HOT!media: Tangled Web

[Suffering from information overload? HOT!media will feature informed opinions about what to read, see, hear, and browse. In our first issue, MoJo Wire fellow J. Mickey McQuilton points to the cream of the New Media criticism crop while offering up some of the best and worst of what’s on the Web.] Like the baby that was so coochie-coochie cute when it first arrived on the scene, the World Wide Web is now in the throes of its terrible twos.

Image: Tom Curry (Baseball player illustration)


Oakland Athletics ad spied on the side of a San Francisco bus:

WWW.OAKLANDATHLETICS.COM …or for those of you with a LIFE, The Coliseum; Oakland, CA 94621″

Idon’t know about you, but I’ve never been one to let a professional sports franchise (in my book, just a wee bit more kosher than, say, an oil company) decide whether or not I’m cool. Especially when that franchise is struggling to win more games than they lose. Maybe I’m getting a little defensive here, and maybe that ad touched a nerve. But then again, maybe the Oakland A’s front office needs to re-read their copy of How to Treat a Customer. In the meantime, I think I’ll take my geeky ol’ self down to Candlestick Park and shell out some of my hard-earned nerd bucks to see the S.F. Giants instead. It’s about respect.

That having been said, let me welcome you to the virgin voyage of HOT!media online. Unlike most new Internet tricks, this one’s not going to hype itself as the saviour of the universe. But after we’ve made our first batch of sophomoric mistakes, we are hoping that this will become something of a religious experience. The First Church of the New Media–services held more or less regularly in the basement of Hellraiser Central, One MoJo Wire Way in the City of Progress, State of Disarray. The author will change with the prevailing winds. The topics will draw from a loaded deck. Style and diction may go the way of the Great White Buffalo, but the MoJo will always be workin’.

With a cooler head, I realize that the Oakland A’s ad betrays more of its author’s outmoded outlook than any real sort of hostility toward the techie A’s fan. In fact, it harkens back to the days when the harshest criticism of the ‘net was that those attached to it lacked social skills, and that they needed to get their nerdy noses away from their monitors and out into the sun. Today there are much bigger issues confronting the World Wide Web, which brings me to the topic du jour.

The traditional media tend to take themselves pretty seriously. Outside of a few Talk Soup and Mystery Science Theater-ish exceptions, television programming is persistently un-self-conscious. But when the the Web browser is launched, the rules change. To poke fun at the medium is not only tolerated, it is oftimes placed in the highest regard. Ironic distance is the laugh track of the Internet…strip it away, and the audience is left in the uncomfortable state of not really knowing what they’re supposed to think. What’s more, they are likely to realize the sheer gravity of the situation; that the emperor, as it were, is in the buff.

The World Wide Web is being injected with so much logo-heavy, content-light commercial crap that it’s starting to look a little bit like that official Super Bowl program that you can buy for $29.95 (or whatever it costs). There’s some good stuff in there if you look around, but mostly you’re just paying to see a lot of ads. The Internet has gone mainstream; as if that’s not enough, the Internet has gone gaudy.

These changes are discussed in Resisting the Virtual Life, a collection of essays on “The Culture and Politics of Information.” Besides tackling a variety of ideas and arguments about the emerging systems of life in these wired times, the anthology is a worthy introduction to a number of fine new-tech authors.

Wall Street’s recent fear of heights may be a signal that even the selling out of the Internet is not enough to ensure its success. At the very least it indicates caution on the side of investors, which may very well slow the growth of the high-tech sector over the next few months. What’s more, the outlook for Internet publishers is not a generally rosy picture. That some companies have found ways to turn a tidy profit on the Internet may indicate a promising future, but the webzines still have a monkey on their backs. The major players in the online publishing industry are all either: a) owned by major corporations, b) powered by corporate “seed money”, or c) simply losing millions. For the chosen few, it’s more than one of these. Wired Ltd.’s astronomical losses in 1996 are not necessarily indicative of the industry-at-large, but they give an idea of what it’s like to forge a literary path in the new medium.

But if profit isn’t (or can’t be) the benchmark, then how are we to measure the success of the Internet? Should it be judged in terms of its contextual relevance to society-at-large, or its entertainment value for the relative few? Is it successful if corporations can use it to reduce costs, or is the medium more suited for use as an educational tool? Is it possible for the World Wide Web to be all things to all surfers?

The Benton Foundation looks at these questions with the goal of fostering a system of communication that reflects the public interest. Their Web site is a virtual clearinghouse of ideas and information, and Benton is a powerful advocate for universal access, telecommunications competition, and freedom of information. It’s a welcome distraction from the rest of the McWeb.

Corporatization aside, the Internet seems to be making strides in a few areas, such as gender balance. The Feminist Majority Foundation is paving a wide road for women on the World Wide Web. Similarly, The Utne Lens has made some waves on the Web by instituting a “balanced admissions” policy in their Cafe Utne chat room–no more than a 2-to-1 ratio of male/female or vice-versa. The object is to acheive balanced, healthy communication (a novel idea!) and so far it appears to be working…the Cafe is known as one of the better places to meet other socially advanced netheads (no HOT SEX WANTED posts here) and talk turkey.

In the print media, Wired Women is an excellent compendium of opinion from some of the foremost writers on the new media. Paulina Borsook, whose “Cyberselfish” article appeared in the July/August issue of Mother Jones, blows off some steam in a very articulate piece about the boys-club atmosphere at Wired magazine. Borsook’s prose is both imaginative and honest, and the rest of Wired Women is a comparably engrossing read.

Unfortunately, all of this enlightened output by women on the Web may not be indicative of their relative power online. The “net moguls” of today are still overwhelmingly male (and white, and probably straight).

The temptation–indeed, the trend–is to be cynical about the future of the Internet. Microsoftization, rampant self-interest, wild speculation, and a glaring dearth of worthwhile content have sent waves of nausea through the collective gut of the online world. Those of us who were taught (or led to believe) that the Internet would be the medium of the people are disillusioned with the status quo. In some sense, it serves us right.To expect the new medium to thrive without first paying its dues is foolish. If you’re an optimist, you nervously chalk it all up to growing pains. The Web’s still a baby, after all. On the other side of the coin: if these are the formative years, the online community had better make it our responsibility to bring this kid up right.