21st: The Web's year of living slowly

If 1997 was any indication, the cliches of "Internet time" and "Web years" may be out-of-date.

By Andrew Leonard

Published December 23, 1997 8:00PM (EST)

In her brand new book, "Net.wars," Wendy Grossman chooses to kick off her first chapter with a whimsical quotation from the 1983 film "Local Hero":

"What's the most amazing thing you've ever found?" one character asks a beachcomber. "Impossible to say," replies the man -- "there's something amazing every two or three weeks."

"Substitute minutes for weeks," writes Grossman, "and you have the Net."

A marvel every minute: That's what we call Internet time. To Web workers, the fast-paced ticking of the digital clock is a collective calling card, a badge of cyberspace honor, occasion for a sly smile between in-the-know comrades. And if minutes equal weeks, years are absolute epochs. Since the fall 1993 release of the multi-platform Mosaic Web browser, the Net has moved from the Stone Age to post-industrialism in less time than it takes to delete a piece of junk e-mail. Forget about humdrum offline reality -- we're riding the online express!

But time's up. The halcyon days of the mid-'90s, when every new dawn beamed with brighter Dayglo colors than the one before, are fading. Marvels are in sudden short supply. In 1997, the year of living slowly, cyberspace speeders have hit a bumpy road.

Another week, another revolution

No true Web geek can forget the thrill of first installing a program like RealAudio 1.0 -- and suddenly hearing sounds on the Web without having to wait for a lengthy download. Those were the days -- throughout 1994 and 1995, one could hardly log on without being stunned by some dramatic technological breakthrough. VRML viewers offered a three-dimensional interface to our flat monitor screens. Gif animations added life to static documents. Java promised interactivity for everyone. No one cared if sound quality sucked, or the VRML plug-in was buggy beyond belief, or every Java applet seemed to crash. Each new wonder brought us another giant step closer to cyberpunk utopia. Web wonks would exchange amazed and delighted glances with each other at industry conferences or South Park San Francisco cafes. Who could believe the rate of progress? Who could keep up?

Such is youth. As 1997 draws to a close, it is difficult to do more than shrug at the news that RealAudio version 5.0 is available for download. The news that yet another start-up venture has joined the battle to dominate the video-streaming business distinctly fails to dazzle. Now, no one cares about that new modem advertisement, braying about faster-than-ever baud transfer rates. Each new incremental advance is useful, perhaps even worthy of praise. But living in the Incremental Age is no wild joyride -- actually, it's kind of humdrum.

The browser wars

It seems silly now, but there was a time when the mere announcement of the availability of a new beta test version of Netscape Navigator would galvanize half the Net into an ecstatic frenzy. Minutes after a tip was posted to a mailing list or newsgroup, crazed surfers would pummel Netscape's Web servers with hundreds of thousands of frantic download requests. We had to know what was next on the Web agenda, and like 5-year-olds on Christmas morning, we simply couldn't bear to wait another second.

No longer. There will always be a hard core of early adopters jumping on every new beta, but today, who else can be bothered? Blame the browser wars. It's long become clear that new browser features have little to do with what people actually need and everything to do with what the suits believe will grab market share. Active X "controls," Javascript tweaks and an ever-burgeoning array of proprietary sound and video formats are slowing us down as we traverse the Net. Who has the patience to grab every necessary plug-in to handle every new application? Netscape and Microsoft, locked in a desperate struggle to triumph |ber alles, have ended up throwing a toolbox full of monkey wrenches into the gears of Web evolution.

Perhaps you thought that unfettered free market competition would speed things up? Think again. To take just one example, the effort to create a unified standard for VRML has been repeatedly sabotaged by corporations striving for proprietary advantage. Long gone are the days when one programmer could make a decision, release code and revolutionize the look and feel of cyberspace. Now, endless wars of attrition are fought in courtrooms and via committee hearings.

No more new kids on the block

Once upon a time, you learned some HTML in an afternoon, put up a Web site the next day, got labeled a "cool site of the nanosecond" by early evening and became an instant Net celebrity. If you were especially opportunistic, you rounded up some talent and venture-capital funding and, presto, you had an instant brand -- you were an established player in a game so new that nobody knew the rules.

Not anymore. To make the same kind of impact on Net society today that one could in 1994 -- simply by being there! -- requires massive outlays of cash and marketing muscle. Anyone can still do their own zine thing, or find a niche for their own mini-community, but if you want to establish the brand awareness that draws eyeballs, advertising dollars and investment capital, you're late to the dinner table. The frontier has been homesteaded, and barbed wire has sprung up across the open prairie. We no longer look to see what new thing has popped up overnight, but instead, what old thing has withered and died.

None of this is necessarily evil, or even unexpected. No exponential growth curve lasts forever. Commercial jockeying for market share is part of the maturation of the Net economy. After all the Sturm und Drang of a new medium's birth, a lot of hard work and attention to details is necessary to create something that lasts.

But the Web industry often seems to be fueled largely from the pungent exhaust of its own hype. In the era of the "digital revolution" and the "new economy," traditional economic laws and historic truths have supposedly been repealed or superseded -- and the supersonic speed of "Internet time" is widely accepted proof.

Or at least that's how it seemed, last year. Today, we've hit the sound barrier and are bouncing back. It's time for everyone to reset their clocks and reevaluate the hype of yesteryear. If the Net is slowing to a crawl, or at the very least, if our subjective sense of Internet time is ratcheting down, what does that mean for all the hopes and dreams of the "connected" generation? Should we close all our windows, unplug our modems and forget all about our drag racing days on the info highway?

Absolutely not. The deceleration of cyberspace is no excuse to slump into ennui. The raw numbers of online life still command respect. The number of computers connected to the Net, the number of people with e-mail addresses and the number of advertising dollars raked in by Net-based businesses all rise quarter to quarter in a fashion most virile. It's no dream, and it's no illusion.

Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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