large numbers of them would want to experiment with shaping their own Web space -- like buying your own videocamera out of curiosity and then inventing uses for it that justify the expense. Then several Internet access providers decided to give away Web space to subscribers. Many subscribers had been hopping from one service to another to take advantage of the latest low-cost or free offer. Price alone would not keep them. It seemed that in the long run, people were likely to identify themselves with their Web address rather than their email address. Hence giving away Web space would build the loyalty of existing users, and attract new users. And, presumably, the access provider would be able to sell design and consulting services to those who didn't know how to do Web pages themselves or to those who wanted the results to look first-class. Once this started, others had to follow suit to remain competitive; and in a matter of a few months personal Web pages became common place.
The razor/razor blade trend also means that Internet product and service companies need to be very nimble and creative to make real money. Growth in terms of numbers of users is not necessarily an indication of success -- they could be losing money with every new user and banking on eventually making their profit selling something that by then someone else will be giving away for free. Fortunately, many of these startups are turning out to be enormous financial successes, at least in the short run, not by making a profit from on-going business, but from sale of the company itself to optimistic investors.
Some people see the Internet as the present-day equivalent of the gold rush and expect that the real money is to be made not from the gold itself -- not from doing business on the Internet -- but rather from selling tools to the companies that are rushing in. My personal opinion is that the opposite is the case -- companies that focus on trying to make money from the Internet tool business will keep undercutting and one-upping one another, while their customers, who provide useful Internet-based services, rake in the profits. Meanwhile companies like Netscape can succeed by giving away tools (like browsers) to build audience and then creating their real business based on that audience.
We need to make a distinction here between marketshare and audience.
In emerging markets, companies typically make major investments in product development and in awareness activities, like advertising and trade shows, to capture marketshare. They willingly absorb losses for the first few years with the idea that as the market grows, they'll "own" a solid and predictable percentage of that market and reap large profits over the long run.
This time-honored approach assumes that the emerging market is and will continue to be measurable, and that it will follow predictable patterns of growth and maturity. Above all, the market will still exist and be profitable 3-5 years hence and probably much longer.
These assumptions may not be valid in the volatile and bizarre Internet environment.
For instance, whatever market niche you target, some other player may suddenly decide to give away the equivalent of your product or service in hopes of making money in some other way. So regardless of how good your product is and great your marketshare is, your opportunities for future profit could evaporate.
Your Internet audience is the set of people who regularly access your Web pages and/or voluntarily subscribe to your distribution lists. They may or may not ever buy anything from you, but they have a continuing interest in what you are doing on the Internet. You can build your audience in a wide variety of ways, such as giving away products which automatically link the user to your site (like Netscape), providing rich and interesting content, and/or building communities (as noted above). Once you have established a large audience, or a loyal focused audience, then you have the opportunity to create profitable businesses either by serving their needs directly or by charging other companies for access to your audience. Your audience/community becomes the cornerstone of your business.
One of the most evident trends is that customers can connect directly to suppliers, eliminating the middlemen. But at the same time we see the creation of new kinds of intermediary businesses, such as the Internet Shopping Network. Another such business, "WebConnect," recently contacted me. They plan to sell Internet advertising without going to the expense and effort of establishing their own Web site and building its audience. Rather they will act as an agent selling access to other companies' audiences. First they sign up companies that have Web sites, then they go to companies that want to advertise on the Internet and offer them a package deal -- for a fixed monthly fee a hypertext link and brief description of their business will appear on dozens of home pages that tend to attract the kind of audience they want to reach. The Web sites get paid a monthly fee and have the right of refusal. WebConnect takes a cut of the fee.
First we see that writers and readers can now connect to one another directly. Anyone can be a publisher. And at the same time, the amount of material available on the Internet grows unwieldy, and we see a new role for editors, and the rise of on-line magazines, like GNN, and print ones like Internet World, which report on what's happening on the Internet, and sort and highlight what they feel is best.
Meanwhile, we expect to see ever more powerful and intelligent search tools that will help novice users quickly find the Web site or the particular piece of information they need, without the need for an orderly superstructure, such as a mall or a television-style network. Such tools will be able to interpret content, to highlight main points, to do some basic language translation, and to automatically generate summaries to help us cope with the huge amounts of information available. With these tools, users can be actively in control -- seeking what they want and getting it without intermediaries. The Internet increasingly becomes an extension of your own mind, building on your natural powers of association. In this kind of environment, location -- in time or space -- means nothing. Here the user is creator, not consumer.
But then the volume of material becomes simply unmanageable again, and once again we need the help of human judgment.
Recently, my son Michael, a freshman in high school, wanted to write a paper about the music group Nirvana. He checked the Internet (using Yahoo, Lycos, and InfoSeek) and found about a dozen different sites dedicated to that subject. I wouldn't be surprised is a year from now that number tops 100, and within two years tops 1000. And the same trend will probably apply for many other celebrities. Every fan will want to create his or her own Web site shrine, and it will be next to impossible to sort through them all to find the most useful information, without the help of a human guide.
The same trend is likely to occur in almost every field -- even the sciences, where many professors and would-be professors feel compelled to create their own Web pages devoted to their specialty and publishing their papers on-line. So we're likely to see a new upsurge in specialized electronic newsletters and Web sites devoted to reviewing and recommending the contents of other Web sites -- until the next counter-trend.
The Internet is a global phenomenon, and many countries lag far behind the U.S. There's a large and growing non-US audience for pre-Web, plain-text information services, and even the experts don't seem to have a very good handle on the statistics. It's hard to say with any certainty that any part of the world is not now connected to the Internet by some roundabout route.
In Time Magazine's Special Issue, Welcome to Cyberspace (spring 1995), the map of world Internet connectivity on p. 81 indicated Thailand, Bolivia, Cuba, Pakistan, Mozambique, and Ethiopia had no Internet connections. Months before that we already had subscribers to our Internet-on-a-Disk newsletter in all of those countries. In addition, we had subscribers on the islands of Reunion and Vanuatu, which didn't show up on the map. (Our subscribers in Ethiopia and Pakistan work for the UN, and hence their email addresses do not include the country codes for those countries.)
While the number of people who can only access plain text grows, Web masters are tempted to base their page design on the latest and greatest non-standard extensions to html and to include ever more glitzy graphics and video and audio effects, neglecting the needs of the technologically handicapped. As technology advances with 3D presentation of images and virtual reality, the issue of access for those without these capabilities will rise again and again. In all likelihood, only after products have become successful in the mass market will there be an effort to provide some "equivalent" form of the information or experience for the rest of the world. It's natural -- only with huge commercial success will the developers be able to afford the luxury of considering the low-tech masses.
The designers of Web pages should go out of their way to continue to make plain-text versions of their material available when they upgrade to the latest and greatest graphical presentation method. Many sites already provide a choice of graphics or text-only on the first screen. And some design their pages with the understanding that users may be connecting with Lynx, a character-cell browser. We need to encourage more sites to do that now, and to continue that practice as graphical technology advances.
In the next chapter, we'll consider the
blind, who have similar needs for plain text presentation of
And even those fortunate ones had problems. Typical modem speeds were 9600 baud, which made it virtually impossible to use the Web -- it simply took too long to access a page. Even with more expensive 14.4 baud modems, the NCSA Mosaic browser (which was then the standard of excellence) often timed out and crashed. And while you could spend hundreds of dollars for a 28.8 baud modem, then you'd have a very hard time finding an access provider that you could connect to at that speed.
Speed was the main issue. Regardless of how great the resources on the Internet were, large numbers of people would not be willing to wait five or ten minutes to load a page. The novelty would wear off very quickly. Sure the business-to-business market could still grow, but without the home market, demand for this potentially great technology would be relatively limited.
If you really wanted to do the Web at home, because you wanted to build a business around it or because you enjoyed playing with high-tech toys, you needed to consider the much more expensive alternatives that were designed for businesses -- paying a premium price to your phone company for a high-speed dedicated phone line or special digital (ISDN) service, if that was offered in your area. Then you'd need to buy additional hardware and/or software to use your new connection the way you wanted to and would need to deal with an Internet service provider whose business was serving businesses rather than individuals. Outside the U.S., the situation was even worse, with far fewer alternatives and much higher prices.
The most promising alternative on the horizon was home access to the Internet by way of cable TV services. Digital Equipment Corporation and its partner LANcity had demonstrated the ability to use cable lines to build very high speed Ethernet local area networks. Interesting experiments were underway to use this technology to link together businesses and schools in areas such as Phoenix, Arizona, and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; and to provide home Internet access to individuals in Southern New Hampshire and Cambridge, Massachusetts. But, for the most part, cable companies didn't understand the Internet business, and it looked like it would be a long time before this capability would be widely available.
Much has changed since that time. Faster modems are much cheaper. Internet access providers are everywhere. (By the August 1995, there were over 1000 of them.) They keep lowering their prices, adding more local dial-in numbers and more that can handle fast connections, and sweetening their offers in other ways. Major on-line services (such as America Online) are offering full Internet service. Major telecom companies like MCI are getting into the act. Microsoft is offering its own on-line service, which includes Internet access and which users of Windows95 can connect to by simply clicking on an icon. Telephone companies are offering ISDN service and fast lines to the home in more areas and at lower cost, and Internet access providers are offering services to accommodate individuals with those kinds of connections.
All of those changes were due to business decisions, rather than technology advances. It wasn't too hard to predict this general direction. Increasing demand would lead to higher volumes, which would lead to lower prices, which would fuel higher demand and even higher volume and even lower prices. Then the big players would make their entrance and the game would get really interesting, with an ever wider range of choices on ever more attractive terms. But no one could say how long it would take, or even if it would reach really high volume before some competing technology, like interactive TV, locked in the market for information delivery to the home.
But in the fall of 1994 an advance in technology suddenly changed the frame of reference, and moved the whole Internet business process forward by probably at least a year -- opening home access and related commercial opportunities far sooner than anyone was predicting. The Netscape Navigator (originally code named "Mozilla") made all the difference.
The company Netscape Communications had been formed that spring by Jim Clarke, one of the founders of the computer company SGI. He hired Mark Andreesen and other engineers from the National Center for Supercomputer Applications (NCSA), where they had designed the Mosaic browser, which was then the prevailing standard. These engineers started over again from scratch, benefiting from what they had learned the first time around, and including features that they now knew were possible.
The result was a beta-version of a new Web browser which, in most circumstances, with a 14.4 baud modem performed about six times faster than Mosaic. Running Mozilla (version 0.9) from home over ordinary phone lines, with an ordinary SLIP or PPP account, you could get the same kind of performance that previously had only been available over a high-speed company or institutional network.
And the business plan was just as astonishing and far-sighted as the technology. Any individual already on the Internet could simply download the software and use it immediately, without having to pay for it. (Companies that wanted to use it for business purposes had to pay a license fee.)
At that time, Microsoft was planning to release Windows 95, with the Microsoft Network, in the spring of 1995. The Netscape plan was to distribute as many copies of their browser as possible -- at least five million of them -- by the time Windows 95 came out. That would give them significant market presence and clout, allowing them to compete in a much broader and more mature marketplace.
Spontaneously -- without Netscape having to pay for the publicity -- many of the best Web sites recommended the Netscape browser on their home page, and some even provided hypertext links to sites for downloading it. The managers of these sites recognized that this new browser made their site look and feel much better to the ordinary user. It also provided the user side of what promised to be a simple and secure way to do credit card transactions on-line. Hence it was in the best interest of Web site owners to do everything they could to help promote its adoption. Within a few weeks of when it was first made available, Netscape's browser had become the new de facto standard.
They surpassed five million by spring, while the Windows 95 introduction slipped to August. By then they were shipping a much improved version (1.1) which included a number of features, like tables, which made it easier for Webmasters to design pages with the look and feel they wanted to convey -- features that were still not available in other Web browsers. By stepping beyond the realm of accepted standards for Web page design, Netscape was taking another risk. Pages that included these new features could only be viewed with their browser. That might mean that page designers would avoid them so their pages could be seen by the widest possible audience, or the marketplace could fragment with various browsers including mutually unintelligible non-standard features. Instead, major sites quickly adopted the new features and recommended the new version of the Netscape browser for best viewing; and some provided two complete versions of their sites -- with the version they were most proud of designed for Netscape's 1.1.
Meanwhile, the company started to roll out its line of commercial products, in particular its Web server software, which competed with freeware from NCSA and CERN, and which sold for thousands of dollars. This software was "commercial grade" -- intended for demanding, no-fail use by companies that wanted to do serious business on the Internet, as opposed to the looser, do-it-yourself use by research and educational institutions, which could make do with the freeware. And one version of their Web server was intended to interact with the Netscape browser to enable secure on-line credit card transactions.
While the browser is still available for free downloading, they are selling many copies of the same software in stores to people who do not yet have Internet connections or who appreciate an easy-to-install kit and related support.
So rather than wait for agreement on a standard, Netscape set the standard themselves -- twice -- by filling needs before the competition (both commercial and non-commercial) and by giving away the browser for free to individuals. And the give-away program not only helped establish their approach as the standard, but also gave them an enormous audience to which they could readily market further products and services, taking full advantage of the promotional power of the Internet. Built into the browser software were a set of buttons that immediately connected the user with Netscape's Web site for on-line help files, Internet directories and search engines, and product and service information. Hence the Netscape Web site is probably the most active site on the Internet today, with millions of users every day -- probably two to three times as many users as Yahoo. They could build a variety of profitable businesses around this audience.
And the existence of that same large installed base of browser users makes their commercial Web server software -- particularly the credit card version -- very attractive.
This is a fast-moving marketplace, and competitors, like Spyglass, which licenses Mosaic technology from NCSA, now offer browsers that are probably as fast as Netscape's and have some features that Netscape doesn't yet provide. You can expect that half a dozen or more such companies will keep leap-frogging one another, improving the performance and expanding the capabilities of Web browsers. But Netscape was definitely the company that blew this market wide open.
Much of the traffic on many of the channels consists of adolescent one-line messages -- a free-for-all that's often flirtatious and sometimes obscene. It's a popular way for college and high school students to interact with one another. Users can choose any name they please and change that name the next time they connect. Some enjoy taking on a new on-line persona and identity -- like going to a masquerade party or engaging in role-play games -- and maintain one or more alter egos for extended periods of time. Others relish the uninhibited freedom of expression that comes from anonymity.
Other channels focus around specific topics of timely interest, such as controversial current events issues or new technology, or serve as a link for people with common culture and language who happen to be scattered at universities around the world (such as students from Malaysia).
Most of these channels are open to everyone. But it is possible to set up a closed, members-only channel to hold a serious meeting on-line. Researchers sometimes use this capability. (Apparently, that's what it was originally designed for.) But it's a very techie, user-unfriendly environment, and has little or no security attached.
Now Netscape and other companies are working on ways to adapt this capability for a business environment to fill the need for live interaction among groups of people. It will be interesting to see how that evolves.
The Internet Phone, which caught the world by surprise in the winter of 1994-95 was an adaption of that basic chat capability, which lets people interact with voice rather than typed words. As a side-effect, this product lets you make free long-distance phone calls through your Internet account. It doesn't matter where in the world the parties are -- it could be Peking talking to New York -- or how long you talk, you pay no more than you normally pay for Internet access, (which today in the Boston area amounts to less than 30 cents an hour). You can even set up conference calls.
To use this software product developed by VocalTec, a small company in Israel, you need an Internet account and a PC with a sound card, speakers, and a microphone. And all parties involved in the call need that same kind of set up. I installed the software myself a few months ago. You can download the trial software from their Web site. If you like it in evaluation mode (limited to one-minute long conversations), you can pay for a license that unlocks it for unlimited use. (I did so almost immediately -- this was the first time I bought anything by credit card over the Internet, using the secure Netscape browser).
When you start, you connect to one of several servers that are set up like IRC chat. That means you can readily find other people who want to talk. I had my first chats with people in England and in Montreal. It has the feel of ham radio, only far simpler. (Only one person can talk at a time.) It's easy to imagine how this could be used to connect classrooms in different countries for social studies and current events or foreign language practice. And, of course, any company with remote offices and high long-distance phone bills could benefit from this application immediately.
NetPhone from Electric Magic Company apparently provides similar capabilities for Macintosh users.
Applications such as these -- carrying live voice over Internet lines -- put heavy demands on the existing infrastructure. They raise the ante in terms of capabilities users need and expect in their basic desktop computer systems, and also in terms of the quality and speed of service they expect from their Internet access providers. And at the same time they challenge the long-standing business practices and pricing models of the world's telephone companies.
Then a startup company called RealAudio made it possible to "view" audio files in real-time. In other words, as soon as you click on a hypertext link you begin to hear the recorded sound.
For this to work, the Web site needs to use server software and authoring software sold by RealAudio; and the user needs to have a sound card and speakers and also the "viewer" software, which can be downloaded for free and which works with standard Web browsers.
The sound quality -- which is sure to improve -- is already adequate for many applications. It's not yet good enough to satisfy music connoisseurs, but that hasn't stopped some small bands from beginning to use this capability to by-pass record companies and radio stations let the world know that they exist.
In theory one could use this capability to set up the equivalent an entire radio station, without having to go through the normal government regulatory process. In this case nothing would be broadcast, and radio receivers would be useless. Only those users who connected to the Web site would hear anything. And the whole format would be different -- based on space, rather than time. Programming elements -- such as news, talk, and music -- would be listed as hypertext links. They could stay available for as long or short a time as the station manager wanted. And advertising could be included in the programming, if the audience were willing to put up with it.
I understand but have not yet experienced myself, that hypertext links can be embedded in the audio stream. In other words, you could see images and text in synch with the audio file, which presents interesting opportunities for creative programming and advertising.
This is a technology that stimulates the imagination and leads to applications the original designers may never have dreamt of. Already at least one company is using RealAudio to provide sound effects for an on-line interactive multi-player strategy game -- Stellar Crisis. (By the way, such games are becoming a popular way to attract users to a Web site and to advertise the capabilities of Internet service and consulting companies.)
I'd love to see this used for a revival of radio drama and to provide information services for the blind. I'd also like to see it combined with live audio capabilities like Internet Phone and with on-line forum capabilities like WebForum so people could interact with one another with voice and their input be stored as threaded discussions for retrieval by other users at other times.
And this is just the beginning. Stored video and audio capabilities will be improving and new interesting content will become available. And as live video and audio and 3D graphics get rolling I'm soon going to need the storage equivalent of the Library of Congress just to satisfy my personal day-to-day needs. (It's amazing how fast a leading-edge luxury can become a necessity).
So still wondering how I could possibly cope for the long run, I was reluctantly ready to upgrade to a one gigabyte hard drive and went to my local Egghead Software store to check out models and prices. To my surprise and delight, the sales people introduced me to the recently released ZIP drive from Iomega.
The ZIP drive is an add-on for your PC or Macintosh, which accepts 100 Mbytes diskettes. I have the PC/parallel port version which plugs right into the printer port, and can be readily moved from machine to machine. This makes it easy to store and move large files and programs (bigger than the 1.4 Mbyte capacity of a high-density 3-1/2" diskettes) The product has only been available since March 1995.
I'm using my ZIP drive to write this book. On a single disk I can hold all my background information, notes, sample Web pages, years of Internet-related memos and correspondence, all my files related to my own little Internet business, and dozens of drafts of this manuscript. I can use it with my desktop system at home, or I can pack it up with my laptop when I go to the Cape for vacation (which is where I am now).
It's being marketed as an alternative to a hard disk upgrade, as a way to back up your hard disk, and as a way to store large files (such as the video, audio, and images you can retrieve from the Internet)
I see it more as the equivalent of a writeable CD ROM, which would be particularly useful if you only need to make a few copies (rather than hundreds) or want to make copies on demand, or where the user would periodically download updates from the Internet. This capability could also be the basis for interactive multi-media games on the Internet which require large writeable local storage.
Already Iomega has announced Jazz drive, which will be available in the fall of 1995 and will use removable disks with 1 gigabyte capacity. And I can easily see upgrading to that new drive and using many of those disks. In a year or two, to heavy Internet users, gigabytes will seem like what megabytes are to us today. (And that's a thousand fold increase).
I suspect that removable disks such as these will soon become media for distribution of information and software. In other words, the disk you buy will not be blank -- it will come with lots of material already on it that you can choose to use or erase. This will be reference material, marketing material, complete catalogs, etc. The disk drive makers will use free content as a market differentiator and will also sell space on their disks (like ads on commercial videotapes). In some cases these disks could replace current CD ROM applications. (Current CD ROMs have a space limit of about 500 Mbytes, and significant increases to that capacity would probably require users to buy new CD ROM drives.)
The availability of such storage devices at reasonable prices is sure to inspire a variety of creative Internet-related applications as well. Already a number of firms are experimenting with mixed media, where CD ROMs are used in conjunction with Web pages. Such applications could be even more interesting with writeable, removable disks, such as those from Iomega. It is possible to include a Web browser on a CD ROM or disk and use the html format for the files so users can navigate through the local files just as they do on the Internet. That capability opens the opportunity to put large graphics, video, and audio files on CD ROM or disk, and use the Internet to access updates and the latest information. For instance, the CD ROM/disk which one buys could have the basic structure and storage-intensive elements of a catalog, interactive book, interactive video experience, or interactive game, and a free Web site could provide added content. That way the content provider has a tangible information/entertainment product to sell and yet can take full advantage of the Internet to provide extensions, enhancements, and updates, and to enable groups of customers to jointly participate in the same experience.
For example, a disk could include the basic structure of a multi-player game, along with graphics for scenery, objects, and characters. Players at remote sites could relate to one another through a Web site, with their "moves" and other decisions sending update messages to each of their computers, which lead to the appropriate manipulations of these scenes, objects, and characters on the screen. If users have writeable disks, the content provider could periodically add new graphic elements and even new game logic that users could download for use in future games.
Such an environment could also be used to distribute follow-ons to popular single-player videogames like Myst. If the initial game were designed this way, the makers could -- for a price -- make available on the Web additional graphics and code that takes advantage of many of the elements on the original disk to open new related worlds and experiences. Such extensions could conceivably be added to indefinitely, building on the audience the initial game attracted and providing them ever-more imaginative involvement. Hence what was a market for discrete products -- a one-shot market, with sequels coming months or even years later and as discrete products -- could become a series of experiences that grows and evolves, with the continuity of a prime-time television series or soap opera.
And such long-term involving experiences could form the basis for on-line communities and could anchor stable and profitable Website businesses.
One approach, known as Mbone, requires a fast UNIX workstation with an extremely fast connection to other UNIX systems. As was true for electronic mail in the early days of the Internet, system managers have to voluntarily agree to forward the signals for the benefit of all. And end users need special hardware and software as well as information on what address to connect to and when and what settings to use. Events such as a live Rolling Stones concert captured the attention of the press and fueled public expectation that a mass-market version of live video would soon be available over the Internet. Indeed, business use of Mbone technology appears to be growing -- as a way to deliver business meetings and conferences to remote audiences gathered in special facilities set up for reception. Sometime soon this might become a viable alternative to current corporate video networks for training and communication events.
But another technology, CUSeeMe, originally designed for the Macintosh, looks like it could penetrate the home market. A number of schools use this technology already and large-scale demonstrations, such as a live broadcast from the space shuttle, have tended to be education-oriented. The image resolution is nowhere near the quality of broadcast television, and today you need a video card and a Macintosh to receive the signals. But a version for Windows PCs is reportedly in the works. And standard popular PC configurations are getting increasingly complex and powerful. It seems reasonable to expect that systems that include not only video cards, but also video cameras (built into the monitor) will be fairly common within a year or two. Demand for access to live video over the Internet could fuel demand for such systems and speed the advance to higher volumes and lower prices. And the availability of such systems could fuel widespread creative use of this technology.Eventually, just as today everyone can be a publisher on the Internet, everyone should be able to be the Internet equivalent of a video broadcaster. It's easy to imagine classes in different countries using this technology as primitive videoconferencing, for sharing experiences with one another. It's also easy to imagine this approach providing video telephone service, and becoming the basis of a wide variety of businesses, such as a video version of today's 900 number sex-talk telephone lines.
Today, if you are a publisher with a Web site, you may feel like you're running on a treadmill. With the growing competition for the attention of readers, you feel compelled to keep redesigning your pages and adding flashier graphics and gimmicks to get people to come back. With competitors like Disney and Time-Warner that can be quite a challenge.
It seems that many Internet users are just surfers or tourists. Graphics and fancy tricks may induce people to come to your site once or twice, but how can you get them to come again and again? How can you give them real and continuing value? Remember that in this environment a picture better be worth 10,000 words, not just 1,000, because that's about what it takes in storage and time to download. The graphics have to say something, not just be there as decoration, or users will see them as an annoyance rather than a benefit.
So how can you both attract users and build their loyalty, without having to make large investments?
Remember, the Internet, which has captured everyone's imagination over this last year, is an anomaly. The World Wide Web and point-and-click browsers are so easy to use that even people who normally shy away from PCs take to this new environment immediately.
But while the Internet traditionally was extremely interactive -- every user potentially interacting with every other user through mail and newsgroups and chat and other utilities -- the first users of the Web simply retrieved information. Interactivity faded into the background.
By using on-line forms, the user could interact with the information provider -- asking questions, commenting, and even placing orders. And the latest Web browsers can make it easy to send email and participate in newsgroups without opening a separate application. But still the Web itself does not foster the collaborative interaction among users that in the past was the life and excitement of the Internet.
Fortunately, collaboration and group interaction are now coming to the World Wide Web -- first as adaptations of older Internet capabilities (like newsgroups and chat) and transplants of other networking tools (like notes files).
These new tools will make it far easier to create not just repositories of multi-media information, but rather true communities of common interest, where people congregate to share their experiences and insights, as well as to learn and to shop. These communities on the Internet will build and maintain audience loyalty. Combined with intelligent search capabilities, they will open new business opportunities for publishers.
In other words, we see the coming of a whole new set of business opportunities, built on the old Internet culture and environment. This culture is based on a pioneer spirit of sharing, of helping one another with no expectation of payment. It's a culture of pull rather than push, where unsolicited mailings are taboo. It is an environment that if you invite people to come into your Web site, and you make it interesting enough, they will not only come, they will return, and bring their friends. To be successful, one needs to understand the culture, respect it, and work within its bounds. Then profit will follow.
To understand the Internet environment, it's helpful to visualize a series of concentric circles . At the center of the Internet is the community of users. Here everyone talks to everyone, freely and candidly through email, in newsgroups, and in chat. Most people are attracted to the Internet not as a place to read news or to shop, but as a place to relate to other people who have similar interests. (That kind of user-to-user environment has also been at the heart of successful dial-up bulletin-board services as well as America Online, Compuserve and Prodigy.)
Next comes the circle of free information. Built on open communication and the spirit of sharing, the Internet has accumulated vast resources of public information -- provided by users, schools, libraries, governments, and non-profit projects such as Project Gutenberg .
Moving outward, the next circle is the realm of subscriptions, directories, filtering, translation tools, and search engines. People are willing to pay more to get less, when what they get is exactly they want -- gleaned from all the mountains for free information. They are also willing to pay for timely targeted information that matches a profile of their interests. Long-term, this is an important area of opportunity for publishers, and some are already doing good things here. For example, check out Dow Vision , NewsPage from Individual Inc., InfoSeek .
The farthest circle is the realm of transactions, where people buy merchandise on-line by credit card. That's the area that has gotten a lot of hype in the press, and it would be a natural add-on to on-line advertising, but it is still in its infancy.
The gravitational pull of the Internet is toward the center -- toward users interacting with one another and toward the rich resources of free information.
To catch the interest of Internet users and earn their loyalty to come back again and again to do business, companies will want to build on this environment, rather than simply mimic their old business models.
Don't presume that that's easy. Remember you are competing for the attention of users who are attracted by all the person-to-person talk and free information. You've got to provide real value-added to win these potential customers. To take full advantage of the opportunity will take investment and creativity.
The ideal business on the Internet would build a loyal audience by providing an attractive environment in which users could discuss matters of common interest with one another and with experts. In addition, this site would provide lots of related information for free. Search and abstracting capabilities as well as information that has time-sensitive value could be available for a fee or by subscription. Then on top of such an infrastructure, a publisher and its sponsors could offer all manner of content, goods, and services for sale -- backed by graphics, audio and video -- all the glitz that technology can provide -- and an easy-to-use on-line payment system.
Imagine a Web site that not only provides information but also acts as a "user group" -- a place for readers to talk to one another, share their insights, express their opinions, and help one another. This could be in the form of on-line Letters to the Editor, welcoming readers to react to articles in your magazine of newspaper and to one another's comments. It also could be part of a product support system, where users can post their questions as well as their insights and innovations and look for responses from company experts as well as one another Such a dialogue can become a source of free and valuable content. Remember the experience of talk radio and talk television -- the candid comments of ordinary people can be compelling, especially when the audience knows they too can participate in the dialogue if they wish. And remember, too, that some of your customers may know more about your products than your best support people and may be proud and pleased to share what they know with their peers. Also, remember that positive word of mouth is the best marketing tool. So if you have products that are worth talking about, then you could provide a virtual meeting space and empower your customers to talk to one another and to others, becoming sales people for you.
Depending on your business model, you could aim to build a global virtual community of people with common interests -- staking out your subject-matter niche -- or you could use this medium to forge closer ties with your local, physical community. For instance, an on-line bookstore or book publisher could include virtual "rooms" and "events" where customers could talk to one another about the books that they have read and for-a-fee forums where they could interact with authors, editors, reviewers, and other experts and celebrities. Or a small newspaper could use these capabilities to allow citizens to discuss matters of common interest with one another and with figures from local government and the education and business communities.
A handful of companies are already moving in this direction. The Village Group in Massachusetts is franchising its "village" concept and already has the beginnings of Armed Forces Village , and One Place: a Christian Community . These will be virtual towns where people of common interest congregate and talk to one another and do business: places to belong to -- not just on-ramps.
Netscape recently announced its Netscape Community System, which is likewise a step in this direction of getting users to interact with one another as a way to build a loyal and stable audience, which can serve as a basis for businesses of many kinds.
And Foster's Daily Democrat , a newspaper in Dover, New Hampshire, in partnership with Digital Equipment Corporation , is setting up a presidential primary Web server which will not only include traditional newspaper content, but will also allow voters to talk to one another about the key issues, and to ask the candidates questions, and where on-line debates can be held among candidates in a format where the content remains on-line, for others to benefit from later.
Such projects will use a variety of tools that harness and extend the Internet's traditional chat and newsgroup technologies, making them easier to use and more powerful. Already the Internet Roundtable offers WebChat , which allows realtime text-based conversations. And there are a number of experiments for using the Web environment for events and discussions among users, where the results are stored as part of ever-growing archives of useful and interesting information. This includes one developed by Digital Equipment which both the Village Group and Foster's Daily Democrat are using -- Workgroup Web Forum.
A year from now we expect to see many more Internet villages and communities, and these will be enriched by even powerful and exotic tools that enable people to interact with and relate to one another in new and unique ways. Already we see Internet Phone from VocalTec and NetPhone from Electric Magic , which are making it possible to convey voice live over the Internet, not just as a cheap substitute for long-distance telephone, but also as the foundation for live voice chat -- for live meeting rooms and ham radio/talk-radio type interaction, without the hassles involved in having to type your input. And there's an interesting experiment that was recently announced by Fujitsu and Compuserve called WorldsAway . They plan to create a graphical chat environment. Users will be able to construct their own individual persona or "avatar" from a menu of body parts, and that image will be able to move around rooms and other virtual spaces and interact with the images of other members of chat session. We can expect that projects such as that will use 3D effects, live video, and virtual reality -- whatever technology and bandwidth will allow to help people interact and collaborate, to entertain one another and to do business with one another.
The most successful publishers will be those that build their business based on communities of common interest. The publishers that help form such communities and build their service and product offerings around the needs of those communities will win customer loyalty, which is the key to success. Users will see such an Internet site as a place that they belong to, where they can expect to encounter their friends and where they're likely to find information and discussion that meets their needs and interests. Where people congregate, they will do business. But it will not be business as usual. The successful businesses will be the ones that adapt to the culture and make it work for them.
The winners will be those that
creatively embrace the power of the Internet, adapt to this
environment and culture, and provide good service to a loyal
Arguably, the blind could be more at home in cyberspace than the sighted.
As a sighted person, I can only try to imagine adapting to living in a world that is always dark or near dark. To maneuver successfully through a dark room you need to carry in your head an image of the space around you, which you edit as you encounter the unexpected. From experience, you expect the unexpected, are aware of what might be encountered, how to evaluate it on the fly, and how to adjust and continue.
To relate to this mode of perception, I try playing blindfold chess and am soon bewildered by the challenge. Try carrying an image (which may not even be a visual image) not only of the board and the current position but also of the expected continuations: the likely next moves and their evaluation and consequences, and also a healthy awareness of the unexpected: the potential for sacrifices and deep combinations, for positional as well as material threats and opportunities. Some of the best chess players actually go through this exercise to train their minds for this kind of multi-dimensional awareness, to get beyond knowledge that relies on vision.
The sighted person gains confidence and the leisure of complacency from what he or she sees. To see is to believe. To perceive that an object is in one state or position rather than another is to eliminate from consideration that it might be otherwise, to limit the possibilities. The sighted person -- above all the person who relies heavily on visual perception and visual modes of thought -- expects clarity, stability, and predictability, and hence may be less aware of ambiguity and latent potential, and less able to respond when what seems to be the case proves mistaken or uncertain. The blind person requires a multi-dimensional awareness and an openness to react quickly to the unexpected simply to maneuver safely through ordinary space. These are qualities that can prove quite valuable when maneuvering through cyberspace.
On a different but related plane -- I once at a chess tournament encountered a teenage boy who had no legs. His arms were very powerful, and rather than use a wheelchair, he operated in his own unique and, to me, disconcerting mode. I first saw him at a cafeteria table playing chess with a friend. His elbows were on the table. He was completely absorbed in the game. He looked seated like everyone beside him and across from him. But he had no chair. There was nothing under him. His torso was suspended from his elbows. He moved with the grace and speed of someone totally adapted to his environment.
I couldn't help but think that someone such as him would have enormous advantages in the weightless environment of outer space, where legs would be useless and the ability to maneuver by hands alone with acrobatic ease could be of great value. Plus, in the cramped quarters of a space ship or space station, legs, with their bulk and weight, would simply get in the way. Yes, I could easily imagine a special cadre of legless astronauts, able to perform in ways that no one else ever could.
Likewise today I could easily imagine a special cadre of sightless cybernauts.
Yes, in cyberspace (and the related concepts of virtual reality and alternate reality), the blind should be considered as a special resource. Companies that want to be on the leading edge in that field should go out of their way to recruit the blind -- not to conform to laws about hiring the handicapped and not because it is politically correct, but rather because their minds are not totally dominated by visual paradigms. They could imagine, and with computer technology could simulate, what to the sighted is unimaginable. And in the vast, ever-expanding, and always unexpected realm of the Internet, they could conceivably learn to be first-class navigators, superbly able to recognize new business opportunities -- far beyond the traditional nine dots -- and able to adjust to new circumstances on the fly.
For starters, companies designing next-generation virtual reality environments should recruit the blind. Visual simulation is relatively easy today, and everybody is doing it. The non-visual is where the breakthroughs will come.
And given this potential, those same
high tech companies should give serious consideration to the
needs of the blind early in their design cycles rather than as
an afterthought. Because otherwise, by putting the blind at a
disadvantage, by limiting the best access routes to cyberspace
to the sighted, they cut themselves off from the resource that
could take them a step beyond the competition and help them
move far into the future.
Yes, people come to talk to other people, to socialize -- this is the electronic water hole, the corner pub. But at the same time, the Internet chat environment allows them to reveal as little or as much about themselves as they choose. They can "be themselves" -- with or without their actual name. Or they can build a separate and completely fictitious persona for themselves, which they elaborate over time. Or they can select new and different "handles" when they come back again -- either to start afresh or to have the fun of trying on different identities, like trying on new clothes or new hair colors or new cosmetics.
It's human nature to use anonymity, role play, and make-believe to create a liberating and fun party atmosphere. This can be your masquerade party, your electronic Mardi Gras. Reasonable assurance that you can, if you choose, remain anonymous is intoxicating, removing social inhibitions. It's also a way of revealing yourself to yourself -- what are you willing to say and do when no one you know will ever know about it? And like a social drinking environment, once you enter the party, there's social pressure to join in the fun -- to let go and depart from your normal behavior and normal expectations of yourself -- to the same degree as others there.
People pose and play roles and put on pretenses often in ordinary life, both deliberately and from habit. And one of the most difficult challenges we face is sorting the real from the deceptive, putting our confidence where it belongs, and trying to behave appropriately ourselves -- balancing our social roles with our need for inner integrity and authenticity. At a party where everyone is anonymous or playing outlandish roles, you know that you don't know -- you know that others are putting on acts, just as you are, and you have the fun of guessing and sensing the tension between the real and the make believe.
In ordinary life, we play the same roles day after day, over and over again; and we can easily lose our sense of ourselves as having an identity and integrity separate from those roles. In the theater and fiction, comic works often play on lack of self-awareness, mocking people who act mechanically and predictably, having lost themselves in their roles. Such works humorously prod the audience to wake up from their usual sleepwalking state and get back in touch with themselves. Other works explore the dramatic tension and tragic potential, when sensitive people become aware of the growing gulf between who they think they are or want to be and the ways they feel compelled to act.
Much of childhood play involves pretending to be whoever you want to be, trying on all kinds of fantastic roles with impunity -- enjoying the illusion of dangerous adventures without the actual danger -- and figuring out who you really are and want to be and what you really can do by testing again and again the distinction between make-believe and reality. And as adults, role-play make-believe games can still sometimes help us discover aspects of ourselves and of others. Ironically, when we temporarily cast aside our day-to-day roles, and try on other artificial ones, we force ourselves to be spontaneous -- no longer able to fall back on habit -- and hence by deliberately trying not to be ourselves, we may find ourselves and also may reveal more about ourselves to others than we ever intended. Perhaps we reveal ourselves the most when most we seek to disguise. Similarly, we discover new aspects of ourselves by identifying with the characters in the fiction we read or experience as well as through the act of writing and other artistic expression.
The Internet provides ample and unique opportunities for us to exercise this side of our personality and our social playfulness.
Keep in mind that anonymity in varying self-selected degrees is not just limited to chat. For email and other Internet activities, you are known by your user name, which is not necessarily the same as or even in any way connected with one's real name. Some services, like CompuServe and Prodigy arbitrarily assign numbers as user names. Others give the user a choice -- limited only by the need to avoid duplicate addresses.
Some Internet communities are deliberately providing expanded opportunities for self-selected degrees of anonymity and role play. These include the use of "avatars" -- on-line graphic images that match the name you choose and are changeable just as your name is. These avatars can be used in conjunction with chat sessions or as part of elaborate multi-player game environments. Such environments can be fantasy realms a la Dungeons and Dragons. Or they can resemble theater experiences where the audience becomes part of the show (like bizarre weddings where the audience are the guests, and murder-mystery dinners where the audience tries to figure out whodunit). They also can resemble the real-life events staged by such role-play organizations as the Society of Creative Anachronism, where members don elaborate period costumes, act out elaborate roles as if they lived in the Middle Ages, and socialize, flirt, and fight (in staged tournaments and battles) while keeping to the characters they have chosen. The science fiction classic Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson shows this trend developed to the extreme of a massive Internet-based alternate world -- the Metaverse -- where social interaction, business, and crime are carried on in parallel with the "real" world."Gombrowicz had an idea as comical as it is ingenious: The weight of our self, he said, depends on the size of the population on the planet. Thus Democritus represented a four-hundred millionth of humanity; Brahms a billionth; Gombrowicz himself a two-billionth. By that calculation, the weight of the Proustian infinity -- the weight of a self, of a self's interior life -- becomes lighter and lighter. And in that race toward lightness, we have crossed a fateful boundary." -- Milan Kundera, The Art of the Novel
The immensity of the world is measured not just in sheer numbers people but also in how they are connected to and separated from one another. Today there are about ten times as many people in the world as there were in the days of Shakespeare. But the set of people he could actually interact with was far smaller than the population of the world. Even at the height of his popularity, at best a few thousand people in London constituted Shakespeare's community/world. Since that time, advances in communications and transportation have made the world much smaller in the sense that you and your words and images can go from one place to another far faster than before. But in another sense, those advances have made the world much larger. Mass broadcast media have virtually eliminated the physical and geographic boundaries which previously isolated communities. We all feel like we belong to the single vast community presented to us daily in the mass media - a world so large that the ordinary individual is no more than a dust speck, like the earth lost in a sea of stars, which are lost in a sea of galaxies.
To maintain a sense of our identity and individuality and self-worth we need to find or create worlds within the world -- communities that are a manageable size to which we feel we really belong. And these communities, whether on the Internet or in the physical world, can be self-selecting: to a much greater extent than previously in human history, we can choose where and how to belong, rather than having that imposed upon us as our birthright and birthburden.
Broadcast media create a mass, undifferentiated, and passive audience. They are supported by advertising which thrives in a huge homogeneous environment, where a single message can predictably elicit a common response from millions of people. The popular television quiz show Family Feud plays on this phenomenon, with contestants on screen and viewers at home testing themselves to see if their personal patterns of word association match those of the "survey." The right answer is not a fact that can be found in a reference book, but rather a response that matches the responses of a large sampling of the general public. You are rewarded not for intelligence or memory, but for thinking like everyone else.
Broadcast media create an environment in which only the people who appear on screen can be known and appreciated, and the mass viewing audience is anonymous, with no connections among one another other than their common experience of the media. And today many people have no other community than this mass community. As a side effect, celebrities are worshipped like gods and demigods. Many people feel compelled to try to establish a connection with one or more celebrities, and pay ridiculously high prices to get near. Some act as if they need contact with celebrities as confirmation or their own reality, identity and worth. We also see increasing instances where individuals commit bizarre, dangerous, and violent acts to attract the attention of the media and hence achieve some level of notorious celebrity themselves. And many others behave erratically, like ships without rudders, for if what you do doesn't really matter, you are free to do whatever you want.
While the Internet is large, connecting tens of millions of people, its effect is quite different from broadcast media. Here there are opportunities to find and interact with others who share your interests, concerns, and view of life; and you can also choose the size of the cyberpond you feel most comfortable swimming around in. Your community/world can consist of dozens, hundreds, thousands, or even millions of people from all over the globe.
Yes, here too we see many examples of celebrity worship. (And there are enormous business opportunities on the Internet that involve charging people for the opportunities to interact with celebrities). But the medium has a transforming effect, putting fans in touch with other fans, and presenting opportunities for them to form among themselves creative and self affirming communities.
So anonymity by choice on the Internet is far different from the imposed anonymity of broadcast media and mass society. It can be playful and life affirming, one way of feeling closer to others and to yourself.
Some communities require anonymity for them to be effective, because without it members would not participate. This the case with Alcoholics Anonymous, AIDS support groups, drug addiction support and other mutual help organizations, particularly when there is some risk of social ostracism or even legal consequences should the identity of the members be revealed.
Business also needs a mix of anonymity and verifiable identity to function smoothly. The success of marketing surveys, customer satisfaction surveys, focus groups, and employee and customer suggestion programs often depends on being able to guarantee anonymity, because with anonymity comes candor, freely expressing what you think without concerning yourself about what people will think of you or what the consequences of your honest words might be. There are cases where customers will only conduct business if their identity is concealed (for instance, because they don't want their competitors to know what they are doing), and also cases, like drug testing, where anonymity is required by law to protect the privacy of individuals. It might be far less expensive to achieve the desired degree of anonymity on the Internet than by traditional methods (like the difference between trying to create a vacuum on the earth's surface and taking advantage of the natural vacuum of outer space).
Many writers and politicians have expressed concern that personal privacy is at risk in a world in which computers record every transaction. They say that Big Brother is coming in a new incarnation, not in the form of totalitarian governments, but rather in the form of big business, armed with detailed information about all aspects of everyone's life. Ironically, in the case of the Internet, it seems that computer technology can provide us with new levels of self-chosen anonymity, greater privacy than ever possible before
Aside from fun and games, online anonymity can have far reaching practical consequences. In countries where citizens do not have the right to free speech and free press, the Internet provides an alternative mode of self expression, a natural channel for dissidents to interact with one another and with the outside world, including the media. People who wish to report wrong doing, but would feel at risk if they had to reveal their identity have similar needs. Such underground activity can be facilitated through "anonymous remailers," which allow ordinary users to perform feats of self disguise that otherwise would be limited to expert hackers. Anonymous remailers are Internet sites which provide the service disguising the origin of a message, resending it to its destination, and also forwarding the replies.
The ability to disguise who you are, or to only tell people as much about yourself as you wish, also helps avoid prejudice due to age or race or culture, so ideas can contend on their merits. The science fiction novel Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card shows an extreme instance of this phenomenon. Two bright 10-year-olds establish adult personas on the Internet and influence world politics through the cogency of their writings.
The anonymity of the Internet may also
hold considerable attraction for celebrities. In our society,
part of the price of fame and fortune is the loss of privacy.
Many go to great lengths and pay large sums to recover some of
that privacy. Often that means seclusion in walled off estates
and subterfuge to conceal their whereabouts. For them the
unique anonymity of the Internet means they can avoid the
hassles and intrusions of fans, and yet still socialize with
the general public or whatever electronic communities they
choose. This is the online extension of the old tradition of
kings and celebrities disguising themselves to mingle with the
public -- to find out what they are really thinking (and at
the same time to have fun "slumming").
The answer dawned on me a month ago when my five-year-old son Timmy brought home a particularly good picture he had made at Tot Spot. My wife was ecstatic -- so proud of him that she immediately hung it on the kitchen wall, and he was delighted to receive such recognition.
What was happening? She posted it where it can be seen by and shared with others. And by so doing she expressed pride and joy in what he had done and affirmed his worth and importance and the value of what he had done. That same model can work on the Internet.
Shortly after that, my 14-year-old son Michael wrote a particularly good science fiction story for a school assignment. He's a bit jaded now when it comes to posting things on the kitchen wall, so I posted it on the Web instead. Over the last month, an average of 2-3 people a day have taken a look at it, and now he's busy working on sequels and coming up with ideas for how to get feedback from readers.
Yes, the Internet can be used for publishing -- simply putting text in electronic form and making it easy for people to retrieve it. But remember that regardless of whether anyone pays for the information, publishing is a two-way proposition. The reader obtains the information, and the creator gets the satisfaction and recognition of having his or her creation posted where others can see it and read it.
Consider the example of Hillside Elementary in Minnesota. A year ago that was one of the first elementary schools on the Web. One of their first projects was setting a sixth grade class loose to use the Internet for research and then publishing their papers on the Web. At the time, I was particularly impressed that instead of footnotes the students included hypertext links to their on-line sources. That looked like an excellent example of how research papers could and should be written in the future. Now, however, I realize the importance of the fact that the papers were made available over the Web and that all the students had their own individual home pages, complete with pictures of themselves or pictures that they had drawn and whatever they wanted to say about themselves. They were given recognition on a global scale. Anyone anywhere in the world with access to the Web could see them and their creations. The success of their site would not be measured in "hits" per day, but rather the motivating power of knowing that what you do can be seen by people you've never met, by people on the other side of the world. In this context, sheer numbers mean nothing, and the potential to be seen and read is everything.
We should keep in mind that people are motivated at least as much by the need for recognition and self-esteem as by economics. There are good reasons for hanging photos and plaques to commemorate winning teams and academic achievers, just as businesses post the names and/or photos of the employee of the week, as well as for rewarding people with important-sounding titles and printing them on business cards. And there are valid reasons for having individual home pages that are not directly related to costs and revenue -- that provide recognition and motivation, and can help build relationships and loyalty.
Photos of individuals, which in a direct marketing/business sense are relatively useless (what information do they convey to the reader?), can be very important to the self-esteem of the person shown -- regardless of how many people may choose to look at them. Consider the Special Olympics site which under "Yale Special Olympics Contacts" provides pictures and profiles of a variety of volunteers, including the janitor who serves as "chair of Yale's Sanitation and Recycling Committee for the 1995 Special Olympics World Summer Games". Those pictures are buried deep in the hierarchy of directories. They are not intended to attract readers to the site, but rather to publicly express appreciation.
You can use text, photos, audio and even video on the Web to recognize and motivate individuals. And you can also set up a systematic program that uses this kind of recognition to help build a sense of community, and to recognize and reward sub-communities -- like teams and extra-curricular groups. These forms of on-line recognition become particularly important as Web sites vie with tens of thousands of others for the attention and loyalty of users.
Consider the possibility of a school using Web space to recognize:
When everybody does it, does it have less value? Like the photos of teams and plaques of achievers hanging in the corridors of schools, even if only the students and a handful of visitors will see them, still they are a source of pride and motivation, and the number of other schools with similar photos in no way diminishes their value. And the community of people who feel they belong to that Web site will look and return and show what they find to others, regardless of how many other new communities are created.
Also, remember that these "recognition" pages can also have tangible benefits. Faculty and students are the greatest assets that a school has, and pages that provide photos and bios of them and pointers to their articles, etc. can serve as marketing tools for the school. This approach becomes particularly important as colleges use the Internet to compete for the attention of the best applicants, and as high schools use the Internet to enhance their image and improve the chances of their students being accepted at the best colleges. It becomes even more important as these schools realize that there are educational benefits as well as profits that could come from Internet-based distance learning. As they extend the reach of their school beyond the traditional campus -- offering courses on-line over the Internet, or programs in which some or even most of the interaction with teachers and other students happens on-line, they will have to pay ever more attention to their on-line image and marketing.
And, of course, the faculty members and students can use their Web space to market themselves as individuals, as they seek jobs or grants or acceptance at their next school.
Many colleges, like Yale already have lots of Web space devoted to faculty personal pages. And graduate schools like Harvard Business School are just beginning to allow and encourage doctoral students to post their biographies/resumes on the Web. Today that seems like a novelty and a competitive advantage for the privileged. But soon personal Web pages for all faculty and all students are likely to be common practice -- not just in colleges, but also in many K-12 schools.
It's easy to imagine a time when standard application forms (for high school, college, and employment) ask for your email address and the address of your personal home page.
So when a school uses Web pages for recognition and motivation, it is also preparing its students and faculty to compete in this new arena which is likely to be very important for their careers.
Today, on-line employment agencies like Monster Board and Career Mosaic make resumes as well as job openings available to wide audiences. And at the same time, many people with personal Web pages are posting their resumes for public viewing -- regardless of whether they are currently looking for a new position.
Often your personal home page consists of some basic identifying information, pointers to the places you most frequently visit on the Web, and a pointer to a "hyperbio." The hyperbio tends to be informal and fun, as well as informative. It reflects your personality, while highlighting your interests and accomplishments -- with links to articles you have written, and fun stuff about your family and friends, sometimes lots of pictures, and sometimes links to companies and schools you are associated with. And many people include links to their complete formal resume from their home page and/or from their hyperbio.
This is a relatively new phenomenon, which runs counter to ordinary social behavior. At least in the U.S., unless you are a politician, it would be considered bad taste for you to stand up at a party and tell everyone how great you are and hand out copies of your resume. But the Internet is a "pull" rather than a "push" environment. You freely post whatever you wish in your Web space and people can choose to come and take a look if they want and whenever they want. But no one ever feels that you have foisted information on them by posting it in your own space.
The hyperbio and on-line resume and the general concept of marketing yourself on the Internet come naturally to students who use the Web constantly as part of their school work. They see their professors and contemporaries doing this. And they also see that companies they might want to work for have Web pages of their own. It's a lot easier to point a potential employer to your on-line resume than to mail one. And it's even better if the employer finds your resume first and seeks you out.
Internet pioneers -- now turned entrepreneurs -- are using this technique quite effectively. People like John December, John Quarterman, Daniel Dern, Michael Strangelove, Dave Taylor,John Sumser, Kevin Savetz, Scott Yanoff, Larry Chase, Mary Cronin, Russ Jones, and Chris Locke have established audiences and credibility through a variety of free information services that they have provided about the Internet over the Internet. Now they use Web pages to advertise their credentials and promote new business for themselves as Internet consultants, authors, and speakers. And computer industry greats like Gordon Bell and Mitch Kapor do likewise. In this case, you yourself are the product you are selling. Your name becomes a brand. Your face becomes an icon.
This approach fits very well with the trend toward "virtual companies." More and more people are working as independent contractors for a variety of employers. And more and more small companies are teaming together and working like a single company for the duration of a project. The Web makes it easier for the independents to advertise their skills and for companies to quickly identify the individuals and other companies they need to team with to win and deliver business. This trend also opens opportunities for new kinds of agencies that use the Web to help speed the searching and matching, who help certify the qualifications of remote workers, and who provide a variety of support services to help virtual companies operate smoothly and at low cost.
At the same time, speaking agencies, like Expertspace, are taking to the Web. The Internet is one of the hottest topics on the lecture circuit today and agencies are using the Internet to identify speaking opportunities, locate appropriate speakers and make the matches. In fact, ironically, in this high tech environment, direct personal contact is highly valued -- like in the pre-mass media times of William Jennings Bryan and Ralph Waldo Emerson. People are willing to pay $1300 each for two-day introductory Internet seminars. And individual Internet speakers can receive $4000 and more for a one-hour presentation. In this environment, Internet entrepreneurs can do well providing free information and services on-line to build audience and reputation and then make their money in the lecture and seminar market.
In fact, one could make the case that active participants in cyberspace have a heightened need for direct personal contact with other cybernauts. Face-to-face trade shows and seminars devoted to the Internet are growing at an unprecedented pace, despite the fact that print publications and Web sites that mimic trade shows can provide much of the same factual information. At first, heightened demand for the direct see-and-feel environments of demos and trade shows seemed due to the technology itself, which is highly graphic. It's hard to explain the Web to someone who has never experienced it. But today at trade shows like Internet World the vast majority of the attendees are very familiar with the Web and could easily understand new product offerings from traditional advertising and product literature and on-line demos; and still they come in ever increasing swarms. This phenomenon seems to result from two related factors. First, the Internet business environment today mostly consists of large numbers of small companies and independent consultants -- the same sort of people and companies that use the Web to find one another and partner as "virtual companies." Lots of human networking takes place at these events that later leads to fruition using on-line networking tools. Second, the basic human need for community has a personal as well as an electronic side. While on-line communities can bring together people of common interests from all over the world, still there remains the need for direct personal contact; and the on-line experience seems all the richer when at one time or another you have met some of the participants face-to-face.
Recognizing this need, some entrepreneurs are creating communities that have both on-line and face-to-face components, such as afterwork gatherings of "Browsers" in the Wall St. area of New York. And at the same time, on-line communities like The Well in San Francisco are providing Web space for their users to create personal Web pages, as a way of introducing themselves to one another for possible on-line and/or face-to-face contact.
So at one end of the spectrum, self-marketing with personal Web pages is an important ele ment of recruiting and partnering in cyber-business. And at the other end, it's a social statement, far more personal and creative than "personal" ads (which also thrive on the Web), and tending toward the formation of larger communities or circles of friends than one-to-one match making.
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