The Web: Sewer or Source?

Posted 1/6/96

"The WWW is 90% useless crap"- various
So is every other medium. At least the Web is ours.

Having just read another magazine article wherein another supposed sage has declared that the World Wide Web is doomed to fail, because it is 10% content and 90% excrement, (had I not known better, I'd think I was reading about the Congressional Record), I thought I might put a different perspective on the issue. I read statements to this effect quite often lately, which might say something about my choice of trade journals, if the same opinion were not so pervasive in just about every form of mass media. I rarely read such an opinion on the Web itself, but it is a biased source by default. I could easily respond with the truism that 90% of all information in print, on TV & radio, and any other form of communication I can think of, is probably useless to a given individual. That is, each of us have interests and opinions which differ from large segments of the rest of us, segments of the rest of us, and so selects a quite different subset of information to ingest. This is not only natural, but it also allows the enormous quantity of magazines, books, TV & radio stations, etc. to continue to make money. I know there is practically no unused FM bandwidth in my area. The FM band extends from 88 to 108 MHz, and stations can only occupy the odd tenths (88.1, .3, .5, .7, .9) and are usually constrained to skip every other slot, so in my area there are probably 50 or so stations to choose from. Most people I know only listen to one station regularly, and maybe one other "backup" station when the first one plays commercials. That is 2/50 or 4%. Even if four stations excite us, it is less than 10% of all the content available. And anyone who subscribes to 10% of all magazines out there had better give the postman a nice holiday tip!

The difference between broadcasting (I'm including books, magazines, junk mail, and all forms of "one-to-many" information distribution channels in this one term for the sake of present argument) and the various internet protocols (WWW, IRC, newsgroups, etc.) is that these internet communication modes are the ultimate narrowcasting channels. Narrowcasting is generally thought of as a "one-to-few" situation, where the prevalence of cable TV bandwidth, for example, allows a content provider to target a relatively small audience w small audience within a narrow demographic. "Turner Classic Movies" is a decent example. MTV is another. Internet protocols go a step further, they are "many-to-many." This means that each person on the net can put his or her opinions, gripes, baby pictures, recipes, or artwork up for anyone or everyone to see. These little essays of mine would probably not see the light of day if it were not for the WWW. Of course, some would say that would be preferable. That is cool with me. I write for myself, and if anyone else reads and gets something out of my drivel, then great! If not, well, I'm no poorer for it. The same goes for everyone else who puts up a web page, or writes in to a newsgroup. They all do it in the hope that someone else will see and react to it. But if no one does, big deal. The thing to keep in mind as you cruise the net in all its diversity, that each part of the 90% that you feel is a waste of bandwidth means something to someone.

There is another issue to consider as well. The internet is very threatening to those who are part of traditional media. The only reason I continue to receive the local paper (more or less affectionately referred to as the "Daily Pravda" due to its overwhelming liberal bias) is to keep up with local news. I get my news more and more from the internet. The reasons are many. I get the Clarinet news feed through my provider, getting the Aer, getting the AP and Reuters headlines hours or days before the paper chooses to print them. News on particular issues like Gun Control, (both managing to hit your target and the much more sinister type purveyed by the current administration and the DP), and the censorship of, and cryptography on, the net are best covered by newgroups and the various WWW sites which narrowcast the latest information on these types of topics. True, each report is usually biased, but at least both sides of every argument are available. Taking my own initiative to ferret out conflicting viewpoints is much more satisfying than simply being spoon fed by some editor. And there is no substitute for information on technical and scientific topics. The internet is king in this realm. As more people get online, traditional media will find themselves becoming redundant. Couple the expansion with truly effective automated agents which can be programmed individually to retrieve data selectively by topic, source, and even mood at the time, and what reason do we have to spend $0.25 every day to read what we read on the net the night before? (Before the usual objection is voiced, let me try to squelch it. Increasingly sophisticated PDAs will solve the problem of how to read the morning news while sitting on the crapper.)

The reason that so many Chicken Littles are out there preaching "the Web is falling" is that they are desperately up t desperately up that big river in Egypt without a GIF of a paddle. Yep, in DeNial. If they can convince the overwhelming majority of the public who have never tickled a keyboard that there is nothing out here in cyberspace to see, they keep their flock of dedicated throne-sitters happily attempting another futile inked-in crossword puzzle. The reporters and writers who buy their beans with money garnered from subscriptions don't want everyone to find the net and abandon them. They lose not only money, but power, which is much more difficult to salvage with a word processor once lost. That power doesn't go away, though. It gets handed to each and every citizen in the form of a global forum on which to present his or her thoughts. And that is what drives the other naysayers, the Government.

Politicians hate mass communication. They must. They forever try to squelch it in the name of whatever vague tenent they can muster. Most of them are pitifully net ignorant. And yet, they are making policy, for good or bad (mostly bad) which affects people who use the internet differently than it affects all other media users. They get away with it, too. The reason they do is that there is still a minority of the voting public who are connected, hence they can step on us to show the majority that they are doing something. As a motorcyclist, and a shooting enthusiast (organ donor and gun nut to the unwashed, brainwashed masses), I washed masses), I have seen this effect many times. As long as legislation can be made which makes Mrs. Migillicutty and Mr. Smith happy, and only stomps on minority factions with unpopular causes/hobbies, and the "news" media can put the right spin on it to convince the public how good it is, then this will continue to happen. If Government can slow "this internet thing" down sufficiently for them to catch up and control/tax/regulate it, and censor the content while they are at it, they won't lose as much of their power to the people who rightfully own that power. Thats us, people. The Constitution gives that power to us. We loaned it to the Government, they have abused it, and the internet (or whatever succeeds it) is the best tool we have to get it back.

Yeah, the overwhelming volume of available information in the world is garbage to most of us. The internet just puts us on a level platform where it is just as easy to get to the useless stuff as it is to find real personal treasure. If you are new to the net, try out Yahoo, WebCrawler, or other search engines to find what you want. Your 10% is out here waiting!

Copyright 1995, 1996, 1997, 1998 by John M. Meyer. All rights reserved. The Alien Mind is not associated with any earthly company or its products.

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