Web Informant #122, 18 August 1998:
The summer the web grew up


Quote of the week: Keep it true. Don't lie.
-- advice from Sean O'Brien, a 17-year old student who was suspended from school for putting up his own web site critical of one of his teachers, quoted in last Thursday's New York Times.

It has been a long, hot summer for the web. Consider the following events:

The web has created an industry that can uncover anything and everything for public display. Forget JenniCam: I am talking about the live web broadcasts of a birth and (tomorrow) open-heart surgery. Soon, no organ or bodily function will be left uncovered or undiscovered. I am not sure that this should be labeled as progress, but it is certainly an example of how pervasive the web has become in delivering these experiences to our desktops. This has been a year where we have seen everything from live TV pictures from the surface of Mars to the wreck of the Titanic from the bottom of the North Atlantic. We have come to expect the unexpected.

But the web is more than for voyeurs. It contributes to a rich fantasy world for the entire financial services industry. The finances of web-based companies don't seem to be bound by the rules of nature and logic. Certainly, rules that apply to traditional corporations that make their money out of bricks and mortar are now out the window. The most successful IPO ever came about this summer with a company that ironically repackages others' content, using a catchy domain name and little else. The astronomical market values of Internet-related companies continue to set new and unbelievable highs. Some, such as Amazon, probably will never turn a profit. Yet they are continually pointed out as shining examples of capitalism and eCommerce.

Speaking of fantasy creation, the web is here to stay in the world of advertising. All of the traditional advertising shops now have their web divisions, and it is rare now to see a traditional print or broadcast ad that doesn't contain a URL. Why Madison Avenue thinks publishing a URL is the way to reach web users is beyond me: do they expect people to stop reading or watching and turn to their computers to check out MORE advertising?

This isn't the only issue. Despite the ubiquity of URLs, advertising on the web isn't generally accepted yet. There are still plenty of concerns about privacy and what personal data gets transmitted by a browser. One thing hasn't changed, though: cookies are still the scourge of many uninformed and semi-informed pundits. Many web sites don't directly use cookies themselves, but indirectly use them when they run banner ads from sites that keep track of what ad gets sent to which browser using a cookie. Geocities ignited a firestorm from the Federal Trade Commission when it used its member's data without being more explicit. Now they are very careful to state what information gets used where.

Indeed, the web is the perfect example of the conflict between privacy and truth-telling, something very much in this week's news with respect to our president's difficulties. You and I still have a hard time getting to what is true and what isn't on the web, as our student quoted above learned the hard way. Matt Drudge has made a nice career for himself out of this very issue.

There is now an entire magazine devoted to Finding Out The Truth (Brill's Content, an excellent read by the way) and new companies that will try to certify web sites in various ways. Meanwhile, the privacy debate continues.

Web broadcasts, wild stock rides, uncertain advertising methods, and seeking the truth. There is no doubt in my mind that we have seen a transformation from a technical plaything to something very much an Industry. An amazing ride this summer, all in all.

Site-keeping and self-promotions dep't

My latest article for Computerworld is a one page feature on smart pagers. I review three of the devices, including ones from Motorola, BellSouth and one that fits inside a Palm Pilot.

Finally, I'll be on vacation until Labor Day. Sorry, I won't be publishing another WI until then, nor responding to email. Happy end of summer to all!

David Strom
+1 (516) 944-3407
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