A Tangled Web

By Douglas Rushkoff. Published in The New York Times Syndicate/Guardian of London on 1 December 1996

I’ve been feeling nostalgic lately. I miss the pre-World Wide Web Internet: the bulletin board conferences, chat rooms, text-only Usenet groups; the 1,200-baud-is-fast-enough situation that formed the fledgling virtual community. Today, as I visit the Web and click through its colorful pages, I find myself filled with a sense of loss. I go back to my old stomping grounds–the ancient newsgroups and IRC chats of the early days–and find them largely abandoned. Yet these are the places carrying what may be left of the Internet’s soul.

The promise of the Internet was manifold: self-expression, virtual community, and world peace…remember? The joy of going online was–and still can be–conversation. Whether in real-time chat rooms or posted discussion boards, contact was the hunger driving the expansion of the Net: communication with other people, exchange of ideas, and formation of new communities created in cyberspace.

I miss the pre-World Wide Web Internet.

Anything anybody said could be contradicted by the next poster. 15-year-old kids exposed the fallacies in newspaper articles, and better-informed people than me punched holes through the more dubious assertions in my books. The Internet was a way of talking and, more importantly, talking back.

That’s why it was so revolutionary. Real communication occurs only among equals. Anything else is broadcasting.

But go to the communications department of any major university, and you’ll soon learn that the study of communications has little to do with helping people get in touch with one another. It is the study of mass media: the manipulation of populations through one-way broadcasting.

The joy of going online used to be conversation.

The Internet threatened all that–and that’s why it was so much fun. We finally gained the ability to speak, and, like developing children, began to question some of the information being fed to us. Sometimes we were wrong or plain silly, debating outrageous conspiracy theories or shamelessly flirting over hot CRTs. But we were learning to think and speak for ourselves. It was delightful.

As millions of people flocked to servers around the world to join in the growing conversation, big business began to ask the big question: how do we make money off all this? Thousands of companies searched for an Internet forum that would conform to their commercial need: propaganda.

The Web was perfect for them. It was the first style of Internet communication that could be adapted to top-down communication. The users click through prepackaged pages of graphics and text. They might be able to send an email to the Web “master” or fill out a form, but they can’t talk back as equals.

The Internet was a way of talking–and talking back.

Individuals and small collectives can certainly produce their own Web pages. In this sense, the Web provides a forum for self-publishing that TV and print, with their more expensive distribution channels, don’t. But publishing–even self-publishing–is not the same as community.

No, the Web, for all its graphical and navigational advantages over ftp and Gopher searches, has sidetracked us from some of the more culturally profound experiences available online. While it doesn’t take any real space away from those who would choose conversation, its flashy graphics and new technology effectively drain our passion for participatory forums by seducing us back into passive absorption.

Sure, there’s a value to expertly packaged media. The editors at sites such as Slate and Word (and even CNET) think a long time about what they post. I tried to think a bit before pounding out this screed. The more considered a posting, the more likely it is to be of value. But the spontaneity of an organic interchange between people of all kinds is lost on the Web.

Web publishing is not the same as Net community.

As a result, what could be thought of as the online world’s civic space has been left to die. Real conversations have not been physically pushed offline, but they have been pushed out of the spotlight. Mainstream media prefers to celebrate the latest Web gizmo over the most cogent Usenet posting. And most of the people going online for the first time today are enchanted by the friendly, Technicolor Web. They never get the chance to consider the ways that less dazzling software might let them participate directly in an unfolding culture.

Just as our public parks and social halls have been replaced by strip malls and superstores, our most promising online civic spaces are being threatened by commercial and, ultimately, noncommunicative applications. In the case of the Internet, however, it will not be corrupt urban planners and politicians who alienate us, but our own fascination with superficial sensation over substantive conversation.

As the World Wide Web slowly begins to incorporate architectures and technologies suitable for real conversation and community-building (see Worlds Chat and Tru Realities), it will once again be up to us to choose how we wish to explore and develop our society through electronic media. I, for one, hope we take advantage of the opportunity to rebuild our virtual communities.