A couple days ago, I visited the office of a coworker to go over the details of a new research project we're working on for an Internet service provider. The ISP is looking for new ways of drumming up business in spite of what is commonly referred to as the dot bomb crash. As my co-worker and I described how we might go about structuring the project, she asked me, "Whatever happened to the Internet anyway?"
"What do you mean?" I asked.
"Well," she said, "everyone was talking about how the Internet was going to be so great, and it turned out to be a complete disaster."
The Internet is a complete disaster, huh? What she meant, of course, is that the Internet has been bad for business. (Actually, the Internet has been great for business, finally provoking the tight-fisted upper class to actually invest a little of their vast savings in the economy instead of hoarding it like they usually do. What's been bad for business is bad business, fly-by-night operations and the idiots who funded them. The Internet didn't do anything to business. Business just showed its true colors - with ecommerce or just plain regular commerce, most businesses turn out to be failures.) In her mind, if the Internet isn't good for business then it isn't good for anything. For e-business devotees like her, the promise of the Internet was the promise to make lots of money. Now that most of the once-arrogant Internet businesses are either dead or wasting away, these people feel betrayed.
Just a few years ago, we were all being lectured about how business was the real purpose for the Internet and that everyone else ought to shut up and get out of the way. In a typical commercial, Dennis Leary chastized a bunch of children who dared to question the commercialization of the Internet, sneering that they needed to grow up. The idea was that the days of the Internet as a place for the free exchange of ideas was over, and that the mature Internet would be all about making money. Now it looks like it was Dennis who needed to grow up and stop throwing his greedy little temper tantrum. The kids had a point after all.
The obvious truth is that the Internet was not designed for making money, but to allow the easy sharing of information among interested people. The Internet is like a library, with each web site a book. No library tries to make a profit off of the books on its shelves, and we'd be upset if we did because libraries are designed as community resources. Just imagine what the ecommerce fanatics would do if they could get their hands on those books. They'd put banner ads on every page. They'd have each book rigged so that it would secretly keep information about which people have read which pages and how many times. They'd splash color all over the page and turn the page numbers into animated icons. They'd let us read the first 50 pages for free, but then make us give out personal information and credit card numbers if we wanted to read the rest.
It's a radical idea these days, but the free and open creation and distribution of information and ideas has a value in itself, even if it doesn't make anyone any money. Politics, science, social research, news, personal beliefs and a million other private passions can contribute to the health of our society when they are more easily expressed. Heck, even idle chatter has its value. For far too long, low technology and the profit-obsession of the mass media has prevented the average citizen from making a statement audible to the rest of the world. Now, when the barricades to the individual's broadcast of the self are taken down, we're chastized by the holders of corporate megaphones for being amateurish.
Shame on big business for trying to convince us that the Internet isn't good for anything except making money. Even more, shame on us for believing it. Many small time Internet writers have let themselves get nickled and dimed into tame expression. Joining web sites that promise big pay outs for insipid writing at the rate of a penny per hit, we let ourselves get fooled into thinking that we needed sponsors to have our speech be heard.
We joined Themestream.com, TheVines.com, WrittenByMe.com, even BrightIdea.com, but found that our writing suffered. The most successful articles on these .com destinations tended to be works such as the Top Ten Hottest Sex Tricks Of All Time, Why My Tits are My Best Friends or Five Movies That Make Me Fart Out Loud. Dot commercialized beyond mediocrity, the writing of the once free and open, creative writers of the net surpassed Jerry Springer in their descent into crass attempts to gain attention. Just a few more clicks, and that article could earn a dollar!
Even more humiliating was that the prostitution of our minds for peanuts turned out not to bring in any money at all. These pay-per-click writing sites quickly folded, surprising the desperate content providers with surprise overnight notices that the income earned from the production of the thousand pages of banality would not be paid. Sometimes, new deals were offered, with the writers asked to sacrifice their income for the good of the site: "We're going to pay you one tenth of what we originally offered you. It's for the greater good, you understand." As the deals got worse, increasing numbers of writers faded away like disappearing ink.
So what's to become of the independent Internet writers, now that the great Dot Com sponsors are gone? Some will sink away, but many more will stay, relocating their thoughts to places of their own making. The more insightful among those who stay will take opportunity of the mass failure of online business schemes and write-for-peanuts sponsorships to celebrate what the Internet has always been the best medium for: free speech for the love of free speech.
We speak because we love to speak. We speak because we can speak. We speak because we're irregular. We speak to be heard, to make a difference, to erode the banks of the main stream of mega-volume, one-size-fits-all corporate ideas. We speak because we choose to think for ourselves and we know that many readers make the same choice. We speak for the profit of our minds, for the profit of our consciences, for the profit of our nations and our world. We speak without knowing for sure whether any profit will ever result, but knowing that no profit can come from no speech. We speak, reclaiming the Internet for our own purposes, profits be damned. We speak as the mature, robust free-speech Internet. As for the pipsqueak, fly-by-night, banner-ad junkie big-bankroll-or-bust businesses, well, they can speak all they want to as well, but until they grow up and learn to relax that bottom line, they won't be speaking to anyone but themselves.
Riled up? Don't let it bottle up. Talk back!
Got irregular thoughts of your own?