PC Users Became a Medium
Monday, March 4, 1996 by Dave Winer.
I took an auto cruise this weekend. Saturday was one of the most beautiful days ever. Clear blue sky. Warm sun. I got a tan! A little.
The hills are green after a long winter of rain. Trees are blooming. Flowers everywhere. In the most unlikely places. Daffodils in the median strip of US 101! They're sooo pretty. It seems as if it can never rain again.
I took a week's worth of New York Times with me on the road trip. Late Saturday night, after a shiatsu and a few hours in warm water, it started raining. I caught up.
I've become a hound for information about the 1996 US presidential elections. It's a special time; great battles are fought on page 1; great struggles between the fears of various factions.
Then I caught an article about Microsoft promoting a ratings system for Internet websites. They plan to support it in the next version of Internet Explorer.
This story bothered me a lot!
I think people in New York and Washington think that Microsoft gets the web.
Wrong! They're learning. They're trying hard. Pedal to the metal.
Imagine Steve Ballmer at a Microsoft pep rally, screaming "LEARN THE INTERNET OR DIE!" I think I had a dream about this once? Maybe not.
Imagine two women talking about their boyfriends. "He's clueless," the first woman says. The other says "Yes, but at least he's trying."
We can say that about Microsoft on the web.
For the most part they don't have a clue.
But at least they're trying!
Imagine that a rating system applied to telephone conversations.
"Hi Mom! I'm having a great time at college."
"Hi Dear! I'm so glad you called!"
"Mom, before I go any further, I have to tell you that this phone conversation is rated PG-13. There will be no nudity in this phone call. I will not excrete any body fluids while we talk. I will pretend I have no feelings. I'll be smiling a lot!"
A web address will be your phone number. A ratings system means nothing in this world. A website is like a collection of phone calls.
This is a democratic medium. Billions of people will have websites.
Ever wonder why children can be so bored with adults? Maybe it's because we so rarely say anything interesting to them. But maybe the 1-in-a-million kid will read one of my pieces and zooom ahead of his or her generation? Cure cancer or AIDS? Write some great software? I think I'm a good teacher. I believe every kid should have the opportunity to learn from this adult.
So Microsoft asks me to make a decision. Choose to be accessible to children and submit to censorship. The other choice is to continue as-is, and accept an implicit triple-x rating. Admit to being a pornographer!
The choice: be controlled or be a pornographer.
How did this happen?
The answer is no.
Bill and Bill -- you can't touch me there!
That's a bad place!
The web is not a broadcast medium.
There will be a billion websites.
A rating system is a nasty idea.
I am not a pornographer.
I will not be controlled.
Get a clue.
In his 24 Hours of Democracy essay, Bill Gates said: "The Internet is the first medium that allows anyone with reasonably inexpensive equipment to publish to a wide audience." YES!
Focus on that idea. This is where desktop publishing was leading. This is where LAN technology from Novell was headed. dBASE, FoxPro, Access. This is why Microsoft was doing Windows and Word and Excel; so that when this transformation took place, when PC users became a medium, that Microsoft would be in position to sell them the new software they'd need.
Microsoft could definitely make a contribution to the orderly growth of the Internet, by supplying software.
But Microsoft won't figure out what software to supply until they participate in the web, along with their users, on a personal level.
Rarely is an answer so obvious. Here's how Microsoft can turn the corner.
Put the people of Microsoft on the worldwide web. Family pictures, links to their favorite websites, personal statements, favorite music, their stories. Updating as their lives change. Everyone including Bill Gates, Bob Herbold, Paul Maritz, Pete Higgins and Nathan Myrhvold, with all the associations, departments, frisbee teams, products, tradeshow booths, all represented in a structure of web links. Microsoft's website should showcase the people of Microsoft. The site should contain lots of pointers outside of http://www.microsoft.com/.
At first the software is going to be awkward. Tweak and refine it to fit their needs. Personal tools, scaled to all levels of sophistication -- that's the software that needs to be made. Like personal computers in the early days, websites come in thru the back door. It's not a corporate sell.
Microsoft will get to know itself in a way it never could before. So will the rest of the world. And this would get Microsoft's energy to flow in the same direction as the market it wants to serve.
Proposals like the ratings system only burn braincells, and plant a stake in the ground far behind the line of progress. It's the low-growth road. And it supports censorship. It's a bad idea.
The web isn't just a new medium, it's a new space. We need a space program. Not Sesame Street.
I grew up with the Times. I read it every morning as a child. Then I left New York, but I stayed with the Times. I look to them for leadership, especially on issues of journalism and freedom.
Maybe I missed it. Has The Times run an editorial about freedom of speech on the Internet? Does journalism belong on the web? Should we accept a ratings system? Did you accept one for print journalism?
I believe a statement from the editors of the New York Times should be linked to the home page of the Times website, http://www.nytimes.com/, especially if they're going to continue to run articles that support censorship.
PS: Another suggestion for the Times website. I want to point to Times articles from my pieces, but their back-issue service costs $1.95 per article and isn't on the air yet. I also hesitate to point into the Times site because it requires a username and password login. When I go thru a link I like to just bounce over there, have a look, and then bounce back. A Times jump has an extra bounce to it. Breaks the flow. And I have to tell you it costs money to go there. Too much trouble.