Commercial interests have taken over the Web

A few months ago, I predicted a dot-com shakedown. I felt that if Inc. couldn’t make money, almost every other dot-com retailer was pretty much doomed and the stock market would tank.

Well, we haven’t seen Armageddon – yet. But one can feel OK about being like Chicken Little watching the skies for stuff crashing to earth when one considers Iridium satellites and the value of stock options for irrationally exuberant employees at those dot-com retailers.

I hate to sound negative, but – finally – lots of chickens have come home to roost, and none too soon. Along the way, the Web has lost most of its charm, as well as much of what made me and millions of others jump on board for a joyride.

The Web was the single reason PC sales took off like a rocket in the consumer space a few years ago, and it still drives most sales. My mom wants a PC and my mother-in-law just got one. Like most of today’s home PC users, she wants it for e-mail and Web surfing and, soon enough I suspect, chat.

What spoiled it is the commercialization of the Web – the way corporations have jumped in and declared it their property, complete with lawsuits, absurd patents and the copyright gestapo stopping teen-agers from running “fan sites” about their favourite shows and the like.

Brick-and-mortar corporations are using the Web to provide fluff and public relations spin for their industries in the guise of being cutting-edge. They see it as a vehicle to push more ads, sell more junk, collect more data and crush their competitors.

Remember Elvis and Chuck?

The Web has gone through the same process rock ‘n’ roll did. Sure, when Elvis, Chuck Berry and the other ’50s pioneers came onto the scene, money and business were in the wings – but you could feel the emotion. And those ’60s bands, for all their free love, peace and happiness poses, never turned down royalty cheques – but they changed the world, didn’t they? By the late ’70s, it was just business – and that’s true even more so today. The kicks are gone. What was once ours has become theirs.

So if dot-coms are going down in flames, I can’t say I’m sorry. Who cares? Who wants to buy toothpaste or dog food on-line?

What’s worse is that the search engines have become little more than funnels for branded products. If a “portal” has deals for, say, mortgages, good luck searching for them without landing on pages that push its tie-in marketing deals.

If the Web ultimately turns into Channel 561 on my TV or into an electronic piece of junk mail, blame it on clueless CEOs and the hype machine, generated by consultants and ad agencies, that sell CEOs stuff they don’t need. For example, why exactly does a maker of toilet paper need a Web presence?

The Web is fantastic for IT folks: I can get the latest patches, upgrades and the like, and, when done right, which is, sadly, not often enough I can also get information from knowledge bases and FAQs that solve my problems. But a great deal of the time, the most useful information comes from sites created by everyday people for the love of the subject matter, not for the sake of selling me something.

Now that lots of bad ideas are being seen for what they are, maybe sanity will return to the Web. I doubt it will take hold in any great measure, but it’s a start.

Maybe in a year, the Web will have finally found the right balance of commerce and anarchy, and of freedom and responsibility. But first, the lawyers have to chill out, corporations must accept that they don’t own the Web, and all of us should get off our duffs, away from the new idiot box, and smell the fresh air once in a while. Or maybe buy a book at the store down the block.

Torralbas is an independent IT consultant and Visual Basic developer in New York. He can be reached at [email protected].

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