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Old Media, New Media

“Freedom of the press applies only to the person who owns one”.

Old Media

The “old media” are newspapers & magazines, direct mail advertising, and radio & television.  All are based on a number of assumptions:

New Media

When we look at the “new media” like the World Wide Web, we see the exact opposite of the “old media” assumptions:

The “old media” companies are, of course, trying to force the Web into the “old media” mold.  They understand it and feel that, if the new looks enough like the old, that they can control it.  Unfortunately, forcing “old media” assumptions onto the Web is at best obnoxious and at worst, totally nonfunctional.

Any Number Can Play

Want to put up a web site?  If you're reading this from a corporate account, your company probably already has a web site.  If you're reading this on a personal account, your ISP may already provide you with a small amount of Web space.  If not, there are organizations like GeoCities and Tripod that will give you a free web page in exchanging for advertising space.

The “new media” equivalent of a printing press is essentially free.

Where Did You Say You Were?

National and regional boundaries are simply not relevant on the Web.  National and regional governments are struggling with the implications of this, and we can confidently expect them to continue struggling for the foreseeable future.

The main thing to remember is that people from all over the world will be looking at your pages.  The biggest problem that I see is in electronic commerce.  If you have an e-commerce site, state your policy up front regarding international sales and shipping.  It's extraordinarily annoying to be all ready to buy something, and find, after entering all your ordering information, that the vendor won't ship to your area.

As long as you don't do anything stupid like deliberate ethnic slurs, I wouldn't worry about offending people.  If you try to please everybody, you'll please nobody.  The worst I usually see is things that are incomprehensible because of local references that I don't understand.

Talk Back

This feature alone has killed direct unsolicited e-mail “(spam)” as a legitimate form of advertising.  With the touch of a button, you can send it back where it came from.  As a result, the only things seriously advertised via spam are pornography, dubious ”miracle cures”, bogus stock market tips, and other such non- mainstream (to be polite) products.  Essentially all spam uses forged message headers to avoid the recipients finding out where it came from.  This is not a sign of legitimate advertising.  What kind of company has to hide from its customers?

What does it look like?

Old media graphic artists take great care in exact layout, typography, color matching, and so forth.  New media have to be strained through a browser of some kind.  Basic HTML simply does not provide for detailed layout.  Remember, content is separate from presentation.

There are several symptoms that a provider is trying to get around this:

Some of this, of course, is simply incompetent Web page design.  There are all sorts of “WYSIWYG” editors for Web pages, and all of the ones I've seen are just awful.  It would be easy for a novice to assume that the way the tool works is the way it's supposed to work, when in reality, it's just broken.

Microsoft vs. Netscape

This started out as a battle to determine who would be the primary display for the “new media”.  Unfortunately, neither side is competing on efficiency, usability, or standards conformance.  Both are trying to lock in users by adding incompatible “old media” extensions like downloadable fonts, exact page layout commands, etc.  Fortunately, most web page designers are too smart to fall into that trap.

The result of all this fooraw is that we're getting browsers that are bloated up with all sorts of features that no sensible Web designer would ever use.

The arithmetic is simple -- if you require a feature that is only available on one browser, you lose all the potential viewers that don't use that browser.  If a viewer doesn't really need it, then why use it?

The Opera web browser seems to be doing quite well, although it isn't free.  It simply follows the HTML specs.   It is tiny and lightning fast.

What are you trying to say?

Some people use the Web for pure entertainment -- playing games, looking at pictures, etc.  I suspect that they are a small minority of the total number of web users.  Most people use the Web to get information — sports scores, stock market reports, software, technical papers, product information, and so forth.  All the extra fancy stuff simply gets in the way.

Active Content

”Active content” is a program (called an applet) that is downloaded from the Web server and runs on the viewer's computer.  There are three types of active content:

This is a difficult area. The potential of active content is very high.  Unfortunately, virtually all of the “active content” I've seen consists of unnecessary, annoying little animations.

The most worrisome aspect of active content is security.  You have a program from some random web site running on your computer.  What can it do?  Potentially, anything at all.  How do you keep it from, say, deleting all of your files?  There are two basic ways of doing it — the Javascript/Java way, and the ActiveX way.

Javascript and Java

Despite the similarity of names, there is no relationship between Javascript (created by Netscape) and Java (created by Sun Microsystems).  Both, however, attempt to prevent damage by severely limiting what an applet can do.  They cannot delete files, run system commands, or open arbitrary data connections.  This prevents damage, but severely limits the usefulness of the applets.


ActiveX is a Microsoft catchall term for several types of Microsoft- specific active content.  Unlike Javascript and Java, there are no inherent limitations on what an ActiveX applet can do.  ActiveX applets are “signed”. If the signer is not “trusted”, then you will be prompted to OK the applet before it runs.  If the applet does something bad, you'll know who to sue.  If you remember the signer.  (What if the signer is “Micorsoft Corporation”?)  Or if does its damage immediately, and does not wait to do its damage sometime in the future.

Another problem with ActiveX is that it is limited to Microsoft's web browser running on Microsoft's operating systems.  Microsoft, of course, would like you to believe that they're the only company on the Internet.  (Hint — they're not.)

General Problems

Of course, for either model to work, the programs must work as advertised — they have to be free of bugs.  From the number of security related bugs that have been reported for Java and Javascript, I'm not really optimistic.

Another cute little problem with both Java and ActiveX is that applets installed on your computer (not downloaded over the Net) are “inherently trusted”.  This means that there are no checks or limits when they run.  In other words, a hostile Web page can run a program on your computer with no warning and no protection.

My own feeling is that active content over the Internet is an idea whose time is not yet here.  It may never get here.  The problem is that current operating systems simply do not have adequate built- in security mechanisms.  This is, however, a topic for another essay.

On a corporate intranet, where the content is controlled by a central MIS department, active content can be quite useful.

The Alternative

The alternative to “active content” is to use a CGI script.  This uses a program running on the server to generate Web pages dynamically.  This is well- understood and poses no particular security risks.  The only problem with this approach is that all of the processing load is on the server.

Content -- The Snake in the Garden

Unfortunately, in the Gold Rush to the Web, some things get lost.  Some, like the rigid control of presentation, are a function of the medium.  Others are less tangible.  Like accuracy.  Or ”journalistic ethics”


We've been here before.  Before the laser printer, the only time you saw a typeset version of a document was when it was ready to go to the printer.  Typesetting was very expensive and time consuming.  You never made a mark on a typeset document.  If you want something changed, it's too late.

The “desktop publishing revolution” changed this.  You type up a document on a standard template, print it out, and it looks like something the Publications Department has fussed over for hours.  For a long time, people were very reluctant to mark up a “finished” looking document.  Also, a lot of sleazy outfits found that their literature looked as good as the reputable outfits'.

After a time, of course, people got used to it.  We mark up a typeset-looking draft as easily as we used to mark up a photocopy of a handwritten page.  We treat a nicely desktop-published flyer advertising a “get rich quick”scheme with the same contempt that we used when the same scheme was printed up with a mimeograph.

Now we have the same thing with the Web.  Any sleazeball can put together a good looking Web page. 

Even in the case of out-and-out fraud, the Powers that Be can't really do much.  The Web is just too big.


Print journalism has a long and honorable history of ethical behavior.  Unfortunately, not all of the people posting things on the Web hold to these ethics.  Indeed, to many of them, “ethics” is a null term.

Where do We Go From Here?

The “new media” are, well, new. They're not finished.  There are still a number of items to be addressed:

Perhaps I will get around to writing about them in future revisions of this essay.  Like anything else on the Web, it won't really be finished for a long time, if ever.

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Last updated $Date: 2004/12/15 16:22:46 $