Where are the Mahirs of yesteryear?

The Web thrill is gone, according to the New York Times, thanks to a critical shortage of flashes in the pan.

Published April 1, 2002 8:30PM (EST)

Last week, in what was surely the strangest obituary for the Web yet, the New York Times published a feature complaining that the Web is now officially washed up because it no longer provides a sufficiently diverting stream of trivial amusements.

"What attracted many people to the Web in the mid-1990's," read the lead article in the Times' Circuits section, "were the bizarre and idiosyncratic sites that began as private obsessions and swiftly grew into popular attractions" -- bagatelles like the Cambridge Coffee Cam, the Fish Tank Cam, the Jennicam, the Telegarden or the ill-fated Web soap opera "The Spot." (The latter, hardly a "private obsession," was a thoroughly commercial undertaking from day one, but never mind.)

Since the online universe apparently no longer coughs up as abundant a supply of "Am I Hot or Am I Not"-style novelties, the entire digital realm, we are to understand, has grown cold and dull. "We lost our sense of wonder," proclaims Glenn Davis, whose claim to fame was his creation of the original Cool Site of the Day listing. "The Web is old hat."

Old hat! That hurts. The Times' headline -- "As the Web Matures, Fun Is Hard to Find" -- conjured the strange image of Old Man Web as a wan roui, staggering through hotel lobbies in the wee hours, desperately seeking one more good time from jaded Web sites that once put out for him but now prefer to turn out the lights early.

Now, those of you with memories longer than a few months will recall that, once upon a time, back in the days before "dot-com" became a household term (and long before it became an insult), the mainstream press looked upon the Web, turned up its nose and sniffed: "What is this motley media universe, in which people are free to post paeans to their pets? Are we supposed to take seriously an amateurish collection of typo-ridden fan sites and unedited gossip? Where's the beef?"

Now, proclaims the Times, the problem with the Web is that it's too "mature" to provide us with captivating ephemera. Once we sneered at them, but now we want more dancing babies! Bring on another Hamster Dance! Forget the beef -- where's Mahir the lovesick Turkish accordion player when you need him?

Somehow, Times writer Lisa Guernsey equates some slowing of the Web's ability to mint instant pop-culture memes with a "lack of compelling content" -- as though the presence on the Web of every major newspaper, magazine, radio and TV show; every major government agency, most legislative bodies and court systems; nearly every significant retailer and manufacturer; and every think tank, research center and institution of higher learning were insufficiently "compelling content" compared to the supposed dearth of inane diversions crippling the Web today.

The Times article blurs the distinction between the World Wide Web and the Internet when it sees fit -- as when it suggests that a slight drop in the average length of users' online sessions might be a result of the Web's "lack of compelling content." Then it turns around and highlights that same distinction, in arguing that users are abandoning the tired old Web for snazzier Internet pastimes like file-swapping and instant messaging.

Of course, the most avid file-swapper needs to download the latest version of his software from somewhere, and that somewhere is nearly always a Web site. Web sites are one vital use of the Internet, along with e-mail, messaging, "peer-to-peer" file-swapping and no doubt further still-undreamed-of applications now brewing in the collective brain. No one ever said the Web was the be-all and end-all of Internet development. But what it was, and is, remains far more important than a mere generator of pop-cultural blips.

Sure, the froth of novelty was always a delightful aspect of the Web's rise, but it was never the heart of the Web enterprise. And the subsidence of that novelty, as users grew more accustomed to the idea of a "many-to-many" medium, was utterly predictable -- and proves nothing about the vitality of the technology or the uses people make of it.

During the aftermath of Sept. 11, as Americans developed a sudden urgent hunger for news and information beyond their borders, the Web made instantly available the news dispatches and editorial columns of publications from around the globe. If the Web did nothing else in 2001, that alone would have justified its existence -- more so than a thousand Fish Cams.

Back in 1997 I started writing this column under the title "Let's Get This Straight," out of a desire to chronicle and correct the astonishing range of nonsense in "old media" coverage of the Web. Between 1997 and 1999 most newspapers, including the Times, got steadily smarter in their Internet coverage, and the need for such vigilance declined.

Every now and then, though, pieces like "Fun Is Hard to Find" arrive, like anachronistic throwbacks, to remind us that some writers and editors in the newsrooms of America still can't get the Web straight, still think it's a passing fad -- and still, in some cases, can't wait to dig its grave.

The Web most certainly is mature today, compared with its incarnations of 1994 or 1997. Maybe some people -- like Cool Site's Davis or others quoted in the Times story -- who were having fun back then are no longer having fun today. Well, some people bore more easily than others.

Meanwhile, the Web has steadily grown as a vast repository of information, reliable and unreliable, on matters weighty and insubstantial, from the intricacies of high-stakes nuclear diplomacy to the discographies of one-hit wonders. And its infrastructure has stabilized to make it steadily more useful, with resources like Google -- searches that work fast, stay up-to-date and find what you're looking for -- and the Internet Archives' Wayback Machine, which offers snapshots of Web pages from the past.

All this -- and novelties, too! Yes, the very newspaper section that published "Fun Is Hard to Find" also features a very capable Online Diary column that offers plenty of "fun." And there are legions of webloggers out there combing the Net for bizarre oddities, then linking to them; just look at Daypop's top links list -- a real-time compilation of what many bloggers are linking to -- for new examples, day and night. (As I write this the list features Google's hilarious list of Britney Spears misspellings, the weirdest-looking computer you've ever seen, and much more.)

Hey, New York Times, if triviality is what you want from the Web, we still got plenty! The Web remains to pop culture what Saudi Arabia is to oil -- we have vast untapped reserves. We just don't want to flood the market. After all, we know that too many of the reporters covering us have short attention spans.

By Scott Rosenberg

Salon co-founder Scott Rosenberg is director of MediaBugs.org. He is the author of "Say Everything" and Dreaming in Code and blogs at Wordyard.com.

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