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

Anyone who has been following the Internet Wars for the past decade or so knows that the indigenous population of community-builders has long been on the brink of absolute surrender to the invading force of better-armed and tactically superior venture capitalists.

Settling for corporate-sponsored chat areas and bulletin boards on commercial music distribution sites, the net’s true enthusiasts – people who would rather share ideas than simply click and buy – find themselves supporting their enemies by default, and adding to the “clickthrough” and “target demographic” statistics, as well as the profits, of their former foes. Except for the occasional act of terrorism – a computer virus – la resistance has all but disappeared.

The process by which this occurred is now well-documented, and will make terrific coffee table books for generations to come: the dominant interface through which people communicated online, a text-based terminal protocol called Telnet, was replaced by the read-only opacity of the World Wide Web. The Web interface developed innocently enough, as a hypertext language through which footnotes of one research study might link a scientist directly to the research of someone else. It was quickly co-opted, however, by marketers and traditional broadcasters who saw in the Web’s colorful one-way emphasis something a lot like television.

They turned out to be wrong – which is why the Web’s first commercial efforts stumbled so badly. The Web is not a channel for broadcasting, but rather a tool for direct marketing. Like a piece of living direct mail, a web site can reconfigure itself in real time to the individual who happens to be using it. Like the ultimate telemarketing phone call, a web site can remember everything its customer (or “prospect”) did the last time he or she was there, and adjust accordingly. Most of all, unlike television, the World Wide Web has a “buy” button.

By reducing the opportunity for interaction online down to the single decision of whether or not to make a purchase, the web’s commercial developers successfully channeled the widespread desire for a more responsive media towards a very particular end: selling more stuff. And now they hope to do the same to television.

“Convergence,” the Holy Grail of Internet developers, television executives, and the investors fueling their war chests, is the term being used to describe the next generation of interactive devices: television sets with high-speed Internet connections. Although no one has developed any real content for these devices, the idea is to create “interactive programming” through which viewers might choose to follow their own storylines, or, better yet, click on the objects used or clothes worn by actors during TV show in order to buy them.

By adding the functionality of the Internet to television, marketers hope to enhance their ability to create entertainment and environments that induce more spending. Turning a primitive medium such as the Internet into something just a little bit like TV was so very successful for them. Instead of TV-izing the Internet, how about just Internet-izing the


But in this seemingly simple logic may lie the downfall of the media marketers. Just as a TV-style interface tended to dampen the Internet’s communitarian potential, so, too, will a more Internet-like interface tend to dampen television’s programming potential. Corruption of purpose goes both ways. Less captivated by programs, and more encouraged to interact one way or another, TV viewers will be elevated from their current couch potato status to a level of activity at least equal to what they experience on today’s Internet.

Better yet, since we are used to getting news and information on our TV sets, we will be much less likely to settle for 24-hour shopping networks. Most of today’s internet users were introduced to it after it had been turned into an electronic strip mall. Even if we expect to be abused by the box on our desktop, we still assume entertainment from the big one in the living room.

People won’t even pay for the convergence “set-top” box and service until they can be convinced that it’s something better than they can already get on TV or the Internet. As a result, programmers will be forced to create experiences that are genuinely fun – if only to promote the technology’s acceptance.

This is where the online community gets its second and perhaps last chance. The only kinds of entertainment that will generate real enthusiasm will the kinds where people are encouraged to interact with one another. Rather than creating fixed narratives, developers will need to create interactive environments capable of sustaining a mass media audience. Imagine a world like the one depicted in the film The Matrix – except where the human beings are participating for fun in this artificial world.

When people are playing in worlds like this, they won’t tolerate commercial interruptions – or they’ll move to environments that don’t have them. Competition for “viewers” will dictate the format of this newly fluid medium. Everything else be damned.

That’s why the most likely scenario I see for the future of convergence media is the disappearance of commercials altogether, replaced by what could be called “sponsored media.” Just as early television consisted of programs sponsored entirely by one company who put its name over the title, companies will pay to have their names associated with an interactive environment that people enjoy inhabiting – and that the sponsors feel enhance the value of their brands. It’s a compromise I’m willing to make – and one to which marketers may just have to submit.

Commercial forces invaded our interactive mediaspace and turned it into a marketplace. Let’s see what we can do when we have the keys to their city.