- 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,
- 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.
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 Why let an article go out of date by two years waiting for a journal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
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
of the mass media justified themselves by saying that we could learn from history
when planning the future. But nobody ever did.
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).
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.
we'd better rewind to the basics.
ORIGINS OF THE
This is the
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.
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).
'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.
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
First of all let's
consider the interface between Web creativity and real-world money. There's no
THE WEB AND
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
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.
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
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
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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
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.
economy: Quality content wins?
(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.
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.
'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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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?
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
* * * * *
OUTLINE OF THIS
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
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.
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
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
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.
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
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.
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
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).
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
Not as dead
as it looks
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.