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"I think it's dead.
February 3, 2001 6:50 AM   Subscribe

"I think it's dead. I think it's over with; it's gone. There is no long-term prognosis. The patient has died. There is no future." That's the web as content medium he's talking about. [more inside]
posted by rodii (27 comments total)

 
The quote is from Michael Wolff, "media columnist" of New York Magazine and author of Burn Rate. Wolff doesn't exactly make a case here, just pronouncements. But I happened to be looking at the Nielsen NetRatings Site at their Average Web Usage stats, and saw this:



Number of Sessions per Week5
Number of Unique Sites Visited5

Ew! The average person visits the same 5 sites, over and over and over? Are things really that boring? Most people just dial up, check their horoscope, read their web-based email, play some games, surf around on eBay, check out what's going on at Survivor and quit? That, plus the consolidating economics of the web seem to indicate a vast, inexorable Jakob Nielsen-like ooze toward a vision of the web as a service-oriented monobloc.

That's exactly what I wanted the web to not be. Is it hopeless? Somebody cheer me up.



posted by rodii at 6:53 AM on February 3, 2001


errm... he said that about a few companies providing content on the web. not all content on the web is provided by companies, fer chrissakes.
posted by dagnyscott at 7:02 AM on February 3, 2001


No, he said that about "content sites like [my emphasis] iVillage, Salon and TheStreet.com." While I don't care if those particular sites survive, I also can't envision a web made up of weblogs and fansites, and I don't want to envision one made up of portals, porn, auctions and ecommerce sites.
posted by rodii at 7:10 AM on February 3, 2001


Whenever things stray from the norm, everyone jumps at the chance to make predictions. In 99, everyone was jumping into the web. "This is great," they said. "This is the new media, the new economy, everyone's life is going to change and the web is the greatest killer app ever. Everyone's going to make lots and lots of money off this." Now, people are realizing that they can't make a million dollars quick and easy off the web, so they're jumping ship and warning everyone else that "the web is dead", telling you to get out while you can.

The web is not dead. It's still going to be here a year from now. This is simply a case of the people who were in it for the money realizing that they can't make a quick and easy dollar. Since when was there any kind of product, service or technology that allowed everyone who jumped in to become a millionaire in no time, without putting in effort, money and a dynamite business model? There is no free lunch. This is the same anywhere else. Every once in a while, someone will come up with a great idea and make some money off it, because it's revolutionary. There has never been a garauntee that everyone who jumps the bandwagon and follows suite will also make a lot of money.

The person who invented Mighty Morphin Power Rangers however long ago probably did really well. There were TV shows, toys, a movie, and hordes of preteen fans wanting more more more. Does that mean that they guy who invented "Super Strong MetaMorphin Mega Heroes" 6 months later also became a millionaire? Does he have any right to proclaim the toy industry dead and buried because he's didn't make a quick million?

I don't think the web is dead. I think that the people who were in it for the money are realizing you need to put in effort and capital, just like any other business. They're realizing that the web is different than anything else they've seen before, banner ads don't really work, real word business plans don't often apply, and they're panicking. Maybe this will re-transform the web into what we all want it to be: someone made by us because we love it.

The people who were in it to take advantage of the money will eventually bail out, and the people who really knew what it was all about will still be here when the dust clears. The everyday people who love the fact that they can read news from around the world and instantly send pictures of their newborn to relatives accross the country will continue to take advantage of the real benefits of the internet. It can change peoples lives and make things better, it's just not going to make you filthy rich by tomorrow morning. Since when did anything do that?
posted by tomorama at 7:50 AM on February 3, 2001


Typically with new media there is a period of wild experimentation before the business model of choice is applied. I don't think we're going to see the exact same thing with the Web because it is more of a carrier than a medium. Nonetheless, what is happening now, with companies and business models failing, is what happens.

What bothers me about the Wolff comments is that he and everyone else are now running to the other side of the boat and saying that nothing is going to work. That's just as wrong as suggesting that everything will work, which was how things were two years ago. Some things will work and some things won't, and that hasn't changed.

As a side note, I'm surprised that Wolff talks about a "three-network model" and "90-plus percent share of the market" for the networks. Maybe he is talking about the network mindset here, but the networks haven't had 90% of viewing for many many years now.

As I've said in other posts, the Internet is far from dead and far from being in its final form. If we see real broadband to the curb (not my crappy Rogers cable modem)than the whole equation changes again.

posted by tranquileye at 7:56 AM on February 3, 2001 [1 favorite]


My CDMA FAQ (about a certain kind of cell phone) has gotten 17,000 hits in the last year and the majority of them have come from search engines or from "about.com". The 5-visit session may be the norm, but there are still a substantial number of times that most people want to find out about something particular and start looking for things with Yahoo or with search engines or by using a reference portal like about.com.
posted by Steven Den Beste at 7:58 AM on February 3, 2001


He's a columnist, so saying "The patient has died" is more likely to get him some attention than "This web thing is really rather complicated and I can't predict the future".

Another worthless article by a self-appointed media "expert".
posted by normy at 8:05 AM on February 3, 2001


Also, to paraphrase a great quote I read once, "The web is dead if you think it is."
posted by hijinx at 9:27 AM on February 3, 2001


Uh, normy, do you know who Michael Wolff is? He's not a self-appointed media expert - he's been there doing it for years. He was part of the first dot-com downturn - because this one isn't the first one by any means.

And anyhow he's right, in a way. The web as a mass medium is dead. It was stillborn.

The web as a whole bunch of niche media, intertwined and interlocking, serving very specialized and/or personalized needs is alive - but it's hard to capitalize on. So the Go.coms of the world don't see a way forward.

And Wolff is right to say that the web (and the net as a whole) isn't this separate thing "out there" - it's an integral part of most businesses at the moment, and this tendency and type of use will only increase. And most businesses are using it as a medium - for news and other communications like that, among other things.

The biggest problem with Wolff is that he defines "success" as "success as a mass medium" while simultaneously undermining his own point by talking about the other things that the net can (and I think will) do very well.
posted by mikel at 9:32 AM on February 3, 2001


The proper traditional model for successful publishing on the web is magazines, not television. In the magazine world, the general-audience model is nearly dead and instead magazines target every niche imaginable, with relatively small print runs but with higher advertising rates because advertising is more effective. A telescope ad run in "Sky and Telescope" will produce a lot more sales than the same ad run in Newsweek. Because publishing on the web is even cheaper and because distribution is nearly free, web sites can afford to concentrate even more -- and have to, because extremely few sites will become broadly used and those that are won't be used for very long per visit (e.g. Google).
posted by Steven Den Beste at 9:51 AM on February 3, 2001


Very cogent comments, mikel. I think a key point is

The web as a whole bunch of niche media, intertwined and interlocking, serving very specialized and/or personalized needs is alive - but it's hard to capitalize on.

Good content, at any level, costs money to produce. Expecting it to come as a labor of love seems to me naive. Economics isn't going to go away and Rust Never Sleeps (and if tranquileye is right and broadband ever lands, it will cost a lot more to produce—compare TV production costs with magazine production costs.) I think narrowcasting, or, in Steven's version, niche publishing, really is about the only model we've got for content-rich sites, I just don't know if it will work on the web. Witness the discussion we had a while back about small news-oriented sites like HardOCP and how they're struggling to stay afloat.

What other models do we have of creating content or making it sustainable? Others?
posted by rodii at 11:23 AM on February 3, 2001


I don't know if broadband will ever hit in the way that a lot of people want it to, as essentially an unlimited pipe that can deliver full motion, full screen video and so on, on-demand. I'm not holding my breath, anyway.

Don't forget that there are companies that either are, or can, make money on the Web, not the least of which are Yahoo, eBay and Amazon. I don't think that anyone should be suprised to see 80-90% of the Web-based media businesses that existed last year to be gone by 2003.
posted by tranquileye at 12:11 PM on February 3, 2001


Good content, at any level, costs money to produce. Expecting it to come as a labor of love seems to me naive.

Well, if "good content" only means salon.com, ok... but you're too quick to write off labors of love... they are what is great about the web. Sites like that are not what's great about the web, salon might as well be The New York Times or NPR. What's great about the web are precisely the labors of love, and if you want to write them off (yes, many of them are weblogs and fan sites), fine... but don't expect me to. What's great about the web is anything I can't find in any other medium... fan sites about the Bonzo Dog Band (of which, for their obscurity, there are several, all put up by people who never think about business models), communities: listservs like the Marx Brothers Mailing List, usenet (don't mock it, I met one of my best friends on usenet), have remained at heart the same for years and years while pros chase around after every trend. I don't see the end of content...
posted by dagnyscott at 12:12 PM on February 3, 2001


Uh, normy, do you know who Michael Wolff is? He's not a self-appointed media expert - he's been there doing it for years. He was part of the first dot-com downturn - because this one isn't the first one by any means.

mikel, it REALLY depends on who you ask about this. There's Michael Wolff, visionary who was victim to an early dot-com downturn, who gained wisdom and insight (and a book deal) from his experience. Or there's Michael Wolff, moneygrubbing wannabe, who took advantage of dot-com madness to get funding for a copycat idea, ran his company into the ground, then fired all his workers without giving them their last three months' paychecks-- instead taking the last of the money with him on vacation to Tuscany.

You can read about the more critical view in this Village Voice article.

"By the end of March 1997, the company was grinding to a halt, and Wolff had written himself a check for the remaining $70,000 in the company coffers and bolted to Italy. Meanwhile, the employees, who had not been paid for January, in addition to October and November, were left in the lurch."

So arguably, Wolff has a long tradition of cashing out and abandoning ship when things start looking tough. If that's the kind of person who's prognosticating the doom of the Web, I'm more confident than ever that the Web's future health is assured.
posted by wiremommy at 1:22 PM on February 3, 2001


mikel: No, I didn't know who he was when I read this article. My comment, which I stand by, was based on the meaningless generalisations he spouted in it.

I'm fed up of media commentators who spew opinion and heresay dressed up as fact, without offering solid examples or citations to back up their drivel.
posted by normy at 1:55 PM on February 3, 2001


Dagny, I agree with you that in many ways, that's the best stuff on the web. Or (to look at another example) Metafilter, which is a "labor of love" (I guess) and which I would hate to do without. I would hate to be heard as suggesting that it doesn't matter just because it can't be cashed in on. But even creating that kind of content has costs, sometimes serious ones--people get burned out, bummed out, divorced, crazy all the time. I think the sites you're talking about will always be the "gravy" on the web, not the underlying, um, whatever is under gravy. Great analogy, huh? The point is that those site are in some sense being *subsidized* by the success of the web elsewhere. What would happen to all those Geocities cites if Yahoo! couldn't sell banner ads for their interstitials. Who would pay for all the routers if sites didn't need Akamai (or whoever) to serve their content?

But I'm probably over my head here. I'll defer to people who know more about this than me.

(And a tip of the Vernon Dudley Bohay-Nowell to ya, btw)
posted by rodii at 2:23 PM on February 3, 2001


Rodii, actually there's a hell of a lot of very good material on the web which is a labor of love. That's one of the problems that the big money pro-sites had; they were (in the colorful old phrase) "trying to work as hookers in a town full of horny college students". How can high-budget companies compete when there are so many people who do produce good material for free?

Certainly, when it comes to personal web sites, Sturgeon's Law applies in spades. But there are so damned many of them, that even the 10% which are decent still make up a huge number of sites. No single person contributs much, but the totality is immense. If a large number of people who know something put up a free web page which describes what they're experts on (such as my CDMA FAQ), the result is an immense resource. (I receive fan mail about my CDMA FAQ. It's completely plain; I've made no attempt whatever to format it pretty. I've concentrated on substance to the exclusion of form. But people don't seem to mind; I've gotten lots of praise about the content but not a single complaint about the form.)

At this point, the big problem is finding the useful 10%. That is only partially solved.
posted by Steven Den Beste at 3:44 PM on February 3, 2001


The point is that those site are in some sense being *subsidized* by the success of the web elsewhere. What would happen to all those Geocities cites if Yahoo! couldn't sell banner ads for their interstitials.

admittedly, most personal sites depend on commercial companies to some extent... although, to continue talking about the bonzo dog band (one of my favorite things to do...) you have a site hosted by a university, Bonnie and Laurie paying for their site hosting, never hoping to make money, etc. And they weren't talking about sites like yahoo, they were talking about sites like salon.com, which could all go under and still not be the death of content on the web because of the vast numbers of people who will make websites about things they like just for the experience of sharing them with others.
posted by dagnyscott at 4:36 PM on February 3, 2001


He says "the internet as media has failed". surely he means "the internet as a media business has failed"?
posted by davidgentle at 5:27 PM on February 3, 2001


Clicd on you URL ,denbeste; dies at 57% ???
posted by ojsbuddy at 7:38 PM on February 3, 2001


At this point, the big problem is finding the useful 10%. That is only partially solved.

...which takes us right back to the original concept behind (dare I say it?) weblogs, which for a too-small percentage of webizens, already solve the problem completely. So maybe the real breakthrough is going to come from the organic growth of link-oriented blogs for previously-underserved audiences (anybody who isn't into the tech/design/politics mix on MeFi?). So maybe after all the distractions of "journal-ly" weblogs and "a-list" personalities and "commercialized" blogs, weblogging will become "the next small thing" - maybe.

Of course, for people like Wolff, the web will still be dead...
posted by wendell at 8:01 PM on February 3, 2001


...which takes us right back to the original concept behind (dare I say it?) weblogs, which for a too-small percentage of webizens, already solve the problem [of finding the useful 10% of sites] completely.

No matter how many Weblogs you read, I doubt you'll even scratch the surface of the 10% of useful (or interesting) Web sites. There just aren't enough hours in your day.
posted by kindall at 10:24 PM on February 3, 2001


Yes, what Steven said.

Furthermore, I'm actually glad that no one seems to make money in the long run. This is the only mechanism which keeps the web true to itself and genuinely interesting.

If you want to support something, send them a few dollars.
posted by lagado at 10:58 PM on February 3, 2001


Actually, there are a lot of very successful sites on the web. Right now, the single most successful business on the web is porn.

It's everyone else who's having trouble.
posted by Steven Den Beste at 11:02 PM on February 3, 2001


I guess it helps to be able on-sell content which was produced for free by somebody with a scanner.

posted by lagado at 11:07 PM on February 3, 2001


I don't know if broadband will ever hit in the way that a lot of people want it to, as essentially an unlimited pipe that can deliver full motion, full screen video and so on, on-demand. I'm not holding my breath, anyway.

And Bill Gates said no one would ever need more than few 100 k of memory, and someone else claimed that a real computer would *never* fit in a single room. Time will tell.
posted by tomorama at 11:28 PM on February 3, 2001


wiremommy - mikel, it REALLY depends on who you ask about this. Yeah - I agree that there is a difference of opinion on Wolff. I think that in my other post I was too strong in my endorsement of the guy. that VV article was interesting too - thanks for that link.

I still think that it is very possible to build a web-centered business based mostly on content, and that it can be done as a real business, not simply as a labour of love (although I enjoy those as well). Just because the right model hasn't been found yet (well, it almost certainly has been found, just not replicated and discussed widely to date) doesn't mean it isn't possible.

I think that something like what moreover is doing is a start. Take that basic idea and offer highly focused feeds in a number of different tiny professional niches. Target some niche markets and develop the ne plus ultra wire service in that micro-market and sell that feed to companies in the field for their intranets, extranets, and internet sites. Pick something that Reuters is too big to cover very well and offer competitive pricing. Talk to small trade papers and magazines and work with them to bring their material online and use the relationship they have with their freelancers (and pay them additional money as well) to build something that's basically un-replicatable.

There are tons of cool little content businesses people could build (and are building). The potential money-making ones, though, aren't for the mass market, they're not sexy or hip, and they involve a lot of slog work. But I know of some nice little companies working that angle, and the pool is still very open to newcomers.

posted by mikel at 1:22 PM on February 4, 2001


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