David Gauntlett

  • Entitled 'Web Studies: A User's Guide', this is the introduction (8,700 words) to the first edition of Web.Studies. You can also read the new introduction to the second edition (2004) which is substantially different and, obviously, more up-to-date!
  • Because this is here for 'historical' purposes, the websites mentioned may be obsolete and are not activated as hyperlinks here.
  • If printing, use the printer-friendly version.

Let me tell you a secret: in 1995, two years after the Mosaic browser had grabbed the attention of the world and made the Web an interesting place to hang out, I hated all the hype about the internet. Bloody internet: full of computer geeks swapping episode guides to TV shows. We laughed about the guy down the corridor who spent hours every day wandering around the net. We said that it was like wandering around an amateur library, gazing admiringly at the shelves, but with no idea where to find anything useful. Which, as far as I could tell, it was.

I was interested in popular mass media and the way it might change people's lives. Therefore, I thought, the internet was of little interest. Of course, I was wrong. Even whilst I was scowling about it, the Web was careering out of the hands of computer scientists and becoming, well, a form of popular mass media which might change people's lives.

Within three years it became impossible to think about life without the Web. By 1999 I was producing the websites www.theory.org.uk and www.newmediastudies.com, and was sending and receiving e-mails all over the world every day. This was nothing special - just the new face of academic life. Academic journals and conferences, which had always veered towards the tedious, were now quite clearly preposterous anachronisms. Why let an article go out of date by two years waiting for a journal to publish it? Put it on the Web today. Why fly thousands of miles only to hang around with lots of middle-aged, unhappy academics? Instead, chat with them within the welcome confines of e-mail, and then do the international travel to explore other cultures.

This book, for example, came together entirely on the internet. I have never spoken to most of the contributors, nor written to them by conventional mail. But we've exchanged a lot of e-mails. I invited some people to write chapters because I'd seen their work on the Web, or in books. (Books are still good). A couple of contributors were part of the community which had developed around my websites and ones related to them. I also put out a call for contributions, once, on just one e-mail discussion list, and the net's grapevine effect meant that I received 140 proposals for chapters, mostly from academics and postgraduate students, within a month. Obviously, I had to reject most of them. Once commissioned, the chapters were sent and discussed by e-mail. I checked facts and dates on reliable websites, and gave away bits of the forthcoming book at newmediastudies.com, in a bid to raise interest. Of course, the good thing about the Web is that it's not just full of academics. It's the diversity of creative participation which keeps it alive.

Media studies was nearly dead: Long live new media studies

By the end of the twentieth century, media studies research within developed Western societies had entered a middle-aged, stodgy period and wasn't really sure what it could say about things any more. Thank goodness the Web came along. See where media studies had got to:

Studies of media texts, such as a 'critical reading' of a film which identified a bunch of 'meanings' which the director hadn't intended and which nobody else had noticed, were clearly a waste of time.
 

Similarly, people had noticed that semiotic analysis and psychoanalytic approaches were all about saying that something had a hidden cause or meaning, but you couldn't prove it, so it became embarrassing.
 

Audience studies had run out of steam. Unable to show that the media had a clear and identifiable impact upon people's behaviour, audience researchers had been trying to make some descriptions of how people use the media look interesting, with little success.
 

The 1990s theoretical view that we had to consider media usage within the very broad context of everyday life had actually ruptured the impetus for research, since nobody could afford, or be bothered, to do such wide-scale, in-depth, qualitative research. And even if anyone did get all that data, it wasn't clear what they would have to do with it.
 

Studies of media effects and influences had shown that the mass media does not have predictable effects on audiences. Nevertheless, the right-wing psychologists who argued (for reasons best known to themselves) that the mass media was responsible for the decline of Western civilisation seemed to be winning the argument, within the public sphere, anyway. Cue despair, resignation and boredom amongst researchers in this area.
 

Historical studies of the mass media justified themselves by saying that we could learn from history when planning the future. But nobody ever did.
 

Most importantly, media products and the organised use of communications technologies had become so knowing, clever and sophisticated that academic critics were looking increasingly redundant. In other words, media products, and their producers, had themselves become self-analysing and multi-layered. It is difficult to say something about Tony Blair's clever use of political communications, for example, which is more clever, as a theory, than the actual practice. To make an intelligent film like The Matrix (Wachowski Brothers, 1999) or Fight Club (Fincher, 1999) is a substantial achievement, whereas writing a typical academic article about it is, in comparison, pathetic. Even mainstream TV shows like Who Wants To Be a Millionaire (a UK format sold to numerous other countries) were already, in themselves, super-analysed dissections of the style and culture of populist TV. All academics could do was write obvious explanations of what the producers were up to (boring and ultimately sycophantic), or make predictable critiques of what such shows tell us about capitalist or postmodern society (which you could do in your sleep).

Media studies, then, needed something interesting to do, and fast. Happily, new media is vibrant, exploding and developing, and nobody is certain what the best way to do things is. There is change (look at how the Web was just three years ago) and there is conflict (look at the Microsoft trial and the impassioned feelings it provoked). New good ideas and new bad ideas appear every week, and we don't know how it's going to pan out. Even better, academics and students can participate in the new media explosion, not just watch from the sidelines - and we can argue that they have a responsibility to do so. So it's an exciting time again.

First, though, we'd better rewind to the basics.
 

ORIGINS OF THE WEB

This is the internet

The internet is a global network of interconnected computers. Rumours that it started life as a sinister US military experiment may be somewhat exaggerated, although a computer network called ARPANET run by the US Defense Department from 1969 was a primary component of the super-network which would eventually become the internet, and the US government was definitely interested in a network which could withstand nuclear attack. In fact the first talk about an internet can be traced back to 1962, when J.C.R. Licklider of MIT wrote a number of memos about his idea of a 'Galactic Network' linking computers worldwide (see www.isoc.org/internet/history/brief.html).

The first event in the life of the internet as we know it today came in 1974, when Vint Cerf and Bob Khan defined the Transmission Control Protocol (TCP) and Internet Protocol (IP) by which information could be put into a 'packet' and addressed so that computers on the network would pass it along, in the right direction, until it arrived at its destination. Various tests and demonstrations were successfully conducted, and internet-style networks started to take off, but it was ten years before the TCP/IP-based internet rolled out across the USA in 1983. And then it would primarily remain the domain of academics and scientists for another ten years.

So what is the World Wide Web?

The World Wide Web is a user-friendly interface onto the internet. It was developed by Tim Berners-Lee (www.w3.org/People/Berners-Lee) in 1990-91, and caught on in 1993, when a freely-available Web browser called Mosaic, written by Marc Andreessen and Eric Bina, started the 'Web revolution'. (Mosaic went on to become Netscape Navigator, and Andreessen went on to become very rich). Berners-Lee is sometimes mistakenly credited with inventing the internet. But his actual achievement was perhaps more socially significant: he recognised that the internet was 'too much of a hassle for a noncomputer expert' (Berners-Lee 1999: 20), and created an elegant solution.

Berners-Lee's idea was to create a set of agreed protocols and standards so that documents could be stored on web servers anywhere in the world, but could be brought up on a computer screen by anyone who wanted it, using a simple address. Central to Berners-Lee's dream was the use of hyperlinks, so that Web pages would be full of highlighted words or phrases, which would be links to other relevant pages elsewhere. (Today, many web sites only link up their own 'internal' pages, with 'external' links offered on a separate 'links page', if at all. Berners-Lee had really wanted everyone to be much more liberal in their interlinking across these boundaries).

Also at the core of the idea of the World Wide Web was collaboration - Berners-Lee wanted Web users to be involved in a two-way process, not only reading web pages, but also adding to and amending them, creating links, and, of course, creating new pages. The Web's creator did not expect web browsing to be a one-way experience, but the browser software which became popular, from Mosaic onwards, would only read and present webpages, not alter them. The World Wide Web Consortium, the advisory body which Berners-Lee established and still directs, has developed its own browser/editor, Amaya, which will both read and edit webpages. But it hasn't really caught on. (See the Consortium's website, www.w3.org, for the latest, and Berners-Lee's book, Weaving the Web, 1999, for the story of the Web's development).

Summarising his 'vision' of what the Web should be about, Tim Berners-Lee says:

The dream behind the Web is of a common information space in which we communicate by sharing information. Its universality is essential: the fact that a hypertext link can point to anything, be it personal, local or global, be it draft or highly polished. There was a second part of the dream, too, dependent on the Web being so generally used that it became a realistic mirror (or in fact the primary embodiment) of the ways in which we work and play and socialize. That was that once the state of our interactions was on line, we could then use computers to help us analyse it, make sense of what we are doing, where we individually fit in, and how we can better work together. (From 'The World Wide Web: A very short personal history' at www.w3.org/People/Berners-Lee).

Why the Web isn't the same thing as the internet

To clarify: the Web is something that runs on the internet. It is the popular face of the internet. It is not, however, the same as the internet. The internet is the network of networked computers. Since it is basically all cables, wires and microprocessors, the internet can carry any kind of data, such as e-mail, and computer programs. The Web, however, is made up of a particular type of (easy to use, universally readable) data. At its heart is Hypertext Markup Language, HTML, a simple computer language which can be used to create webpages which include links, graphics, and multimedia components. (Watch out, however, for its advanced sibling, XML, lumbering onto the scene around now). Even more central is HTTP, the protocol which tells Web browsers where to find web pages and their components. All this clever stuff runs over the internet.

Basic Web geography

The Web, of course, has no central point, no capital city. But most people find their way around by starting with Yahoo (www.yahoo.com), a massive web directory compiled by humans, or one of the search engines, such as AltaVista (www.altavista.com) or Google (www.google.com). Another option are the sites which interrogate several search engines at once, such as Ask Jeeves (www.askjeeves.com) or Metacrawler (www.metacrawler.com).

A bit of thought is required to work out which kind of search facility will give you the kind of information you need. If you want a whole, permanent website about a certain topic, turn to a directory like Yahoo. If you are looking for any page which contains a particular name or phrase, use a search engine like AltaVista.

Once you have found a website on a certain topic, it should offer you links to other relevant sites. Some creators of websites can't bear the thought of you going elsewhere, however, so this doesn't always happen. In which case you just have to search harder. This is how everyone finds their way around the Web. Apart from perfecting your use of search phrases - so that you can find that site about the Dust Brothers without sifting through pages of people who are merely dusty or related - there are no other secrets to learn.

Today's Web, not yesterday's net

While the developed world quickly adopted the World Wide Web as their internet medium of choice, many internet scholars tried to ignore it because they had found a niche for themselves making repetitive arguments about 'Multi-User Dungeons' (MUDs) and other text-based interactive areas, in the early 1990s, and refused to move on. One of the aims of this book is to shift scholarly discussion about the internet forwards, so that it fully considers the multi-faceted and popular Web, instead of contenting itself with publishing yet another article about how no-one knows who you are in cyberspace (which is an interesting, if rather obvious, point - but how many books do we need to tell us this?). I am talking here about the books aimed at students and academics about 'cyber culture' or 'internet culture' or 'virtual society'; some popular and business books have been more on the ball, whilst several of the more sophisticated internet magazines - available from your local newsagent - seem to publish articles with more depth and insight every month. To be fair, we should note that alongside the half-baked and slightly-out-of-date pieces on identity in cyberspace, academics have also produced numerous half-baked and slightly-out-of-date pieces on how the internet is going to transform democracy, politics, relationships, and other stuff.

Anyway, the internet scholars who aren't very interested in the Web have more recently found a new excuse to ignore it: 'The Web has been taken over by big business'. It is certainly true that the percentage of corporate websites, and Web traffic going to them, has massively increased since the mid-1990s. However, since the number of websites has also shot up exponentially, this doesn't mean that less people are using the Web for interesting non-business purposes; quite the opposite, in fact. More on this later.

First of all let's consider the interface between Web creativity and real-world money. There's no escaping it.
 

THE WEB AND MONEY

The news is full of stories about people getting rich from the internet. This sometimes confuses news viewers and internet users - how do people make money by giving information away free on the Web? And how have people become rich from their loss-making e-commerce websites?

How people become millionaires by making free websites

David Filo and Jerry Yang, who created the web directory Yahoo!, for example, became millionaires (see 'company info' at www.yahoo.com). But you may wonder how one becomes a millionaire by providing a useful free service on the Web. In fact, there are now many people who have become millionaires by devising websites which people want to visit. Their money-making secret is quite simple: advertising and sponsorship. It's just the same as with commercial TV: you don't pay to watch the programmes. The programmes are paid for by advertisers, who, in return, get to display their ads to audiences alongside the shows.

In the same way, you get to access Web services, such as the Yahoo! directory, for free. The only 'price' you pay is being exposed to some modestly-sized but inescapable adverts. Yahoo! is in a great position to scoop up advertising revenues, because it can 'deliver' adverts to people who are actually interested in particular things. For example, the kind of people who search for information about cats in Yahoo! are exactly the people that cat food manufacturers want to address. People looking for webpages about chocolate will be subjected to mouthwatering chocolate ads. And so on. Since Yahoo! lists everything under the sun, that's a lot of targeted advertising space to sell.

Numerous other Web services, such as free e-mail and free web space, are paid for in the same way. The user is pleased to get these handy services for no money, the advertiser is pleased to be able to flash their messages at the user (and, in the case of free web space, that user's website visitors), and the service provider is pleased to take money off the advertiser.

Not all of these services are actually making a profit at the moment, though. And in fact, Yang and Filo's millions haven't actually arrived as payment from advertisers. Their high value is a stock market value - the same kind of value enjoyed by the many Web businesses which haven't even turned a profit yet.

How people have become millionaires with loss-making Web businesses

Investors value Web companies based on an expectation of how powerful they think those companies will be in the future. So, for example, in the late 1990s the well-known internet bookshop Amazon.com had not yet made a profit, but shares in the company had a very high value, because it was widely expected that the company's leading position in the ever-expanding world of e-commerce would bring in huge profits... sometime quite soon.

Similarly, any website that is well-known and visited by millions of people - such as Yahoo, or any popular Web service - has a high value simply because that's a lot of eyeballs to sell to advertisers, and everyone expects that as the Web is always increasing in popularity, that will mean even more eyeballs in future.

A particularly good way to become a millionaire is to start a small but innovative Web company, and get it noticed. (You may need to get some people to invest in it at the start for this to happen on a sufficient scale). Then sell it to one of the big conglomerates for loads of money. This happens all the time. In a broader sense, it is a shame because all of the little internet companies get swallowed up by the same old big companies. But if you're a millionaire you most likely won't be worrying about that.

Why people won't pay to access a Web page

In the earlier days of the Web, it was thought that the providers of on-line content would be able to charge users directly. Some newspapers, for example, started to put their content on the Web for free, but this was so that they could build an audience, and then start to charge an annual fee for site access. However, the latter part of this plan never became possible. Since there was so much useful information available on the Web for free, it was discovered that no-one wanted to pay for it.

A few sites offering specialist information, such as stock market 'insider' news or unique reports of interest to businesses or professional people, have been able to charge for access to their websites (see Schwartz, 1999). But the only other websites which have successfully charged for access, and perhaps the only sites to have made big business out of it, are pornography sites. They make substantial profits by charging subscription fees for access to their content. Unlike everyday news or poetry, porn is something people are willing to pay for (see di Philippo's chapter in this book). In addition, porn merchants can say that they are helpfully protecting children from their content by requiring visitors to give their credit card number. They're not stupid, although they may hope that you are.

Other examples of paid-for content are rare. The Encyclopaedia Britannica used to charge five US dollars (three UK pounds) per month for full on-line access. But since October 1999 the famous encyclopaedia, which until recently came in the form of a mountain of books (current cost: $1,250), has been available for free on the Web. In a move which must have made some Britannica managers feel quite ill, all 44 million words are now free. Advertising, sponsorship and e-commerce will be the new ways in which Britannica pays her rent - in line with most other Web services.

How businesses hope to scrape back some cash

Some internet content providers are pinning their hopes on the idea of 'micropayments', which means they want to devise a system which will be able to charge you small amounts for bits of content. It's based on the idea that, whilst nobody wants to have to type in their credit card number just to look at some bit of information, most people wouldn't mind spending a few cents or pence to read an article or listen to a pop song. What the businesses want to develop is an extremely easy system for charging small amounts. This might fail though - people have got used to getting their information for free now.

Giving it away free

Internet businesses, then, have discovered that giving things away for free - not promotional balloons, but whole products - can actually lead to riches. Netscape, for example, built up a huge user-base for its Web browser by giving it away. In 1994, they were a small start-up company whom you would expect would want to sell their milestone product. But by giving it away free over the internet, they got their software onto millions of computers. That brought power and fame, enabled them to sell other products (such as Web server software) from a prominent position, and gave them a huge stock market value in less than a year.

Later, once Netscape had started charging non-educational users for its browser, Microsoft demolished Netscape's domination by giving its own new browser away free to everyone. (Big business wasn't used to this idea: according to one book about Microsoft, when someone suggested to Bill Gates that his company should give away its Internet Explorer browser, he exploded and called the man a 'communist' (Wallace 1997: 266)). Lots of other success has followed people giving stuff away.

The attention economy: Quality content wins?

Michael Goldhaber (1997) argues that what we have on the internet is an 'attention economy'. The scarce resource which everybody with a presence on the Web is struggling for is attention. On the internet, money is not the most important scarce resource, for reasons which we will turn to in a moment. And information certainly isn't a scarce resource - the Web contains oceans of it. The Web's scarce resource is attention, because there is so much information out there, and everyone has so little time to look at it. To triumph on the Web is to have lots of people giving attention to your site, instead of giving it to someone else's. Attention is what everyone wants. So it's an attention economy.

Big companies don't automatically get attention on the Web simply because they have a lot of money. Having money can enable a company to make a diverting multimedia website, and generate awareness of it through conventional media and promotions, but if the website has no engaging content it will not win attention. Meanwhile, individuals and small groups are relatively empowered in this medium, because if they produce a website deserving of attention then, hopefully and ideally, word will spread around the internet and lots of people's attention will be drawn to that site.

A commercial website, set up to promote a chocolate bar or a book publishing company, say, has the great advantage that it can promote its website address on all of its adverts and all of its products. A non-commercial website does not usually have such an opportunity, and so is at a disadvantage. (The publishing company is also in a good position because it can give away bits of its product directly, on its website, as a 'taster' for the full product, whereas the chocolate manufacturer usually has to settle for offering news, games and quizzes associated with the product).

However, if the commercial website does not have any interesting content, other websites will not link to it, it will not be talked about in email discussions or on newsgroups, and will only ever be visited by curious individuals (and the company's employees, partners or competitors) who have seen the address advertised and who visit the site - once.

Meanwhile, any website which is full of appealing and regularly updated content has a better chance of getting attention. This is something which has to be worked on - usually by sending lots of personal e-mails to potentially interested, and ideally influential, people. The whole thing takes effort, but not a lot of money. By getting linked to from other websites, and listed in directories, search engines, and magazines, a website can come to command a lot of attention. And without attention, on the Web, you're nothing.

Goldhaber says: 'Money flows to attention, and much less well does attention flow to money'. In other words, you can't buy attention. You can pay someone to listen to you, but you can't make them interested in what you have to say, unless they actually find the content of what you have to say engaging. So money is less powerful than usual on the Web.

But if you can gather a lot of attention, you can then potentially translate that into money. Look at these examples:

Netscape, as we have seen, got lots of attention by giving away its Web browser, and then was able to capitalise on its swiftly-established position as the best-known brand on the Web. Trying to sell the browser didn't work, but companies were keen to buy Netscape web server software because Netscape had become synonymous with the Web in the mid-1990s. In November 1998, America Online (AOL) bought Netscape for $4.2 billion.
 

Vincent Flanders set up a website called WebPagesThatSuck.com, grabbing loads of attention from all those people struggling to design nice websites. Through website links, e-mails, newsgroups and ordinary conversation, word quickly spread about this witty site where you could 'learn good design by looking at bad design'. People gave it so much attention that Flanders could make money from selling advertising space on his site, and by turning it into a best-selling book, and by charging companies money just to hear him speak.
 

Linus Torvalds invented Linux, a reliable operating system for computers - an alternative to Microsoft's dominant Windows environment - which is distributed free over the internet. It's 'open source' software, which means that anyone can use, amend, and improve the code. It's becoming increasingly popular: Bill Gates says he's not feeling threatened by it, but commentators say that shows what a big threat it is. Torvalds wouldn't make any money directly from Linux, then, but he has such a stock of attention that translating it into money (by offering his consultancy services, say) would be easy, if he wanted to. But Torvalds doesn't seem to be motivated by money.

All of these examples are about people who start off with attention-grabbing content, but no money. Money flows to attention.

Meanwhile, there are many examples of companies who have thought that their money would translate, on the Web, into attention and success. But they made boring websites, and failed. Attention doesn't just flow to money.

Doesn't money provide a considerable advantage?

There is, of course, a problem with this optimistic view. It is all very well to say that anybody can make a great website and become an online and off-line success, but having money certainly helps. It remains the case that if a company has money to spend, it can pay talented people to create an attention-grabbing website, full of useful, frequently-updated content. And at the same time, the company can advertise its site in the mainstream mass media, and on its own products and packaging. Therefore, money provides a considerable advantage.

Nevertheless, it remains the case that any websites with interesting content can become well-known around the Web, and be linked to a lot, and talked about, and therefore grab a lot of attention. Because internet content is the broadest of fields - it can be about anything - there will not be corporate 'competition' in all areas. For example, you wouldn't want to set up another news site, or search engine, or internet bookshop, because these areas are already dominated by professional, well-resourced organisations. But you could set up a website about, say, the art of creative writing, and it might become very popular - because lots of people around the world are struggling to write their first novel. Since it's not the most obviously commercial idea, you probably wouldn't have to worry too much about Microsoft trying to capture all of the online-advice-about-creative-writing market (though you never know).

To take a real-life example, Harry Knowles - an ordinary, hairy, twentysomething guy from Austin, Texas - has received much attention with his Ain't It Cool News (www.aint-it-cool-news.com), a website providing daily Hollywood gossip and movie previews from a network of 'spies' - industry insiders and people who infiltrate test screenings. Knowles identified a niche where there is a great appetite for information amongst the public, but where mainstream film magazines and websites would be too cautious, and too slow, to tread. And now Knowles is very well known and much in demand. Similarly, The Onion (www.theonion.com) was a brilliant but little-known satirical weekly newspaper run by a group of reasonably penniless ex-students from University of Wisconsin. But then it went on the Web and became a massive international success (see http://mediakit.theonion.com).

Why people say that big business has killed the Web

The business end of the Web can provide some spectacular news stories, with multi-million dollar battles, deals and stock floatations. Tim Berners-Lee may have thought that the Web would foster co-operation and understanding, but brash new e-commerce ventures are all anybody seems to talk about regarding the internet these days.

Nevertheless, the part of the Web which is concerned with sharing ideas and information is still there, and indeed is getting bigger along with everything else in cyberspace. So maybe it is more helpful to think of the Web now having different spheres, existing alongside each other, but used for different things.

For example, let's say your town has an excellent public library which you enjoy using. One day a company opens a large supermarket next to the library. The library continues to be good and well-stocked, and indeed picks up more users from the influx of supermarket customers. Now, if your friend said, 'I see the supermarket has destroyed the library,' you would think they were a bit of an idiot.

In the same way, the commercial and non-commercial parts of the internet ought to be able to exist side by side. The problem, alas, is that in this town, we would probably see marketing people from the supermarket sneaking into the library, taking down the community notices in the foyer, and replacing them with adverts. They would also interfere with the library catalogue, so that it told library users that the answers to their questions would be found in the supermarket. Such forces obviously need to be kept in check.

Is money dead?

Goldhaber argues that, in the future, money will become unimportant, and that attention will be the new wealth. But since money shows little sign of extinction at the moment, perhaps it's a better use of the basic argument to say that attention certainly does equal wealth in the new economy, but that's because you can always translate it into good old-fashioned money, which everyone still thinks is pretty handy stuff.

*   *   *   *   *
 

OUTLINE OF THIS BOOK

The first, introductory part of this book consists of three chapters: this introduction, an overview of the development of cyberculture studies during the last ten years, and an outline of methodologies for studying the Web. This is followed by the first themed section, 'Web Life, Arts and Culture', which looks at a range of creative uses of the Web by everyday people, creating new cultures and interacting with existing ones. We consider personal homepages and websites by fans, artists, and webcam owners, as well as use of the internet by gay, lesbian and bisexual people, by students writing 'reviews' of their tutors, and by movie-goers. The next section, 'Web Business', looks at the ways in which commercial interests have affected - and continue to influence - the development of the Web. We focus in particular on search engines and portal sites, web pornography, how fascination entices audiences, and how the BBC - a major public-service TV broadcaster with commercial aspirations - adapted to the challenge of the Web. The final themed section, 'Global Web Communities, Politics and Protest', is about people coming together, for political or social reasons, on the net, and the ways in which the Web might change those political relationships and processes. We look at communities built around political interests, women's activist groups, ethnic identities, and certain websites. We also see how the internet is used in contemporary warfare, and study the political, criminal and social activities of hackers. Finally, the last chapter takes a brief look at some possible futures of the internet and 'wired society'.
 

SOME OF THE MAIN ISSUES

This section outlines some of the main issues in Web studies. These are key themes which will recur in other chapters throughout the book.

The Web allows people to express themselves

The Web offers people an opportunity to produce creative, expressive media products (or texts, or art works, if you prefer) and display them to a global audience. Without question, this is a new and significant development. We may be able to produce a painting, or a poem, or an amateur 'magazine', but without the Web, most of us would not have the opportunity or resources to find an audience for our work. We could force our family and friends to admire our masterpiece, but that would be about it.

When I was at school, I made a 'magazine' for a (hopeless) musical 'group' that I was in. My materials were biro and paper. I was aged 12 and photocopiers weren't very accessible, so the single edition of each issue had to be passed around between members of its audience - approximately four people.

When I was a student, I published a fanzine (or 'small press magazine') with an anti-sexist theme, Powercut, which was reproduced by a professional printer (in exchange for a significant chunk of my humble student finances). Producing and printing the thing was the easy part: it was the distribution which would eat up my life. I spent hundreds of hours visiting and writing to bookshops, and getting magazines and newspapers to write about it - with ordering details - so that I could spend yet more hours responding to mail order requests. I published two issues, and for each one, it took me a year to shift 800 copies. This was regarded as a considerable success in small press circles.

Today, like many people, I can write a review or article, stick it on the Web, then sit back and relax. 800 people will have read it - well, seen it - within a couple of days. I largely enjoyed the Powercut experience, back in 1991-93, but think how much simpler my life would have been - and how much more of a life I would have had! - if Tim Berners-Lee had bothered to invent the World Wide Web just a few years earlier than he actually did.

A website can be your own magazine and gallery. Anything that can be put into words or pictures - or animation, video or music - can be put there. Nobody can tell me this isn't fantastic.

The only potential flaw to this glorious revolution is - what if nobody visits your site? Frankly, this isn't a very powerful argument. If you put some effort into the site content, and then put a bit more effort into establishing links with other sites, and getting it covered by search engines and directories, then there are sufficient millions of Web users out there that some of them will come and visit. The Web, then, offers a fantastic explosion of opportunity for creativity and expression. Less than a decade ago, almost all readily-accessible media was made by a small bunch of companies (and the lucky people who had got jobs with them). Now look at it.

The Web brings people together, building communities

Since Howard Rheingold published The Virtual Community in 1993, much has been written about communities on the internet. The basic point is simple enough: before the internet, communities were people who lived or worked close to each other. If you were lucky, you might have a community of like-minded people, although it was unlikely that you would get a very compatible bunch all in the same place. The global internet transforms this - for those, as always, who have access to it - because it enables like-minded people to form communities regardless of where they are located in the physical world. Before the internet, scientists working in a particular field might have little contact with each other, and needed to organise expensive conferences in order to have a meeting of minds. Meanwhile, fans of obscure bands would have little to do with their counterparts elsewhere, and people interested in certain hobbies, or artists, or skills, could only feed their interest through one-way communication processes such as reading a magazine or newsletter about it.

Again, the internet changed all that. Now, regardless of where they are in the world, people with similar interests, or with similar backgrounds, or with similar attitudes, can join communities of like-minded people, and share views, exchange information, and build relationships.

In practice, what these communities look like are people sending electronic text to each other. Most of the studies of virtual communities are about groups exchanging messages on newsgroups and e-mail discussion lists, or groups who often meet in the same chat rooms. The studies seem, so far, to have ignored the communities which develop amongst similarly-themed websites and their creators, which in many ways may be stronger and more permanent. Participants in chattering groups may come and go, whereas the bonds of friendship and interdependence which the Web, by its interconnected nature, breeds amongst website-creators - expressed in public links and personal e-mails - may be more compelling.

The more websites there are, the more complex these community webs may be. Some of us are quite moralistic about use of the Web, and feel that you must contribute, and not merely 'surf'. Everyone who uses the Web should, ideally, have a website, where they endeavour to put some stuff that may be of interest to someone else. It is difficult to take seriously, for example, internet scholars who don't even have their own website. You might say that we don't expect film critics to have their own movie studio, but this is rather different - making a website requires some effort, but not many material resources.

Whilst the net's global friendship-building is valuable, there is, as usual, a downside. As with any open-access communications medium, the Web can be used in ways which we may find distasteful. If the internet can foster communities of like-minded artists and poets, it can also give a home to groups of like-minded Nazis and child molesters. Many countries already have laws to deal with the real-world actions of such people, but we can't stop them talking to each other. It is important not to confuse the medium with the message: newspaper stories still appear which seek to show how evil the internet is because unsavory characters communicate using it. But when unpleasant people appear on TV, or make use of the telephone, we don't normally blame the box of electronics. We can hope that the opportunities for education and creativity which the Web offers will lead to a kind of human society which can find ways to get along without causing harm to others. That's the optimistic view, obviously.

Anonymity and identity play in cyberspace

Since the early days of the internet there have been bulletin boards and 'chat' spaces where users can interact online, and today, many websites include chat or discussion rooms where visitors can interact in real time. Since participants cannot see each other, and are not obliged to reveal their real name or physical location, there is considerable scope for people to reveal secrets, discuss problems, or even enact whole 'identities' which they would never do in the real world, not even with their closest friends - in some cases, especially not with their closest friends. These secrets or identities may, of course, be 'real', or might be completely made up. In cyberspace, as the saying goes, no one can tell if you're talking complete garbage.

Some aspects of this 'identity play' can be annoying, such as the sad middle-aged man who pretends to be a movie star in the hope of attracting the online attention of a young woman (who, in the real world, may be another sad middle-aged man). Other aspects can be criminal - paedophiles have been known to present themselves as friendly children online, so that they can arrange meetings with (what they hope are) other children. Sometimes, they might find that they have unintentionally arranged a meeting with another paedophile; sometimes it can turn out to be a police officer. (Some police services employ staff to wander around chat rooms pretending to be children to see if anyone asks to meet them).

Some internet chat stories are more heart-warming: men and women who have thought that they may be gay, but have been afraid to come out in the 'real world', have 'tested' this identity online. They have been so happy to be able to express their 'true' selves - and to receive such a supportive (and perhaps erotic) response - that this has given them the courage to come out in their everyday real-world lives as well.

And, of course, people of all sexual orientations have used the internet for 'cybersex', which involves people telling each other what they are doing to each other (within their shared cyber-imagination) as they fumble their way towards sexual satisfaction. More recently, webcams have allowed participants to see each other. But they might not want to; that might not be the point.

The internet's scope for anonymous interaction, and therefore identity play, is significant for the way in which it fits in with contemporary queer theory. Queer theory suggests that people do not have a fixed 'essence', and that identity is a performance (Butler 1990a; www.theory.org.uk/queer). We may be so used to inhabiting one 'identity' that it seems to be 'natural' to us, but it's a kind of performance nonetheless. Because the internet breaks the connection between outward expressions of identity and the physical body which (in the real world) makes those expressions, it can be seen as a space where queer theory's approach to identity can really come to life.

Having said that, there is not really any excuse for the large number of very similar, tedious and repetitive academic articles which basically all say 'cyberspace... you can play with identity... nobody knows who you really are... gosh...', but fail to develop any theoretical insights beyond this once-engaging thought.

Furthermore, these chat-type interactions aren't the primary use of the internet these days anyway. Attention should be turning more, I feel, towards studying expressions of identity, and community developments, within and between people's websites.

The Web and big business

The Web has created a wealth of new business opportunities, some of which we have discussed above. Recent years have also seen existing businesses racing to establish an internet presence. The chief executives' fear that their company may die if isn't on the internet is well founded. Of course, if they do not plan carefully how to do their business using the Web, and simply rush into doing anything which looks impressive to a board of directors, there are still broad opportunities for failure.

Alongside the fears of the internet's potential being scuppered by heavy-handed interventions by the big businesses who would like to use the Web as a big marketing fair, there is another type of corporate threat to the good health of the Web - single, powerful software companies who might try to make the whole Web into something which works best with its own products. Microsoft's domination of the field in the 1990s led to a lengthy court battle with the US Department of Justice, culminating in the order, in June 2000, that the software giant should be broken in two. But Microsoft thinks it will escape, on appeal, from even this major blow.

The Web is changing politics and international relations

The internet, as many people have noted already, had the potential to create links between people and groups with shared political interests - and for them to promote their ideas to others. By increasing access to information - or propaganda - the internet may bring about a greater engagement and interaction between the individual and larger political processes.

The public sphere

In an argument related to the idea of virtual communities, discussed above, internet scholars often relate the net to the idea of the 'public sphere', as developed by Jurgen Habermas (see, for example, Habermas 1989). In an ideal public sphere, citizens would discuss issues of concern and arrive at a consensus for the common good. Habermas did not feel that we have an effective public sphere in Western societies, partly because commercial mass media had turned people into consumers of information and entertainment, rather than participants in an interactive democratic process. Now: you can see where this is heading. In the 1990s, internet enthusiasts noted the kinds of discussions taking place in newsgroups (text discussion forums), and argued that, when even more people had access, the net would bring about a healthy public sphere. (Even recent books like Wise (2000) point to newsgroups as evidence of promising public-sphere debate, although he seems to have reservations).

The shortcomings of this view are equally obvious. Increasing numbers of people do have internet access, but most of them are roaming the Web these days, and, of course, the popular internet technologies and interfaces are liable to change again. But one thing seems certain: intense discussion spaces, like newsgroups, will remain the province of the minorities of individuals who are so interested in a particular area that that want to spend their time debating specific issues. Most people won't bother.

Not as dead as it looks

This conclusion, for those internet academics who have been paying enough attention to reach it, led to the feeling that, damn, the internet won't help to foster a healthy public sphere after all. But that may not be true either. If we look carefully at the interactions between and around the thousands of websites which can be called 'political' in the broadest of senses, we do find cultures of engagement and discussion. The fact that people who are concerned about an issue can create a website about it, and then find themselves in e-mail conversations (or, in the future, perhaps in different forms of electronic conference) with people who are interested, curious or opposed to their views, or who run related sites, does create a climate of greater public discussion. Compare it to the days when all you could do was read about an issue in a mass-produced newspaper, and then discuss it with a handful of friends in a pub. This Web-based political culture is not, of course, the same as a democratic online meeting where every member of society chips in with their view, but that was never going to happen anyway (how do several million people chat about an issue at once? The only workable method would be... voting). As always, there is also the problem that only interested people participate, which will always be the case. We can hope that the greater engagement with political issues which the Web can bring will mean that more people become interested in politics generally; but this is far from guaranteed.
 

HOW TO SUCCEED IN WEB STUDIES

Make your own

Unless you want to be a very detached critic who argues that all new media developments are really bad and that we're all doomed, in which case you won't really need to understand the Web very well anyway, then you'll need to experience the agony and ecstasy of building and promoting your own website.

You'll find instructions on how to do this in numerous books and magazines, and of course on websites. The design and marketing guides at www.newmediastudies.com should get you started. In the print world, cheap books are often as good as expensive ones; for example the very good Simple Guide to Creating Your Own Web Page (Dreyfus, 2000) costs 6.99 in the UK. The best book on Web design - and I've seen a lot of them - is definitely Web Pages That Suck (Flanders and Willis, 1998), the book based on the website mentioned earlier, which unfortunately costs 30 ($39 US) and comes with a CD that's not as useful as the ones you get free with internet magazines every month. Nevertheless, it's easy to read, full of valuable advice, and the authors' idea that you can 'learn good design by looking at bad design' is both instructive and enjoyable.

To make a website really quickly, visit Yahoo GeoCities (www.geocities.com) or Lycos Tripod (www.tripod.com), where they not only give you webspace for free, but have clever page-building facilities where you construct and publish your webpage(s) on the spot, within the website, with no extra software required (apart from the recent Web browser you need to use the site). To make a really good website, though, you'll need web design software (Netscape Composer is OK and is free; Macromedia Dreamweaver is the best, but costs money, although you may be able to get a perfectly good early version for free) and graphics software (such as Paint Shop Pro, if you're paying, or use free demo versions or shareware of that or other packages).

Keep up to date

As well as making your own site, and then getting it noticed on the Web, you will also need to keep abreast of what's going on in the ever-changing new media world. One way of doing this is to subscribe (for free) to the excellent Wired News e-mail service, which will send you a daily message listing headlines and short summaries, with links to the full stories on their website (see www.wired.com/news). Another method is to buy the more intelligent internet magazines, such as .Net and Internet Magazine in the UK, or Internet World, NetGuide, and Yahoo Internet Life in the USA. These magazines usually come with free CDs containing copies of the latest Web browsers and plug-ins, other free software, and demo versions of new professional packages. Soon your home will be adorned with lots of these shiny discs, doubling as coasters, mobiles, and Christmas decorations.

Here we go

I hope that you find this book useful. Please send comments to david@theory.org.uk.