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TRENDS | DIGITAL NATION / GARY CHAPMAN

The Internet May Be the Latest Media Darling, but It's No 'Baywatch'

December 15, 1997|GARY CHAPMAN | Gary Chapman is director of the 21st Century Project at the University of Texas at Austin

We seem to be in the middle of yet another new wave of Internet hype.

Esther Dyson's new book, "Release 2.0," envisions a utopia made possible by online technologies. Nicholas Negroponte of the MIT Media Lab recently told an audience in Brussels that the Internet will bring about world peace by breaking down national borders. He also compared France and Germany to Third World countries, because of the Europeans' lack of enthusiasm for cyberspace.

It's time for a reality check. We should be able, by now, to dispense with a number of myths about the Internet's impact on society.

Myth 1: Everyone will be online.

Recent surveys of Internet usage suggest that the number of people using this technology in the United States is just more than 50 million, and rising. But as impressive as that is, it's still only a little more than 20% of the population, which, of course, means that nearly 80% of the U.S. population isn't using the Internet, even two or three years into the boom in its popularity. It's probably not a mere coincidence that only about 20% of the U.S. population has a college degree.

Moreover, the surveys of Internet use show that most people go online at work or at school, which means they're using the Net for a specific purpose, one typically dictated by their employers or teachers. And, indeed, more than 10 million people are former Internet users, having logged off because of losing their access or their interest.

Further, the attention of Net users is divided among millions of things to view online. In contrast, nearly 25 million people in the U.S. watch every episode of the weekly TV show "Friends." And an astonishing 1.6 billion people, worldwide, tune into "Baywatch" every week. The entire global Internet-using population is about 4% of the "Baywatch" audience. The Internet has a long way to go to catch up to "Baywatch," in terms of its global reach.

Myth 2: There will be a huge increase in the varieties of opinion expressed in society because of the ease of online publishing.

While it is certainly true that there is an almost limitless variety of opinion to be found on the World Wide Web and in online forums, the dynamic range of opinion in mainstream America appears to be narrowing, not expanding.

In fact, in terms of cultural vitality, the '90s seem to be even more moribund than the '50s. The general, mainstream press--both electronic and print--is boxed into a surprisingly small space of "conventional wisdom," largely defined by the microscopic differences between our two political parties, the parochial world views of many middle-class readers and the goals of advertisers.

There are sites on the Web that present alternative views of labor, race, citizen participation and even technology, but they have an extremely difficult task in breaking through consumer culture to make an impact on the nation's consciousness (or conscience).

In fact, the reason we hear so much hype about the Internet is that the dominant mainstream views fit neatly with the aims of advertisers and media moguls, the people who run the conversation in the United States. Alternative opinions are less welcome, even shunned, so they get lost in the "white noise" of "too much information."

Myth 3: There will be lots of cool jobs for the creative people who will work in cyberspace.

The hope that the World Wide Web would foster a new renaissance in writing and art appears to have quickly died.

Writers and journalists who flocked to the "new media" have become disillusioned, and for good reason. Those who are writing good, solid, quality journalism find that their pieces aren't widely read--not nearly as much as lesser articles in print media. The meager and idiosyncratic responses one gets from writing an online article makes cyberspace feel like a rather lonely void.

The editors of the electronic magazine Feed--for which I serve as contributing editor--have discussed starting a print publication simply because the online content doesn't generate as much national buzz as less-worthy print articles.

In fact, readers of both print and electronic publications don't really seem interested in the writing, per se. Michael Kinsley, of Microsoft's online magazine Slate, has ruefully revealed his disappointment over the fact that the most popular feature on the Slate site is the summaries of print publications, not the original articles Slate commissions.

On other sites, many creative writers have been reduced to cranking out short squibs, or USA Today-like paragraphs, that wind up in searchable databases instead of true publications.

Finally, of course, there is the all-important issue of money: No one is raking in dough from the new media. Most information-rich sites are losing money like crazy, or, at best, barely breaking even. If you want to get wealthy from your creative talents, write a screenplay, a mystery novel or a computer game designed for adolescent boys.

Myth 4: Government will fade in significance, perhaps into irrelevance.

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