Bipolar media disorder
We're all familiar with the manic-depressive cycle of Internet media coverage -- you know, the accelerating oscillation between "The Net will change everything!" and "The Net's just a big bunch of baloney." But it would be hard to find an illustration of these ups and downs more rapid or extreme than in Newsweek over the last two weeks.
The April 14 issue brought us a "Focus on Technology" story headlined, "What Shakeout? Don't believe the anti-hype about making money on the Internet." Steven Levy's article offered a thoughtful and thorough argument that the young Web business is in better shape than recent stories suggest. His Exhibit A was Net bookstore Amazon.com, the "shining example" of an online-commerce success story. The graphic centerpiece of the two-page spread: Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos' head, peering out from between two stockroom bookshelves.
Fast forward two weeks: It's April 28, and here's Bezos again, this time standing in an aisle between two stockroom bookshelves. Only this time the headline reads, "Financial Vaporware: Is anybody really making money on the Net?" In this story Exhibit A happens to be Yahoo, but far more space is devoted to dissecting the stock-offering prospectus from Exhibit B, none other than Amazon.com -- which, according to Newsweek's Wall Street editor Allan Sloan, is not nearly as good a bet as some have painted it.
Now, a publication's writers certainly don't have to march in lockstep, and it may be that Steven Levy simply assesses the Web business a lot more favorably than Allan Sloan. But aren't Newsweek's editors reading their own magazine? Shouldn't it have occurred to them that their readers might be justifiably confused by a magazine that calls a company a "shining example" one week and "financial vaporware" two weeks later? Even if the editors aren't reading their own magazine, surely the repeat photos would have underscored the problem.
Or does the Internet biz move so fast today that editors just assume no one will keep up with their inconsistencies?
April 24, 1997
Time to Marimba exec: You're "it"
There's lots of cool potential in Castanet, the technology that a company named Marimba is developing. Lots of buzz in the Web shops -- that of all the "push" schemes designed to beam information across the Net to your computer, Castanet's channels give "content providers" and consumers the most flexibility and options. If Castanet and its related chunks of Java-based software are as good as some people are saying, it's even conceivable that large numbers of people may actually end up using them. Someday.
If that day arrives, it might make sense for a big national magazine to grab Marimba CEO Kim Polese and put her on a list like the "Time 25," on the cover of this week's Time magazine. For the moment, though, Time's choice of Polese is wildly premature, unthinkingly hype-driven -- and, given the language Time uses in awarding the honor, sniggeringly condescending.
The "Time 25" criteria are defined thus on the magazine's Web site: "These are people who have accomplished something subtle and difficult. They have got other people to follow their lead. They don't necessarily have the maximum in raw power; instead, they are people whose styles are imitated, whose ideas are adopted and whose examples are followed."
It's understandable that Time would want to include a hot Web entrepreneur on such a list. And the ideas Polese and her company are developing have certainly been "imitated" and "adopted" -- by their competitors, if not yet by any significantly large numbers of users.
But the software industry has always been ready to embrace waves of cool-sounding ideas unproven in the marketplace. More often than not, such waves crash long before they've reached the general public's shore. In this business, the "subtle and difficult" achievement lies not in snagging magazine coverage -- but in actually getting a wide population to adopt a new product or approach. In that competition, Marimba's Castanet has barely arrived at the starting gate.
On some level Time seems to understand how premature its choice of Polese is; its essay on the attractive young executive is full of oddly deflating comments. She is "the most influential Web entrepreneur of this online generation -- that is, the past six months." (Read: Don't pay too close attention; if you come along in another few months, we'll be hyping someone else.) Her time at Sun as part of the Java team brought "Polese to public attention as the engaging human face of what to most was an incomprehensible software product." (Read: She doesn't look anything like the stereotypical geek so we're thrilled to be able to run a picture of her.)
It's bad enough that there are so few women in charge in the software industry. But it's even worse when the press takes the few female executives there are and pigeonholes them as "human faces" rather than smart leaders. Time clinches its cluelessness here with its final line about Polese: She "has earned an honored place as the Web's 1997 It Girl."
The original "It Girl," of course, was the archetypal flapper Clara Bow, who in 1927's "It" played a lingerie shop girl with an indescribable quality of attraction. Bow was a camera-pleasing babe not known for her brains, and her career tanked when the talkies came along.
"It Girl" came to be understood as a term to describe this year's model -- the female flavor-of-the-week upon whom the flighty attention of the press has briefly alighted. To use it to describe a woman executive trying to build a serious business is surely a back-handed compliment, if not an outright insult.
April 17, 1997
"Sins" of the tech biz?
The online media complain a lot about print and broadcast reports that paint the Internet in a bad light, or distort material found online, or grab unsubstantiated rumors off the Net to prove its unreliability. Such complaints are often merited. Sometimes, though, Web sites perform just as irresponsibly -- hastily grabbing news stories from print and boiling them down into context-free tidbits.
Consider the brief story that ran Tuesday on ZDNet, from PC Week Online, under the tantalizing headline "Report: High-tech industry is a virtual Sin City." An account of nude frolics at Microsoft HQ? A review of a pornographic urban simulation game? Nope -- just a repurposed story from USA Today about the prevalence of ethical lapses in the U.S. work force.
The USA Today piece provided a thorough and detailed report on a study of workplace behavior by the Ethics Officer Association and another industry group of 1,324 randomly chosen workers. Forty-eight percent of workers admitted to "taking unethical or illegal actions in the past year." Like what? By its fourth paragraph, the piece offered these examples: "cheating in an expense account, discriminating against co-workers, paying or accepting kickbacks, secretly forging signatures, trading sex for sales and looking the other way when environmental laws are violated." Nothing unclear there.
But when ZDNet picked up the story, it did what local and trade publications like to do: It found "the local angle," zeroing in on a small section of the USA Today piece that found ethical lapses were especially rampant among high-tech workers. Somehow, in ZDNet's hands, this factoid got translated into a repetitious litany of the word "sin" and its variants: "Crime, corruption, moral turpitude ... Who's the most likely to sin?... Why the bull market in sin?"
"Sin" is a catchy word. But the story didn't do a very good job of telling the reader what those sins might be. And most of the few it did list -- "cutting corners on quality control," "abusing or lying about sick days" or the absurdly vague "covering up incidents" -- make all that "sin" rhetoric sound a little silly. In any case, the story devoted more space to quotes from an Intel spokesperson denying the quality-control problem than to informing readers about details of the report itself.
Print publications have a long tradition of grabbing a story from somewhere, removing a lot of the detail, adding a few quotes and tacking on a jazzy headline. Why should Web-based media be any different? Well, here's one reason: On the Web, unlike in print, it's easy for critics to link back to the original story to show just how sinful a rewrite can be.
April 10, 1997
Times' Internet: Threat or menace?
The Heaven's Gate suicides provoked far less anti-Internet paranoia than you might have expected from initial descriptions of the "computer cult" and its Web-design business. It quickly became clear that there were too many dimensions to the cultists' strangeness to pin it all on the Net -- despite some attempts, particularly in the broadcast media, to stir up vague fears of online cult recruiting. Meanwhile, some of the best coverage of the events came on the Net itself, particularly by the Netly News' dogged team, which dug up logs of IRC chats in which cultists actually did try to recruit -- clumsily and unsuccessfully.
By far the strangest and most involuted piece of coverage graced the New York Times' Week in Review section cover last Sunday. Under the headline "Old View of Internet: Nerds. New View: Nuts," George Johnson spent a whole column of type describing just how weird and nutty the Net is, and how the Heaven's Gate folks fit right in. The cover illustration was a montage of Web pages from Heaven's Gate itself, from White Power and neo-Nazi organizations, serial killer archive sites -- and a pornography vendor named Nympho.com, featuring a drawing of a busty wench draped over a houseplant. The caption read: "These images from World Wide Web sites, ranging from the merely strange to the truly sinister, may explain why so many people now see the Internet as a menace, a labyrinth hiding the obsessions of perverts and cult leaders trying to snare impressionable minds and bodies."
But if you read on to the story's inside-page continuation, Johnson does a sudden about-face: "Never mind that most of the Internet's acreage has been staked and furrowed for ... respectable activities ... In the public mind -- molded by news reports on the old media, which are still more powerful and pervasive than anything online -- the Internet is starting to seem like a scary place ... Real or imagined, such feelings are ripe for political exploitation."
Johnson, alas, never actually cites or quotes a single person who finds the Internet scary. His direct line to the terrified "public mind" remains unsubstantiated and suspect; the "many people" who "see the Internet as a menace" are a vacant rhetorical device. On the other hand, members of the public who had no personal experience with the Internet and based their views on the Times' presentation of it in this article would definitely think of it as a public danger. With its compilation of inchoate "menaces" and its "we don't believe this, but lots of ignorant people out there do" dodge, the Times piece is a closed loop of straw men.
As for that illustration, we are left wondering what makes Nympho.com strange or sinister, as opposed to merely salacious -- and what the sites of White Power hate-mongerers have in common with the sad and lunatic Heaven's Gate suicides. If Johnson didn't protest so vigorously, you could be forgiven for thinking that maybe the people who blindly "see the Internet as a menace" sit behind Times editors' desks.
As a final touch of weirdness, Johnson's article ran next to one of the Times' own house ads for a forthcoming advertorial section that shouted in big type: "The Internet Just Grew Up."
April 3, 1997