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Point and think
Evolution of the Web The disappearance of many Web sites that challenged traditional media with smart, fresh essays and opinion was one of the worst results of the dot-com bust. But as JEFF WARREN reports, a new, more collaborative intellectual model has grown up in their wake

March 2, 2002

Evolution of the Web

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  • In the year or so since the great dot-com bust, disparaging the future of Web sites has been a fashionable pastime: The bubble has popped, the computer has crashed, the content sucks, the spirit is crushed. Pessimism has been particularly fierce with regards to intelligent, essay-based content sites.

    The reason is obvious. So many Web readers frequented sites such as Feed, Word, Suck and Salon for news and commentary that when they downsized or closed, everybody noticed. Hip and immediate though they were, those sites were still basically magazines, with paid contributors writing regular articles in a more-or-less distinctive editorial voice.

    They were in the same mode as the New Yorker (which finally launched its own site last year) - except that they had no print sales to back them up. They depended on advertising that mostly never materialized; as markets tightened, sites disappeared, and with them the apparent challenge to established media.

    But, in fact, another kind of intellectual-content site has survived, one that makes much fuller use of the Web's unique structure. And the new model is flourishing.

    The Web has always attracted a sizable minority of literate dissenters, interested in more than Limp Bizkit MP3s and streaming video-porn clips. While institutionally supported sites such as Slate (Microsoft), the Atlantic Online (Atlantic Monthly), and (Brooking Institution) remain important stopovers, they more and more feel peripheral to the main attractions.

    Instead of self-contained essays, the Web's new intellectual hothouses offer diverse networks of opinion, and active participation. Reader power is where the Web really comes into its own.

    Plastic, Slashdot and Metafilter are three sites where users determine both the news and the spin. Users, including loyal bands of regulars, post links to articles found elsewhere on the Web, write subjective introductions and invite commentary. Discussions range from New York police brutality to the antics of rap-metal behemoth Kid Rock, with sources from the Wall Street Journal editorial page to Annette Funicello fan sites.

    As Neil Morton of Shift magazine recently wrote on-line, "With the Net, now we go and find the news; the news doesn't get selected for us by editors and writers. We go out and discuss various viewpoints on political events in threads and discussion boards rather than having them dictated to us by op-ed pages with their own agenda."

    There are thousands of media portals on the Web: newspapers, periodicals, academic journals, e-zines, book reviews and more. Readers can explore on their own (one of the Internet's greatest pleasures), or they can rely on trusted third-party editors, such as Dennis Dutton and Tran Huu Dung at the popular Arts and Letters Daily.

    Founding editor Dutton calls it "an intellectual watering hole." The site is one long broadsheet of single-paragraph teasers, each with a link to some off-site article. Every day Dutton and Dung sift through the Web, looking for "precious nuggets of real content" to sate the intellectual appetite of the 50,000 or so users who visit daily.

    "The idea," Dutton says, "is to be contrarian, but to avoid directly partisan issues of the moment." Ideological and national biases get diffused in the breadth of the connections, with conservative Commentary pieces listed link-by-jowl with rabble-rousing Nation editorials.

    The U.K.-based, non-profit is even more ambitious, hoping to promote international discourse with a proliferation of ideologically clashing voices. Their "city and country" thread, for instance, is co-edited by Roger Scruton ("rural darling of the intellectual right") and left-wing urban thinker Ken Worpole. Each article is intended to elicit responses from around the world, to which the original author will usually respond.

    According to Senior Editor Paul Hilder, the site aims to be a "fair space in an unfair world," a new conduit between influence brokers and ordinary people. "The friendly informality of the Web," he says, "has made corporate chieftains discuss human fears, academics come down from their ivory towers to en-gage in the real world, and ministers think differently about participatory politics."

    Its forum on globalization has become a must-read in Britain, and according to Independent newspaper founder Andreas Whittam Smith, "Since Sept. 11, OpenDemocracy has provided the best and most alive discussion of the issues - it's like listening to debates in Paris straight after July 14, 1789."

    The genius of Web sites for accommodating multiple points of view is nowhere better illustrated than in the recent on-line craze for public diaries, or "blogs." The term is a shortening of Weblog - and also the name of the easy-to-use technology available at "Push-Button Publishing for the People." Plastic, Slashdot et al are community Weblogs updated regularly by contributors. Blogs are sites maintained by individuals.

    Bloggers post a running diary of their thoughts and activities, and usually respond to e-mail from readers. There are thought to be as many as a million bloggers, most of them ranting and fuming on a decidedly local level. But some -like New Republic editor Andrew Sullivan's excoriating Daily Dish, and Steve MacLaughlin's business and technology newsletter Saltire - have become legitimate sources of news and information in their own rights.

    Cyber-thinker David Weinberger has his own Weblog, but is better known as the co-author of last year's influential Cluetrain Manifesto, and the upcoming Small Pieces, Loosely Joined: A Unified Theory of the Web. He says all these sites represent more than just "a flood of new content."

    The Internet, Weinberger says, "is unleashing our natural desire to find other people interested in the same things as we are, our group-forming tendencies. The Internet has long passed the point of being a gigantic on-line library where we can track down content that matters to us. [It] is a conversation."

    "The Web," Hilder would add, "allows us to develop a conversation over time, instead of being locked into the episodic, stand-alone nature of print publishing."

    Like print, Weinberger says, the earlier Web magazines were "bound up with the use of publications as a way to establish not just authorship but authority." But "the Web is by its nature hyperlinked, not self-standing. You have to be linked to be on the Web. And if you're posting material that has no links, you're taking yourself out of the conversation." In the world of Weblogs, discussion boards and user-generated content, reading and writing has become a more truly social activity.

    The free user-generated encyclopedia Wikipedia is an exciting example. Wikipedia listings can be written and edited by anyone who thinks they know better. In the year since it went on-line, Wikipedia has generated more than 23,000 entries, and it's growing by 200 or so a day. Though much of the content is wildly inconsistent, and tends to the pop-culture side of the track, there are many serious entries, and the hundreds of "Wikipedians" who have contributed obviously believe it will become an unmatched resource.

    These new Web sites are not without their problems. Funding remains much the same issue it was for the magazines, even if money is saved on writing staff. Most of the sites mentioned here, and all one million blogs, survive on the personal wherewithal of their owners, or else generous donors. OpenDemocracy is planning a "voluntary subscription" system, where the user decides what to contribute.

    Some of the last generation has survived on a similar model. Salon's subscription service, Salon Premium, was greeted sceptically at first. But along with its online community the Well, it has now generated more than 35,000 subscriptions, even while maintaining its old print-based structure. This is good news for more innovative user-based sites. It shows that some readers are willing to pay to support their chosen forum.

    But the new sites have content issues too. Without editing, they aren't generally as streamlined or finely tuned as an equivalent piece in Harpers or the London Review of Books. Opening up to Everyman engenders a lot of sloppy argument, especially down in the pits of the blogs.

    Also missed are the traditional pleasures of themed editorial pack-aging. With ideas, topics and authors coming at you fast and furious, it's hard to pick and choose, or to grasp for context. It's not hard to imagine the need to reinvent the editor - in some new, Web-friendly form - in the near future.

    But if you can handle the pace, the rewards are well worth it.

    Today's on-line readers are part of an experience that goes way beyond the passivity of reclining in your easy chair to read the weekend book review. They have more control over content, access to a wider range of opinions, and in many cases they are expected to contribute opinions themselves. Today's Web readers have become their own editors and writers, without the intervention of any central authority. Intellectual Web sites hoping to survive will pick up on that cue, and open themselves to the chatter of many active voices.

    Jeff Warren divides his time between Toronto and London, and is about to launch an on-line "impressionist encyclopedia of cities,"

    Email Jeff Warren

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