R.I.P. World Birthday Web

As the Net gets older, is it losing its soul, or just growing up?

Published August 1, 2001 9:39PM (EDT)

Last Wednesday, I logged on to check my e-mail, happily expecting some 25 to 30 birthday greeting messages from complete strangers. About half, I assumed, would be cleverly (or not-so-cleverly) disguised spam, but I could also count on at least a dozen or so genuine salutations. I had, after all, been signed up on Thomas Boutell's World Birthday Web for six years.

But there was zip. Not a one. No cheerful felicitations from the Ivory Coast or South Korea. Not even a pathetic "happy birthday now why don't you sign up for my joke-a-day service" come-on. Instead, a b-day void, a black e-mail hole.

Where had all my birthday greetings gone? It wasn't as if the World Birthday Web were some kind of post-IPO dot-com that had suddenly foundered. It was a simple little Web site where you could register your birth date. I immediately e-mailed Boutell, a programmer of some renown on the Net, the maintainer of the FAQ for the World Wide Web and author of the PNG compression format for digital images.

"We closed down the WBW because it generated vastly more complaints than compliments," said Boutell. "Even though we always did what we could to maintain the privacy of the participants, there was no way to guarantee it wouldn't be used as one vast spam database by sufficiently skilled spammers, without removing the ability to contact people altogether.

"Also, it was an expense with no real business purpose for us, although we could have continued to cheerfully tolerate that if it weren't for the spam problem. The site had a loyal following, but not a commercially viable one that could have justified the pain of dealing with the stream of complaints. That's life on the Net these days, unfortunately."

The demise of the World Birthday Web reminded me of a nagging irritation that was also manifesting itself in my e-mail box, although in this case it was the presence of e-mail, and not the absence, that was the problem. Around the same time I signed up on the World Birthday Web, I also asked a service called UrlMinder to let me know whenever the content on a particular page changed. Andrew Schulman, an editor at O'Reilly & Associates, was writing an interesting series about Windows 95. But he didn't update very often, so the UrlMinder service, from a company called NetMind, seemed useful -- exactly the kind of thing the Net would be really good at.

Flash forward to the year 2001. Every few weeks I get a "reminder" notice from a company called Mind-it (a subsidiary of Puma Technology, which purchased NetMind) telling me, "We just wanted to let you know that we are still monitoring these pages for you, even though we haven't detected any changes lately." And underneath this oh-so-helpful reminder is a nice little advertisement for MasterCard or some other commercial entity. Need I emphasize how this "service" is now giving me precisely the opposite of what I signed up for? I don't think so.

With these two incidents serving as fuel, it would be easy to start ranting about the death of the Net. Forget about all the dead dot-coms, the crippled Napsters, the bankrupt Webvans and the missing-in-action Feeds. When even a simple little thing like the World Birthday Web can't survive because of widespread abuse, what hope is there for sanity and good fellowship in the online version of the 21st century? OK, OK, I accept that there aren't any free lunches on the Net, but not even free happy birthdays? Are human beings really that lame?

It has occurred to me that there might be better things to be outraged about than my lack of birthday greetings and the occasional message from Mind-it informing me that nothing has changed. Just off the top of my head, the concentration of corporate power epitomized by AOL Time Warner and Microsoft, the assault on free speech and consumer liberty embodied in the Digital Millennium Copyright Act and, worst of all, the unstoppable spread of pop-up and pop-under ads are probably better targets for outrage and despair than the collapse of the World Birthday Web.

And on the positive side, there's still plenty to be excited about online. Napster may be a shadow of its former self, but scores of new file-trading services have popped up to replace it. Webvan may have spent itself into oblivion, but does anyone doubt that established supermarket chains will be filling the online toilet paper delivery niche in the next few years? The cooperative software development movement producing open-source software may have receded from the headlines of late, but it is still alive and well, thanks to the advances in communication and collaboration made possible by the Net.

So what is it, exactly, that still nags? Is there any deeper significance to my annoyance, beyond the fact that I, and no doubt millions of others, can't imagine living without my e-mail but still hate spam? Surely I'm old enough (after yet another birthday) to understand, and accept, that everything has its price.

And there, upon further reflection, may be the real explanation for my discomfort -- that very process of acceptance. The e-mail address at which I receive (or don't receive) Mind-it messages and birthday greetings is the first address I ever had, and its eight years of existence make it a weird kind of historical document/archaeological dig. The end of the World Birthday Web and the reminder of the day I signed up with UrlMinder mark a passage of time that has taken on a significance out of all proportion to its actual duration.

Psychologically speaking, the excitement shared in the early days of the Net made everyone feel, regardless of their age, like a young pioneer in a gloriously undiscovered country. This excitement was different in quality from that experienced during the greed-driven dot-com boom. It was a glee generated by the realization that something truly amazing was happening. The growth of the Net was an incitement to optimism, an invitation to exult. Those who were in on the secret were transformed into babbling evangelists, and every hour spent online seemed to offer more undeniable holy writ.

Amazing things, as noted above, are still going on. But the glee, for the most part, has faded like the output of a printer running out of toner.

It had to happen. Glee is not an endlessly sustainable emotion. Nor should it be -- it's hard to see how a true revolution can be built on nothing more than giddiness. The real lesson of the failure of the World Birthday Web, not to mention so many dot-coms, aside from just the inevitability of a popping bubble, is that it takes hard work to make something really different succeed. Judged by that metric, baubles like UrlMinder and the World Birthday Web are hardly noticeable. Their absence doesn't mean the failure of the revolution -- they're just reminders that nothing is ever as easy as it seems in the glow of early passion.

And that reminder is sobering. In the end, I realized, the demise of the World Birthday Web annoys me not because I miss the greetings but because I mourn the passing of my glee.

By Andrew Leonard

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

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