The good, the bad and the Webly


Mary Elizabeth Williams
December 23, 1996 3:29PM (UTC)

so it came to pass that the newfangled thingie they called "the Web" rose from a neat-o concept to full-on stardom in the mid-'90s. And lo, the history books would later write, it was in 1996 that it became apparent at last to all that the Web was no mere flash in the pan, no Macarena of text and image.

Remember, just two years ago, when Hotwired wasn't just the hottest thing, it was pretty much the only thing? Remember last year, when if you didn't have a domain name, you were as pathetically out of date as Ann Landers' hairstyle?

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This year, the honeymoon was over. Even as pundits proclaimed the Web had crested and was on the downswing, ever more individuals and corporations stampeded to carve out a virtual room of their own. In other words, like every other medium before it, the Web settled in, made itself at home in our lives, and observed with amusement reports of its demise. Because whether it's entertaining, informing, or boring the crap out of us, it's not going anywhere.

Herewith a few highlights and low points to store on the server of your memory.


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THE CDA TOOK MY BABY AWAY

The bad news was that the Communications Decency Act passed. The good news for all of us was that it was challenged and shot down faster than a Clinton cabinet nominee. The Web responded to the threat against free expression with the highly visible blue ribbon campaign, articulate and impassioned reports from the trenches, and a flurry of grassroots consciousness raising that demonstrated powerfully the commitment those who've found a home on the Web have to keeping their words and ideas on it intact.


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BUT WHAT I REALLY WANT TO DO IS ACT:
THE SITE/C|NET/NETIZEN TV

By now, every television network has its own Web site, plus there's a bucketload of hit shows that have more fan pages devoted to them than David Duchovny has panting groupies. But this was the year that turnabout seemed the order of the day, as TV about the Net took off. MSNBC launched with much hoopla, and the jewel in their crown, The Site, demonstrated what might have happened if Jane Pauley had married Max Headroom. Meanwhile, c|net continued to spread like so much kudzu — Web sites, TV shows, download destinations — while MSNBC and Wired's Netizen TV was an almost touchingly low-tech leap backwards from new media to broadcasting.


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OUT OF ONE VAST WASTELAND, INTO ANOTHER

While WebTV, @Home and others rushed to find easier and faster ways to turn your TV cables and sets into "Internet appliances," "push" became the buzzword du jour for Web businesses in the latter half of '96. Don't bother to click, say Pointcast and its "push-media" brethren; just sit back and let the information wash over you. Forget about all that interactivity nonsense and enjoy the Web from your couch. Potatohood is powerful!

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BACK SLAPPING A-GO-GO:
COOL SITE OF THE YEAR AWARDS

When the Cool Site of the Year Awards started way back in 1995, it was just an intimate little gathering of hardcore nerds and the creators of The Spot. This year, the event was a chi-chi Manhattan luvfest, featuring more goateed hipsters in collarless shirts than should ever be brought together in one room that isn't about to be torched. Groovy locals, who six months earlier couldn't have fought their way out of an AOL chat room, congratulated each other on their Web savvy 'til the cows came home. But the online denizens themselves voted not for 'tude-driven velvet rope-type sites but the folksy dark horse from Maryland, Discovery Online, as their favorite of the year. Fortunately, only minor ego damage was incurred.

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My Browser Can Beat Up Your Browser

This Sunday Sunday SUNDAY on PAY PER VIEW! In this corner, Netscape, the feisty Web veteran, noble spawn of Mosaic, and a perennial crowd pleaser. In the other corner, the Battle from Seattle, weighing in with somewhere around $70 billion of corporate muscle behind it, Microsoft Explorer! Which will win in this fight to the death for the lion's share of the browser-iffic Web viewing crowd? They both take a licking and keep on clicking except when they're crashing.

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AU REVOIR, MIRSKY

As the self-infatuation of Web creators seemed to reach critical mass, the man who was among the first to shout "Don't believe the hype" threw in the
towel. The perpetually and deliciously crabby Mirsky abandoned his two-year-old daily, the Worst of the Web, citing disappointment with the site's limited success and noting he was "just sick of doing the same thing every day." Though there are plenty of
other places on the Web that will gladly tell you what sucks, Mirsky had a snark all his own. The Worst was the most, and it is missed.


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THE FOLKS YOU LOVE TO SLATE

Bring on the hubris! As the publishing world whipped itself into a collective frenzy so ecstatic that visions of Bill Gates were being reported east of the Mississippi, Microsoft's Slate debuted in the spring. Edited by Michael Kinsley, the magazine was often intelligent and insightful. Amazingly, the rest of the Web did not wither in the light of its glory nor grind to a screeching halt.

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ELECTRIC YOUTH

After promising for months to finally, at long last, bring intelligent conversation and community to the Web, "Virtual Community" author Howard Rheingold launched his Electric Minds an eclectic mix of posting and journalism in November. Participants in ongoing Web communities as diverse as Bianca's Smut Shack, Cafe Utne and Salon's own Table Talk, waist-deep in their own love affairs, flame wars and thought-provoking dialogues, were too busy to take notice.


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DIDN'T I BLOW YOUR MIND?

Hey, it was all in good fun, Mr. G-Man! Last winter, Exploding Heads creator Daniel Burford, whose site allows visitors to detonate the craniums of such loathed figures as Rush Limbaugh and Tom Hanks, was paid a visit by some federal agents who did not find his exploding Bob Dole neck-topper droll in the slightest. As it turned out, Burford was the least of the crotchety senator's problems, as, bean intact, Mr. Dole went on to tank in the presidential election.

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I HEARD A RUMOR: FORGET PARIS

After last summer's TWA flight 800 was cut short minutes after it took off, the Net was abuzz with rumors as to the cause. Online veterans tend to take most theories with a grain of salt, but one, a journalist of some repute by the name of Pierre Salinger, embraced the speculation mill with all the charming innocence of a bona fide newbie. Salinger reported a half-assed online rumor as fact, thereby securing his status as most gullible Net denizen of the year.

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THANK YOU, SIR, MAY I HAVE ANOTHER?

Yes, it may be the most ridiculous trend to hit the Web since Spam haiku, but this year there was no denying that the pork product of choice was Bacon. As in Kevin. The popular pastime trying to determine how many degrees separate anyone who has ever graced a movie set from the eternally boyish star of "Footloose" probably filled more hours of lost worktime than Doom and the Teri Hatcher fan page combined. A bonanza of copycat sites, a series of magazine articles and a back-to-Bacon book all followed.

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MASTERS OF THEIR DOMAIN: THE CORPORATE WEB

Last year's mad scramble for domain names resulted in a spirit of hoarding that would not be seen again until the great Tickle Me Elmo shortage of this Christmas. But with all those domains, and only a marginal comprehension of the interests and attention span of the Web audience, corporate sites languished. Could it be that with a world of cleverly artistic sites, chat, MUDs and more porn that you can shake a ... um, stick at, nobody really cares that much about Tater Tot trivia or Hugo Boss' urban survival guide?


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A HOME PAGE IN EVERY POT

While that first flush of enthusiasm for all things HTML-coded may have abated ever so slightly, there's still no shortage of stunningly lame home pages to be found. Armed with highly varying senses of aesthetics and the rudiments of spelling and grammar, college students, bored corporate drones and the obsessive lovers of the great indoors from all walks of life proudly shared with the rest of us their graduation photos, lists of all-time favorite CDs and rambling ruminations on the state of the world. In the midst of all this masturbatory glee, some folks with original and intriguing points of view actually managed to create a forum where they might otherwise never be heard.

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GIRLS, GIRLS, GIRLS

Those who until recently considered the Web a He-Man Woman Hater's Club may have noticed the changes as chicks continue to blast open the doors of online communication. Veterans like geekgirl Rosie Cross, cybergrrl Aliza Sherman and Net Chick Carla Sinclair were joined by the playfully fierce babes of Bitch. Coming soon: Bleach, brightening the concept of women's journalism beyond girly-rag style butt-blasting exercises and tips for satisfying your man. The Web a masculine enclave? As IF.


Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a staff writer for Salon and the author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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