2001: The year the Internet stopped being fun

Remember when you could barely resist the Internet's lure? When the rush of discovering a new Web site or stumbling across a nifty service kept you coming back for more; when the content was so rich and plentiful that you could read, read, read all day long? Well, that was last year.

This year the Net stopped being fun.

Hit with a sinking economy and the sudden realization that businesses need to generate revenue to survive, many flailing dot-coms simply packed up their Aeron chairs and popcorn machines and went home, taking with them both innovative ideas and the (somewhat delusional) dream that venture capital and a couple of banner ads were enough to keep things chugging along.

Gone is music streaming site NetRadio.com, gone is the couch potato companion Kozmo Inc., where you could order pizza and videos straight to your door, gone is grocery delivery site Webvan Group Inc., and gone too is the pithy content of Automatic Media Inc.'s online magazines Suck.com, and Feedmag.com, and with them weblog Plastic.com.

Of course, also banished are the legions of dot-com workers, and with them, the notion that working for a dot-com is fun.

If dwindling Net content is not enough to convince you that there is no more alcohol left at this party, consider that many of the remaining sites have turned to charging for what they previously offered for free. Even more ire-inducing, these free-to-fee sites are trying to convince consumers that paying for their content or service is a good thing because it makes it more reliable, and besides, they've put a lot of work into that content or service and paying them is just the right thing to do. Right?

Leading the charge toward pay-for content are the online music services. After Napster Inc. was knocked offline earlier this year by the Recording Industry Association of America Inc. (RIAA) for copyright infringement, Internet users realized, with much chagrin, that downloading any and all music from the Internet for free was going to be a short-lived luxury.

Digital music became a guilty pleasure this year as the RIAA and others reminded us that we should be paying the artists, the labels and the publishers for providing music content. So, this year marked the entrance -- or at least the approaching footsteps -- of MusicNet, Pressplay, the new Napster and other online music subscription services that will be demanding a monthly fee for all copyright-protected music.

Of course, many Internet users know that almost any song can still be had somewhere on the Net for free thanks to Napster's file-swapping progeny such as Morpheus and KaZaA . But given that the RIAA has already lodged copyright infringement suits against them, it looks like their days could be numbered as well.

When MusicNet was first unveiled earlier this month with the launch of RealNetworks Inc.'s RealOne content subscription service, the service's Vice President of Music Services and Programming Erik Flannigan commented on how he thought consumers would respond to paying for the music they are accustomed to getting for free.

"I like to make the analogy of everyone receiving free satellite TV service and having it taken away and then us offering to sell them cable TV service instead," Flannigan said.

Now, that's no fun.

But while some Internet users probably knew deep down inside that they weren't going to get free music over the Net forever, many thought that they would still get free news and editorial content. After all, there's no costly printing and paper fees for publishing online news, and banner ads and other promotions were supposed to cover the production costs, right? Wrong.

Not only did the online ad market grind to a halt along with the momentum of the global economy this year, many of the news sites' online advertisers were other dot-coms that found themselves extremely short on cash.

Faced with generating new revenue streams, some news and editorial content sites turned to subscription-based services. One of the more high-profile, high-brow sites to go this route was online magazine Salon.com. Touted as a forum for independent thought and intellectual angling, Salon decided earlier this year to launch a "premium service" which meant that users had to pay US$30 yearly to read the best bits.

"The big thing that has been annoying to me is Salon going to subscription model," said Sarah Banani, a Toronto, Canada resident who frequently uses the Internet at work and at home. "I haven't moved to that mind-set of paying for it like you would pay for a newspaper or The New Yorker (magazine)."

Especially annoying for Banani is that in Canadian dollars, Salon Premium is a whopping $50 a year. Again, no fun.

Then there were the little joys of the Internet that all but dried up and floated away, like sending free e-cards. Both Americangreetings.com and BlueMountain.com, which American Greetings Corp. recently acquired, switched to a subscription plan. Some of their e-cards are still free, but the birthday and holiday cards are under the subscription service that costs $11.95 a year.

"A special selection of our greetings will always be free ... but times are changing and so are we!" chirped a cartoon pop-up ad at BlueMountain.com. Indeed.

But while users may be griping over the lack of free e-cards and Salon feature articles, Ari Schwartz, associate director of the Center for Democracy and Technology (CDT), reminds us of something we have perhaps forgotten in this Internet age.

"There's a difference between free speech and a free lunch," Schwartz said.

Yankee Group Inc. Internet marketing strategies analyst Rob Lancaster seems to agree, noting that the Internet can still be fun, if users are willing to plunk down some cash to enjoy it.

"The Internet is a marketplace where business models are being tried and tested," Lancaster said. "One of the (business models) that failed in the long run is the free content model. I think there's far more content on the Internet (now), but there's less good content for free."

Okay, so perhaps we learned our lesson this year about not automatically associating the Internet with free content and services. But what about freedom?

Part of the Net's original charm was the anonymity it offered. Users were able to cruise the Web, accessing any variety of content, without the fear of being tracked by the feds or of being profiled by large companies. But companies' heightened interest in collecting user information, as exemplified by Microsoft Corp.'s Passport authentication service, and the U.S. government's new antiterrorism laws giving federal authorities expanded powers to track Internet use, may make users feel like Big Brother has moved in.

But analysts remind us that the Internet is a marketplace, where companies will court prospective consumers, and where police will pursue suspected wrongdoers.

When the Internet began, people didn't realize that many of the laws that apply to the offline world apply to the online world as well, Schwartz said. While crackdowns on copyright infringement and children's privacy and protection online have received a lot of press, these are not new issues. Neither is tracking criminals.

So, while the Net may have only felt less free this year, theoretically, it should have always been that way, according to Schwartz. Still, discovering that the Internet can't be a virtual wild west is no fun.

"Some things the Internet promised are not here, but on the other hand, we have some fantastic things we never even thought of before," Schwartz said.

Many users do agree that online banking services and interactive content have greatly improved and there's no denying that instant messaging is fun.

Still, all of that unlimited potential, all of those rosy profitability forecasts, all of those free Britney Spears' ditties, all of those sleek, status-enforcing Aeron chairs are gone, gone, all gone in the span of one cruel, reality-fraught year!

But there is one consolation: We can bring all those happy-go-lucky Internet days rushing back just by logging on to the Internet Archive's Wayback Machine. Unveiled in October of this year, the Wayback Machine is an online archive of Web sites stretching back to 1996 ( http://web.archive.org/).

So, if the new interactive content, the improved services and rich media are not enough to convince you that the Internet can still be fun, take a trip on the Wayback Machine and reminisce about the good 'ol days -- just last year.

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Scarlet Pruitt

PC World

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