Flamethrower #4
The Honeymoon is Over

For a while, the 'net captured and captivated the imaginations of everyone. Hollywood moguls with fat wallets called college students with underdeveloped academic schedules and validated inexcusable amounts of free time with cash to scheme up lame movie plots. Unemployed and overeducated 20-somethings rose to a minor sort of celebrity with sites that were incisive, inflammatory, rude or idiotic. Nobody really seemed to mind their overinflated senses of self- importance, since the Web was going to be big. The image of the 'net had a face and it looked like Sandra Bullock. Life was good.

Now, however, the backlash begins. At some point over the last few months, somebody realized that the 'net had more than its share of useless junk and maybe the Web was getting a little more press than it deserved. I agree. Not only that, I'll even venture to admit that the Web has more bad than good; the number of unique and revolutionary sites pale in comparison to the rampant commercialism, useless vapid tributes to ego, angry rants and staggering mediocrity that pollute the rest of the bandwidth. Cool things abound, but the truth is, lameness dominates. And in most of the country, you can't even order a pizza yet.

This reality, however, hid under a press-fed luster. The Internet wore its title as king of newness nicely. Magazines fed the public a smorgasbord of hype, and we stuffed ourselves. It shouldn't surprise us that we now feel sick. Magazines such as Entertainment Weekly, which once barreled full speed ahead on the cyberspace bandwagon, now mine the weaker aspects of the 'net for humor and even knocked the cyber phenomenon in its year-end review. Journalists such as Bob Metcalfe and Stephen Talbott decry the hype in lengthy editorials, and researchers such as the International Data Corp. leave a vast Web wasteland peppered with abandoned sites and account cancellations. The reasoning behind the 'net's expiration? People will go back to their TVs.

To some extent, this will probably happen. The Web exploded so quickly that a backlash was inevitable; no system, whether it's the Dewey Decimal or the digestive, can sustain an unlimited influx, and TCP/IP proved no exception. Technical difficulties abounded. As for quality, nobody would have expected TV to have 500 quality channels right away -- it can't even manage a good 50 now -- so expecting the Internet not to have crap is ludicrous. And yes, people overestimated the initial business potential of the 'net. Companies dumping hundreds of thousands of dollars into their Web sites are, for the time being, wasting their money. The return isn't there.

Some people, and some companies, will undoubtedly flee. But there's a deeper appeal to the Internet than departing ad dollars could ever eradicate: It's an open medium. Gaps that open will be filled, and it would actually be kind of ideal if vacated corporate sites were replaced by individuals. It's becoming easier and easier to put up your own Web page, and even if Exxon or Corningware or Toyota never rake in the dough from the Web, it's never been entirely about money anyway. It's about communication and information, and both are pretty hard to kill. People who predict the demise of the 'net are responding to the same kind of mindless bandwagonism that made the Web bigger than life in the first place. The 'net got overhyped; now the pendulum will swing the other way.

This might not even be a bad thing. I'm not sure I mind people going back to their TVs, as long as all the people who watch Melrose Place will no longer patronize The Spot, and as long as Baywatch renders Babes on the Web irrelevant. You could get rid of a lot of mediocrity if you removed the TV cross-section from the Web's demographics. Unfortunately, this isn't going to happen either. The reality of the future is this: Companies that spent too much dough (and there are a lot of them) will cut back, but the Internet will continue to grow -- just not as fast. People who predict the 'net's death don't seem to realize that the Internet and television won't be growing apart -- they'll actually come closer to merging. The Information Super-highway, as irritating a term as I think that is, will become a reality. All we're experiencing now is a little fright at the altar -- committing to a new technology, after all, is a pretty big step. Not everyone is ready for it, but the rest of us are. If you want to go back to the TV, fine. We're not going to wait around.

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