Internet: A Medium or a Message?

The State of the Net: An Interim Report about the Future of the Internet

Who are the participants who constitute the Internet?

- Users - connected to the net and interacting with it

- The communications lines and the communications equipment

- The intermediaries (e.g. the suppliers of on-line information or access providers).

- Hardware manufacturers

- Software authors and manufacturers (browsers, site development tools, specific applications, smart agents, search engines and others).

- The "Hitchhikers" (search engines, smart agents, Artificial Intelligence - AI - tools and more)

- Content producers and providers

- Suppliers of financial wherewithal (currently - corporate and institutional cash to be replaced, in the future, by advertising money)

- The fate of each of these components - separately and in solidarity - will determine the fate of the Internet.

- The Internet has hitherto been considered the territory of computer wizards. Thus, any attempt at predicting its future applied the Olympic formula : "Faster, Higher, Stronger" to its hardware and software determinants.

Media experts, sociologists, psychologists, advertising and marketing executives were left out of the collective effort to determine the future face of the Internet.

The Internet cannot be currently defined as a medium. It does not function as one - rather it is a very disordered library, mostly incorporating the writings of non-distinguished megalomaniacs. It is the ultimate Narcissistic experience.

Yet, ever since the invention of television there hasn't been anything as begging to become a medium as the Internet is.

Three analogies spring to mind when contemplating the Internet in its current state:

- A chaotic library

- A neural network or the equivalent of a telephony network in the making

- A new continent

These metaphors prove to be very useful (even business-wise). They permit us to define the commercial opportunities embedded in the Internet.

Yet, they fail to assist us in predicting its future which lies in its transformation into a medium.

How does an invention become a medium? What happens to it when it does become one? What is the thin line separating the basic function of the invention from its flowering in the form of a new medium? In other words: when can we tell that some technological advance gave birth to a new medium?

This work also deals with the image of the Internet once transformed into a medium.

The Internet has the most unusual attributes in the history of the media.

It has no central structure or organization. It is hardware and software independent. It (almost) cannot be subjected to legislation or to regulation. Take on example: downloading music from the internet - is it an act of recording music? This has been the crux of the legal battle between Diamond Multimedia (the manufacturers of the Rio MP3 device) and the recording industry in America.

Its data transfer channels are not linear - they are random. Most of its "broadcast" cannot be "received" at all. It allows for the narrowest of narrowcasting through the use of e-mail mailing lists, discussion groups, message boards and chats. And this is but a small portion of an impressive list of oddities. This idiosyncrasy will shape the nature of the Internet as a medium. Growing out of bizarre roots - it is bound to yield strange fruit as a medium.

So what are the business opportunities out there?

I believe that they are to be found in two broad categories :

- The shaping of the Internet as a medium, using the right software and hardware

- The shaping of the Internet as a medium through contents

The Map of Terra Internetica

The Users

How many users are there ? How many of them have access to the Web (World Wide Web - WWW) and use it ? There are no unequivocal statistics. Those who presume to give the answers (including the ISOC - the Internet SOCiety) - rely on very partial and biased resources. Others just bluff for very unscientific reasons.

Yet, all agree that there are, at least, 70 million active participants in North America (the Nielsen and Commerce-Net reports).

The future is, inevitably, even more vague than the present. Authoritative consultancy firms predict 66 million active users in 10 years time. IBM envisages 700 million users. MCI is more modest with 300 million. At the end of 1999 there were 130 million users.

This is not serious futurology. It is better to ignore these predictions and to face facts.

The Internet - an Elitist and Chauvinistic Medium

The average user of the Internet is young (30), with academic background and high