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Small Pieces Loosely Joined


The chapters on this site are genuine working drafts. All they have in common is that they are unfinished. Some are very, very raw. Some are embarrassing dead ends.

So, rather than only shoving a pile of scratched-out foolscap in your face, I figured I’d cull some passages that seem to me to be more or less finished. Of course, they may not be; there's no guarantee these will make it into the final draft. Nevertheless, they should give you a sense of what the book is about. NOTE: Breaks indicate a discontinuity.

Un-Politically Correct Copyright Notice: Because these may change at any time, you do not have permission to quote from them in any form without explicit permission from me, David W. Copyright © 2001 David Weinberger.

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Chapter 1: A New World

The fact that Michael Ian Campbell used an online alias raised no suspicions. Nor should it have. In fact, choosing a name by which you’ll be known on the Web is a requirement for using America Online. Known as “Soup81” to his AOL buddies, Campbell at 18 was considered a polite, even kind young man in the Florida town where he lived with his mother. At the end of 1999 he had finished his first semester at a community college and was working in a retail store during the day, pursuing his dream at night by acting in plays at the Cape Coral Cultural theatre. On December 15, he and millions of others were using America Online’s “instant messaging” facility to type messages back and forth to their friends old and new. Instant messaging opens a window on your computer where the letters being typed by your conversant show up as they're typed - even the effect of the Delete key is eerily evident. It's like watching over the shoulder of someone typing, although that person can be thousands of miles away. Indeed, Soup81 was chatting with 16-year-old Erin Walton in Colorado, someone he had never met before. He did know something about her though: eight months earlier, a pair of teenagers had killed 13 people at Walton’s high school, Columbine, in Littleton, Colorado.

After some initial chitchat, he typed a warning onto Walton’s screen. Don’t go to school the next day, his message said, because "I need to finish what begun (sic) and if you do [go to school] I don't want your blood on my hands."

Walton, understandably shaken, alerted the Columbine school officials who closed the school for two days, postponing exams. Three days later, the FBI got a court order in Denver forcing AOL to reveal the person behind the name “Soup81,” and they moved in quickly, questioning Campbell for 90 minutes and taking custody of his computer. A judge ordered Campbell to remain in the county jail without bail until his hearing a few days later. [1]

His lawyer, Ellis Rubin, made up a type of insanity – “Internet intoxication” – to excuse it. His mother blamed this aberrant behavior on the death of Campbell’s father a month earlier. But Michael Campbell expounded a different explanation. On The Today Show, seemingly trying to puzzle out his own behavior, he said that he, as a dedicated actor, was trying on a role. He was seeing what it would be like to be his favorite actor, John Malkovich.

While “Internet intoxication” makes about as much sense as the “Twinkie defense” – murderer Dan White’s supposed claim that junk food threw off his moral sense [2] – it at least acknowledges that something about the Internet contributed to this event. At the very least, had Campbell met Walton in person, his “channeling” of Malkovich would probably have come off as nothing more than a celebrity impression. The Internet let Soup81 become someone that Michael Ian Campbell isn’t. While Soup81’s actions on December 15, 1999 were certainly atypical of the tens of millions of chats held everyday, it is not at all unusual on the Web for someone to “try on” a personality and to switch personalities from chat room to chat room. The consistency and sincerity we take so seriously off the Web are all in play on the Web. Behavior that would cause your family to plot an intervention off the Web are the norm on the Web. The very basics of what it means to be a self – identity through time, an “inner” consistency, a core character from which all else springs – are in question on the Web. [3]

Michael Campbell is, of course, an exception. That’s why he got onto The Today Show while the other 300-400 million users of the Web did not. And that’s why he served four months in a Florida jail as part of a plea bargain that also forbade him from using the Internet for three years. Fortunately, Campbell’s story is not typical. But, even the ordinary world of the Web is more alien than it at first seems. Take something as ordinary as buying something on eBay...

[Omitted: description of bidding on a quilt at eBay.]

… I didn’t win that auction. And although my interactions with eBay were very simple, they are based on assumptions that are quite different from my real world assumptions. …You could even classify them by using some of the big concepts from the real world, such as space, time, self, and knowledge.

Space: eBay is a Web space that occupies no space. Its “near” and “far” are determined by what’s linked to what, and the links are based not on contiguity but on human interest. The geography of the Web is as ephemeral as human interest: eBay pulled together a listings page for me based on my interest in “handmade quilts,” while simultaneously building pages for thousands of others who had other, unpredictable interests. Each of us looked across the space that is eBay and saw a vastly different landscape: mine of quilts, yours of Star Wars memorabilia, someone else’s of battery chargers.

Time: Earlier that morning, while waiting for my wife in our town center, I ducked into a store called Ten Thousand Villages that sells world crafts at a price fair to the artisans. [4] For ten minutes I enjoyed browsing among the Chilean rainsticks and the Djembe drums from Burkina Faso. Then I saw my wife through the window, left, and closed the door behind me. My time with eBay was different. As I investigated different auctions, placed a bid, and checked back every few hours to see if I’d been outbid, I felt as if I were returning to a story that was in progress, waiting for me whenever I wanted. I could break off in the middle when, for my example, my son came home, and go back whenever I wanted. The Web is woven of hundreds of millions of threads like this one. And, in every case, we get to determine when and how long we will participate, based solely on what suits us. Time like that can spoil you for the real world.

Self: Buyers and sellers on eBay adopt a name by which they will be known. The eBay name of the woman selling the quilt I was interested was "firewife30." Firewife30 is an identity, a self, that lives only within eBay. If she's a ratfink bastard elsewhere but always acts with honor in eBay transactions, the "elsewhere" is not a part of Firewife30 that I can know about or should particularly care about. The real world person behind firewife30 may even have other eBay identities. Perhaps she's also SexyUndies who had 132 "sexy items" for sale at eBay while firewife30 was auctioning her quilt. Unlike real world selves, these selves are intermittent and, most important, they are written. For all we know, firewife30 started out as firewife1 and it's taken her this many drafts to get to a self that feels right to her.

Knowledge: I entered my eBay search for quilts without much knowledge. By browsing among the 248 quilts for sale, I got an education. Yes, I could easily use the Web as a research tool, and at times during my quest I ran down some information – “sashing” is a border around each quilt block [5] , a good quilter will get 10-12 stiches per inch [6] – but I learned more and learned faster by listening to the voices of the quilters on eBay. I got trained in the features to look for, what the quilters consider to be boast-worthy, and what the other bidders thought was worth plunking their money down for. This was unsystematic and uncertified knowledge. But because it came wrapped in a human voice, it was richer and, in some ways, more reliable: the lively plurality of voices in some fields can and should outweigh the stentorian voice of experts. 

If a simple auction at eBay is based on new assumptions about space, time, self and knowledge, the Web is more than a place for disturbed teen-agers to try out roles and more than a good place to buy cheap quilts.

The Web has sent a jolt through our culture for better or worse, zapping our economy, our ideas about the sharing of creative works, and possibly even institutions such as religion and government. Why? How do we explain the lightning charge of the Web? If it has fallen short of our initial hopes and fears about its transformational powers, why did it excite those hopes and fears in the first place? Why did this technology hit our culture like a bolt from Zeus?

Suppose – just suppose – that the Web is a new world we’re just beginning to inhabit. We’re like the earlier European settlers in the United States, living on the edge of the forest. We don’t know what’s there and we don’t know exactly what we need to do to find out: do we pack mountain climbing gear, desert wear, canoes or all three? Of course, while the settlers may not have known what the geography of the New World was going to be, they at least knew that there was a geography. The Web, on the other hand, has no geography, no landscape. It has no distance. It has nothing natural in it. It has few rules of behavior and fewer lines of authority. Common sense doesn’t hold there, and uncommon sense hasn’t yet emerged. No wonder we’re having trouble figuring out how to build businesses in this new land. We don’t yet even know how to talk about a land that has no soil, no boundaries, no near or far.

New worlds create new people. This has always been the case because how we live in our world is the same thing as who we are. Are we charitable? Self-centered? Cheerful? Ambitious? Pessimistic? Gregarious? Stoic? Forgiving?  Each of these describes how we are engaged with our world but each can also be expressed as the way our world appears to us. If we’re egotistical, then the world appears to center around us. If we’re gregarious then the world appears to be an invitation to be with other people. If we’re ambitious then the world appears to be awaiting our conquest. We can’t characterize ourselves without simultaneously drawing a picture of how the world seems to us, and we can’t describe our world without simultaneously describing the type of people we are. If we are entering a new world, then we are also becoming new people….

You could look at these examples as anomalies – a quiet teenager who gets on the Web and makes cruel threats, scores of workers who get fired for saying in email only what they would have said in person, a fringe candidate who’s blunt about his outrageous views on the Web without any effect on his campaign. But just about everywhere we turn, the Web upsets our expectations. Sharing copyrighted music files seems perfectly proper to 70 million Napster users. Companies that compete form cooperative net marketplaces. Pornography that once you had to go to Sweden for now you can’t avoid. The best sources of information about products are customers, not the companies creating the products. Children play ultra-violent online games with the innocence of a game of tag. Hundreds of millions of people are building a trans-national infrastructure without guidance, assistance or permission. So many things don’t make sense on the Web that we’re suffering from Anomaly Fatigue.
The real problem we face with the Web is not understanding the anomalies, it’s facing how deeply weird the ordinary is.
…consider the Web as a construction project. It’s the most complex network ever created. It is by many orders of magnitude the largest collection of human writings and works in history. It is far more robust than networks far smaller. Yet it was created without any managers. In fact, it only succeeded because its designers made the conscious decision to build a network that would require no central control. You don’t need anyone else’s permission to join in, to post whatever you want, to read whatever others have posted. Posting an electronic version of, say, Anna Karenina is far simpler than donating a copy to your library: you can drag and drop the electronic version onto your Web site, but if you try to donate it, you will fill out a form and a library committee will put it through a process to decide whether it should be shelved or sold, and each of those processes will cause its own small flurry of paperwork. The Web is profoundly unmanaged and that is crucial to its success. As a result, the Web is a mess. Unlike the real world, it does not consist of a set of knowable and undeniable facts. Far from it. The Web is as organized as an orgy. It literally consists of voices proclaiming whatever they think is worth saying, trying on stances, experimenting with extremes, being wrong in public, making fun of what they hold sacred in their day jobs, linking themselves into permanent coalitions and ephemeral acknowledgements, savoring the rush you feel when you realize you don’t have to be the way you’ve been

Suppose our common sense ideas about the core notions of our culture – space, time, self, knowledge and more – have been out of kilter for not just decades but for hundreds of years. Suppose our basic ideas about what it means to be a human with other humans in a world not of our making lead to a picture that not only misrepresents our situation but paints our existence as a gloomy, broken, isolated – not to mention nasty, brutish and short. Suppose our experience of the Web, precisely because it is so different, gives the lie to our common sense and thus returns us to a more authentic, more true even more hopeful understanding of what it means to be a human sharing a world with other humans.

If that were the case then for all of the over-heated, exaggerated, manic-depressive coverage of the Web, we’d have to conclude that the Web in fact has not been hyped enough.

Chapter 2: What’s the Web Made of?

…We read frequently about the real world versus the virtual world of the Web. Our travel agent casually talks about real tickets versus electronic tickets. If we’re daydreaming, we’re told to come back to reality. What do we mean by real in each of these cases? Generally, the real thing is the one that has actual matter or atoms, and isn’t merely a simulation or representation. So far so good. But here’s the question: What is the “merely” doing in that sentence? Why does the following sentence make sense to us: “The value of gold – which is really just a drab, semi-rare mineral – is merely one that our culture happens to bestow on it”? Why does it seem obvious that what we bring to the party – our values, concepts, language itself – is mere while reality gets to sit in the catbird seat?

Suppose the Web were to teach us – for reasons we’ll see – that we’ve put too much unthinking emphasis on the real world as opposed to the world as we experience it. The Web revolution isn’t simply an “empowerment” of consumers. It overthrows the tyranny of reality itself, allowing our way of thinking about our experience to be more in line with how we actually experience the world.

So, just what is a bit? On a chilly spring day, I met with John Tumas , an Operations Manager at Harvard’s network operations center in Cambridge to see bits in action. He met me outside where a few smokers were puffing cigarettes under the protection of an overhang which was stopping only the least determined rain drops. We went up a flight of stairs and entered a room with the sort of wall-size video display we’ve learned to associate with war rooms. But rather than displaying countries and missile silos, this one was showing a map of the network of machines for which Tumas’ group is responsible. Even on the over-sized display, it takes carefully-calculated plotting to keep the machine names from overlapping one another.

Harvard’s machines handle lots of bits. In fact, “lots” wildly understates the situation. Until a few years ago, a terabyte was considered the monster number when it comes to storing data. If you wanted to get a laugh, you made a joke about something you considered bloated – the new version of Windows or the number of spam emails you receive a day – needing a terabyte to store it. But now that the cheap-o computers you buy at the local appliance store come with disk drives in the double-digits of gigabytes, a terabyte no longer seems to be on the other side of imaginable. After all, a terabyte is “just” 1024 gigabytes, and with 100-gigabyte hard drives on their way as the norm, you and your nine best friends will soon have a terabyte of storage sitting under your collective desks. Nevertheless, a terabyte remains a lot of data, equivalent to about a billion typed characters or about 500 million pages of text, enough to fill 40,000 four-drawer filing cabinets. [7] A terabyte is about the size of a million PowerPoint presentations, [8] 250,000 stolen songs, or, if you prefer, ten million medium-resolution photographs of Pamela Anderson.

Every day, Harvard University transfers 85 to a hundred terabytes of information within its borders and another 3-5 terabytes to the rest of the world.

Through a door in the Operations Center is the machinery of the Internet, or at least Harvard’s contribution to it. John began our tour by pointing to a computer mounted on a shelf in set of joined cabinets with black glass doors. “That’s the Cisco 12000, the biggest in its class,” he said, launching into an explanation that covered OC3, OC48, ATMs, gigabit and the Hewlett-Packard 6509 before I could stop him. As he unhinges the door to the neighboring cabinet to show me another computer, I stood in front of this silent machine and tried to give myself a sense of its role in the global network.

All over the world in air-conditioned rooms, specialized computers like this one are moving bits. The rooms are well protected, well lit, exceptionally clean, and oddly quiet. The front of the computers display small lights but, disappointingly, they don’t flicker randomly like the displays of computers in 1950 science fiction movies. The lights only flickered in those movies because the computers of our imagination worked so slowly, the time between bits perceptible to the human eye. It would have taken a room-sized mainframe in those early days even to imagine the power of the one we’re looking at now. Computers like the Cisco 12000 are routers, dedicated to sending packets of information to their next stop on the Internet. They have no monitors, no mice, no keyboards, no hard drives. You can’t browse the Web with one of these boxes, and you can’t even play solitaire. Yet, Cisco, managed to sell about 8 billion dollars’ worth in a recent 12 months [9] because routers do one thing magnificently: they stand in front of a stream of bits and like a mad batsman swat them in the right direction – 360 billion bits a second in a machine like the 12000. [10]

Routers are the beating hearts of the Internet. They are in intimate contact with the Net’s lifeblood, packets of bits. Every page you download, every email you send, every MP3 music file you share, every jerky video you view over the Web consists ultimately of thousands and millions of bits. Every sound or sight that pops up in your browser was torn apart at its source, packaged into predictable bundles of bits, and reassembled at the other end.

But there’s a problem with bits. They don’t exist. At least not in the usual sense.

… Because the Web is a written place, there is nothing natural there. The words have been chosen on purpose and placed carefully by a human being for some human purpose (including pages that show us information automatically generated or retrieved by programs). Consider two pages that are vastly apart in their content. At you’ll find fuel for your paranoid conspiracy theories, including a “restored” version of Lee Harvey Oswald’s travel itinerary that shows us some travels mainstream historians don’t know about. At Wyatt Wong’s Winona Ryder “shrine,” [11] on the other hand, the few sentences of text are largely obscured by hideous background photographs of Winona. Yet, considered simply as written, these two pages have something important, and quite simple, in common: despite their difference in content, both pages are social acts, written with others in mind. We take that for granted when we visit a site. We understand without having to think about it that the site expresses a point of view. As is almost always the case with so-called “self-expression,” these sites express not just the inner state of a person but how the world looks to them. At its simplest level, we understand that these sites were built because their authors care about something enough to take the time to put it down in words; writings are the social expression of passion.

… The characteristics of these two pages are precisely – and not at all accidentally – the characteristics of the word-based world of the Web.

…In this sense, the Web corrects computers. For a generation we have modeled our idea of humanity on computers. We have inputs, we process information, we output. “Garbage in, garbage out,” we’ve said about the mistakes we’ve made, thereby confusing decisions with calculations. We’ve even taken it for granted that our intelligence reduces to a series of ons and offs and so if we could replicate those bits in a machine, the machine would be conscious – as if a careful enough description of a living body would itself be living. Although the Web of course is built on computer technology, our experience on the Web refutes the computer-based assumptions we’ve come to accept. The Web only exists because people care enough to want to talk about something. And yell. And laugh. And scream. And insult. And fool. And snipe. And embrace.

Passion is at the heart of the Web. That’s why it exists. That’s why it appeals to us. It is a place of unabashed caring. Sharing an interest is as fundamental an act of humanity as sharing bread. No wonder the Web speaks deeply to us.

… But there is, I believe, something more pulling us on to the Web. The defensiveness many of us feel about the Web has a political edge to it. The Web is ours. Unlike the world that was given to us and certainly unlike the ruggedly realistic view of a real world that doesn’t care about us, the Web is thoroughly ours in the same way that language is ours. It is of us. It is drenched in that which makes us human: consciousness, sociality, meaning, intention, interest. As with anything human, the nature of those intentions varies from the noble to the base to the perverse. Sites range from the mundane and manipulative ... to the furthest extremes of excitable compassion. That’s what we humans do. But now we’re doing it in a world that we're building for ourselves out of the truly human "stuff" of language and passion.

Chapter 3: The Web Place

…Every tyranny is based on the fact that some things are nearer than others. The tyranny of governments has to do with the assertion of rights over what is near. The tyranny of communities is rooted in the fact that space makes it difficult for us to pick up and leave a group of people with whom we’re in disagreement. Even the tyranny of the self is based in the fact that we live in a town, for months or years, tying us to a consistency of personality and behavior that swaddles us ever more tightly.

Freed of space, government, business, community, self, and history itself would feel the ground drop from underneath them. That’s one reason we feel giddy on the Web, for the Web has no geography, no distance. If flying, as transcendence, is a spiritual act, then the Web’s introduction of space without geography must be counted as a milestone in our species’ spiritual development.

The only mystery is how the Web – a collection of electronic pages – can be spatial at all.

…Ches and Tim’s maps are world’s apart.  Ches’s is of the Internet, the global network that pre-dates and enables the Web; Tim’s is of the Web. Ches is of hardware; Tim is of Web sites, which ultimately are software. Ches’s clusters are based on their physical connections; Tim’s clusters are based on guesses about similarity of topic. Ches’s aims at showing relationships to help our understanding; Tim’s aims at helping us navigate. And both these maps are very different from maps of the earth. First, they are highly dependent on the author’s interests: Ches and Tim could change their plotting algorithms and their “land masses” would radically shift. Second, Tim’s sort of Web maps are unlike any maps of the earth ever created since the Egyptians first asked what the world might look like to a high-flying bird: clicking on Tim’s map takes you to where you touched. That only happens on this planet in dreams involving genies and lanterns.

Yet, the real mystery is this: Why does it make any sense at all to create maps of a world that is so profoundly non-spatial? Why does the Web – accessed through a computer that shows us a 2-D screen of colored bits – seem so resolutely spatial when it’s not spatial at all?

…the Web has created a weird amalgam of documents and buildings.  With normal paper documents, we read them, file them, throw them out, or send them to someone else. We do not go to them. We don’t visit them. But not Web documents. Web documents - pages - are places on the Web. We go them as we might go to the Washington Monument or to the old Endicott Building. They’re there, we’re here, and if we want to see them, we’ve got to travel.

They’re there. With this phrase, space has entered the picture.

The odd thing is that, of course, we’re not really going any place, and we know it. When we click on a link, a message is sent to the server that houses the page we want and a copy of the page is transmitted to us. If there are lots of graphics or if the Net has indigestion, it can take a long time. We sit there watching the “Waiting” symbol in our browser and mutter under our breath. So, we do in some sense know that we’re dealing with a copy being delivered - slowly - to our computer. Yet the spatial sense persists.

There’s no pre-existing Web space waiting to be filled by the pages that are the stuff of the Web. This point sometimes gets missed in media discussions of mega mergers such as that of America On Line and Time-Warner. The columnists get in a fluster, worried that these new, giant entities will crowd out the smaller sites, the way a Wal-Mart can drive out local businesses. But this assumes that the Web has a finite amount of space and that location counts. No, let AOL-Time-Warner-MCI-UN build the world’s largest site complete with everything from news to gambling. So what? If it’s good, we’ll go. If not, well, it’s no harder to get to than to Distance on the Web is measured by links, so the way to make your site “close” to where your customers are is to get lots of places to point to it. How? By being interesting or worthwhile. That’s not how real space works where location location location outweighs almost everything – precisely because navigating real space is such a pain. While big companies have an advantage when it comes to location because their fatter wallets can buy better positioning, big sites don’t have a leg up on being interesting. In fact, often it’s quite the contrary.

Imagine you’re in a room full of information about Broadway shows. There are theatre posters on the wall, some essays on the shelves, and song lyrics on a table. There are also some doors.  One is labeled “The Life  and Music of  George Gershwin.” Sounds interesting, so you press the door bell. Instantly, you find yourself in a new room with artifacts relating to Gershwin.  This room also has magic doors to other rooms, but, oddly, none for the room you started in. Now, imagine there are over a billion rooms and tens of billions of magic doors and you’ve just described the World Wide Web – the rooms are Web pages and the doors are hyperlinks.

This is a very weird city we’ve just imagined. The way these doors work changes the way we build the city. No subways. No streets. No scarcity of real estate to provide advantage to some. No limit to the number of next door neighbors you can have. In fact, nearness loses its symmetry: My Broadway show room may be near to (linked to) your Gershwin room, but your Gershwin room need not be near my room. In fact, you may not even know that I’ve brought my room near to yours by linking to it...

Most tellingly, in this Web city there is no outside, no empty space that contains the whole and arranges the parts. In fact, the Web is a public place completely devoid of space.

Web space is built not around things with neat edges but things that point beyond themselves. Links are all that holds the Web together; without links, there is no Web. The top ten sites always are dominated by sites like Yahoo that get their value from pointing away from themselves.  Web space is linked, dynamic, poorly-edged, explosive.

This is a problem for many businesses. Business considers itself a hard-edged object, although it clearly is also almost purely relational – without suppliers, customers and partners, and the processes connecting them, there is no business. But, we insist on drawing precise lines around some set of people, things and processes and saying everything inside the lines is our business, and everything outside is not. Ultimately, the lines determine what the business controls – and what the business controls is determined by the lines. 

Businesses in the Web space, however, are learning to operate with a different model of business – one that sees lines as constraints and hyperlinks as the way out of “the box.” For example, in real world merchandising, you want people to stay in your store as long as possible. You use the inconvenience of space to persuade people to buy straight off of your shelves rather than schlep around to your competitors to do some comparison shopping. You hope that if they have to walk down the Gadgets aisle to get to the bananas, they may decide to buy the device that lets you scramble your eggs without breaking the shell. Then, as your store gets bigger, the inconvenience of space practically requires you to put in a high-margin fast food court where people can rest their distance-weary feet.

These real world tactics lead companies to think about their Web sites in terms of  “stickiness,” i.e., getting their visitors to stick around as long as possible. That is, they want to replicate on the Web the inconvenience of the real world where space is necessarily sticky – it’s easier to shop where you are then to travel somewhere else. Sites like Yahoo faced this issue early on, for customers at Yahoo were only there to get someplace else fast. Yet Yahoo was making money by selling users to advertisers: the more pages on Yahoo a visitor viewed, the more Yahoo could charge its advertisers. So, Yahoo decided to become a portal – a collection of sites that provide a wide range of services. (Notice that this use of “portal” is the opposite of what the term actually means: a real portal is something you pass through, whereas a Yahoo-style portal is intended to keep you from passing through.) Yahoo, in effect, has created a mall in which nearness is the result of ease of access: it’s easy to find the merchandise you want and the links are right there.

Other companies have adopted a different strategy to replicate online the inconvenience of real-world space. To make their site sticky, they avoid links to anything except their own site. That works fine for sites-of-last-resort offering a quick sale of goods at commodity prices. But otherwise, fear of links – “hyperphobia”? – makes a site feel like a dead end on the Web. By making the site into a hard-edged object with no pointers beyond itself, the site makes manifest its self-interest and self-absorption. “Here’s a place,” it says, “at which only we speak. We’re so entranced with ourselves that we don’t acknowledge the rest of the world or the fact that maybe you don’t find us quite as fascinating as we do.” Ironically, of course, customers will find the site not sticky but repellant and claustrophobic.

The real stickiness on the Web isn’t inconvenience but interest. Remember that Web sites are amalgams of buildings and documents. We traverse Web space by reading. The techniques of making written materials interesting are well known and highly developed. In short: if you want your site to be sticky, write interesting stuff.

The Web place is defined by interest the way the real world is defined by the accidents of geography. Interest on the Web is – like Web space itself – explosive, out-bound, digressive. The Web space is the opposite of a container. If your store forgets that, we customers will feel like fireflies being chased by a cruel child with a jar in his hands.

So, is the Web spatial? Yes, that is the fact of our experience of the Web. But if we think of Web space in terms of the measured space of the real world – or as the even more abstract notion of a universal grid work of uniform units – we’ll go hopelessly wrong. In fact, the Web feels spatial because it is a linked assemblage of places – meaningful, significant spots, each different.

... But on the Web we experience something we can never experience in the real world: places without space.


Chapter 4: Threaded Time

Here’s a way to drive your spouse nuts. As you’re walking someplace that feels a little farther than it should, turn to her (or him, if that’s your preference), and say, “We’re not even close to getting there.” She replies that it’s really not so far. This is your chance. You point at a telephone pole that’s 50 feet from you. “Close?” you expostulate, “Why we’re not even at that telephone pole.” As she absorbs this irrelevancy, immediately say, “We’re still not at that telephone pole. In fact, we’re not even half way there. We’re still not even halfway there. We’re still walking and we’re not even halfway to that telephone pole.” Then, when you finally pass it – and it will seem like forever if you’re executing this maneuver properly – pick another object and begin again: “Ok, so we’re past that telephone pole. But we’re still not past that mailbox. We’re not even half way to that mailbox…” Your spouse is guaranteed to find this truly annoying. Best of all, your kids will pick up on it in an instant, adding it to their arsenal of ways to irk their parents.

Unfortunately, this isn’t just a childish trick. By splitting distances into halves, we’re repeating our culture’s thinking about time that gets us into trouble. The fact is that time just doesn’t bear much scrutiny. Everywhere we look, we run into paradoxes…

… The great advantage of email isn’t its speed compared with postal mail; if it were, we could have stuck with faxes. Rather, you can control when you participate; email threads stretch themselves out.  If you go to your local meatspace Motor Vehicles Department to renew your license, you’ll wait on line until it’s your turn. Cut in line and die. Leave the line because you want to have lunch and you’re going to have to start all over when you get back. The line is supreme. All hail the line. If, on the other hand, you are able to renew your license online, you’ll click over to the Motor Vehicles page, click on the link to “Renew,” and start to fill out the form. If you then decide to go have lunch, or to go check the online stock prices, or to watch an episode at, you can come back to the Motor Vehicles page precisely where you left off. That’s what non-linear time is about. Because the Web generally doesn’t require coordinating other people to a shared schedule – even instant messaging primarily hooks you up with people who have chosen to be available for conversation – we can do things when we want. We are in control of our time on the Web, not the tick-tock that chases us like the crocodile chases Captain Hook.
Are our attention spans decreasing or is life getting more interesting?

The great stories of literature have always shown us that interest is fractal. With a fractal shape, the closer you look, the more detail is revealed, and the detail reflects the shape at the higher level of magnification — a shape made up of the same shape made up of the same shape, ad infinitum. Humans are like that. Our experience of the world is interest-based all the way through. As you look at why we do something, you see a view of the world shaped by what we care about. As you look ever more closely, going to finer and finer details, you always find not only that the view is shaped by our interests, but that those interests reflect our larger interests — interests are fractal. In the right hands, even the most minute dissections of human character and soul show a person's largest aspirations and passions writ small. We have no better example of this than James Joyce's Ulysses, in which the most banal of humans is shown to lead a life that in its details deserves to be described in the language of heroes — Leopold Bloom as Odysseus.

The shattered continuum of linear time is tied together in deeply fractal ways. Stories sew time together by showing us that the end was present in the beginning all along, and the whole is revealed to have been present in the details. Obviously, the Web isn’t just about stories. But by drawing topics into threads that have their own persistence, they enable people to pursue their interests down to the fractal details, unlike in a real-world conversation that can last only so long as the participants have a continuous stretch of time to devote to it. So, if we say that Web time returns control to us, we really mean that it returns time to the control of our interests. But our interests are not under our control. Time is returned to the passions we undergo, the hooking of our attention by the words of the Web. These hooks are social; our interest is snared by hooks set by others with similar passions, obsessions and cravings. We are hooked by the interests of others. Fractal mirrors reflecting and refracting.

This way of binding time is as old as our world, as old as the first conversation that went deeper than “Please pass the burning stick.” It is the ever-present structure of time and attention. But the Web – free of the drag of space and free of a permission-based social structure – unsticks our interests. We’re not stuck on a line in the Motor Vehicles Department re-reading for the twelfth time the poster trying to convince us not to run over children while we’re driving drunk. We are instead searching, or seeking, or playing, or lolling, driven by the interests that turn our head this way and that and that pump our passionate hearts with its own tick-tocking drumbeat.


Chapter 5: Perfection

The first definition of “hallmark” in most people’s minds isn’t “A mark indicating quality or excellence” much less “A mark used in England to stamp gold and silver articles that meet established standards of purity.” [12] For most of us, “hallmark” means “The greeting card company.” And, Hallmark’s Web site reflects the cursive, engraved formality that we associate with their cards. Their selection of free electronic cards is presented in clear columns, carefully arranged and easy to navigate. Browsing among the illustrations of cute kittens, somber floral arrangements and nouveau-style cartoon characters is like strolling down the card aisle in a drug store looking at categories such as Sympathy, Birthday and Back to School – rows and columns of packaged expressions for the predictable occasions of human emotion.

Now, in the year 2000, jump over to Blue Mountain Arts ( The page was a wash of garish colors, flashing animations, and cheesy graphics. Blue Mountain looked like a bunch of amateurs put it together. And in a sense they did. The two founders, Steven Schutz and Susan Polis had a link to a page showing them as they wanted to be seen: a photo of them driving to Woodstock in 1969 in their “freedom car” covered with peace symbols and slogans and a photo of them hand-printing poetry posters in 1971. [13] They’re hippies. In fact, if you zoomed in on their freedom car, you saw it looks like their home page: the same colors, same broad-stroke graphics, same ethos.

The Hallmark site is highly designed and highly polished. Blue Mountain’s site looked thrown together and unprofessional. Both provided about the same range of cards. Both were free services. And for all Hallmark’s name recognition and branding, Blue Mountain was far more popular. In fact, according to a study published in June, 2000, Blue Mountain was the #4 site on the Web in terms of visitors, while Hallmark was #38. [14] Blue Mountain delivered about 40 million cards during the 2000 Valentine season.

Blue Mountain’s dominance in the e-card arena was not despite the imperfection of its site. It was because of it.

… Business’s trafficking in the images of perfection works its way down to the individual level in the adherence to the theology of professionalism. There are lots of good things to say about professionals: they meet their obligations and treat their clients in a business-like fashion that is fair and respectful. But that’s only part of what makes a person a professional. A professional gets to wear a white lab coat and carry a clipboard, metaphorically if not literally. The lab coat is the outward sign of membership in the priesthood. The clipboard is the outward sign of the professional’s methodology; in the literal case of a clipboard, the methodology is instantiated in forms that get filled in appropriately. A methodology is a set of “best practices” that have emerged over time, a standard way of analyzing and proceeding. Since every service company claims to have “highly-trained professionals” – even the Ku Klux Klan boasts on its home page that it’s “America’s Oldest, Largest Most Professional White Rights Organization” [15] –  having a methodology provides some further value and differentiation; it implies that the company has done this type of thing over and over and has it down to a science.

But business isn’t a science. It’s a social institution. Over time, we have confused the measurement of the activity with the activity…

… consider one of the most common Web activities: using a search engine to find a page.  Suppose you’re looking for trying to find how much steel India imports every year. You enter in your query, guessing at the words that might be on the page you’re looking for, perhaps “India,” “steel imports” and  “annual.” The search engine displays a page with what it has decided are the top ten most likely pages that contain those words.  It also tells you that there are over 17,000 pages that it thinks might meet your criteria. None of the top ten is exactly right so you have the search engine display the next ten. Let’s say #14 on the list has the information you’re looking for. Success! And yet from another point of view, this has been an embarrassing failure. If someone asked you a question and you gave thirteen wrong answers before hitting on the right one, you would not be filled with a warm sense of accomplishment. If the telephone white pages had this error rate, you would never use them.

… Now we come back to the Web.  Links don’t work. Email messages are misspelled. Discussion boards devoted to medical matters of life and death contain claims so false that they’d be funny if they weren’t so dangerous. The site that downloaded in a second an hour ago now takes 5 minutes. The link you thought would take you to pictures of endangered species instead sinks you into a porno site that spawns new windows like poison ivy sprouting leaves. Where’s perfection when we need it?

The imperfection of the Web isn’t a temporary lapse. It’s a design decision. ...The designers weighed perfection against growth and creativity, and perfection lost. The Web is broken on purpose.

So, if we say that the Web is self-organizing, it’s crucial to recognize that that doesn’t imply that it’s very organized at all. It is not, for example, as consistent, predictable or purposeful as a protozoan. To say the Web is organic is to under-appreciate organisms. It does tend to regulate itself if you count as self-regulation the abandoning of a discussion that went so well that too many people joined it or the introduction of filters to try to give us back a grip on email gone out of control. The Web’s organization is only and precisely what individuals on the Web want it to be. Some organizational structures are quite long-lasting, such as the Web site that a big company has sunk millions of dollars into, but many more structures last as long as two cars playing tag on a highway – a quick exchange of emails, a mailing to 5 friends, a joke that sweeps around the world in 8 hours and is forgotten, a link on a page that no one notices and that breaks two days later.

Yet the Web works. … The Web works because it’s broken.

… Companies talk in bizarre, stilted ways because they believe that such language expresses their perfection: omniscient, unflappable, precise, elevated and without accent or personality. This rhetoric is as glossy, and as unbelievable, as the photos in the marketing brochure. Such talk kills conversation. That’s why companies talk that way.


Chapter 6: Public Faces

The Public is where we are most faceless, most distinct from the individuality that we treasure so highly and which seems like the most real part of us.

And yet there is something basically human about being a member of the public. Rabbits don’t have a public. Even dolphins don’t. It is not like belonging to a bowling league or a political party. Precisely because it isn’t optional – there’s no sign-up and no way to resign – it expresses something important about us. Being public creatures is part of being social creatures. Public and private are poles of our existence.

This feels paradoxical. We are individuals, yet as individuals we are necessarily part of a faceless mass. Usually it doesn’t bother us. But there are times and ways in which the disjunction between being an individual and being a member of the public – being private and being public – confronts us. For example, to marketers, we are not just particles with motive but also particles with money. Marketing for a hundred years has been based right on the heart of the paradox. Marketers want to affect you quite personally: they want you to give them the money you’ve worked for and that you lay awake in bed worrying about.  And they want to change the behavior of the particles in their economic universe by appealing to the most personal of motives: your desire to be admired, to stay healthy, to breed with the most comely exemplars of our species.

But, the most efficient way of reaching potential customers has been through broadcast media. So, just as the Industrial Revolution drove down the cost of manufacturing by creating identical, interchangeable products through interchangeable workers, the broadcast revolution drove down the cost of marketing by inventing interchangeable customers. Thus was the consumer created, a type of particle defined by what it buys. A consumer dwells not in a flesh and blood world but in a “demographic segment” which consists of a few salient characteristics: 18-24 urban males, 35-45 middle income stay-at-home moms, etc. The characteristics defining the segment could, of course, make much less sense than this: if people with “J” as a middle initial who sing in the shower respond positively to sky-written ads urging them to buy beanies, they would become the beanie industry’s hottest new demographic.  As members of a segment, we are nothing but a shared set of salient characteristics.

And yet…

…Facelessness is at the heart of our membership in the real world public. When I refer to myself as a “member of the public,” in the real world I’m stripping away all my differences and am thinking about what I’m due simply because I am a co-occupant like everyone else. The rich kids don’t get to cut into the line for the slide in the playground. The differences don’t count among members of the public. But, on the Web there is no public space except insofar as people have spoken and posted, and what we write expresses us and the world as we see it. It’s only interesting insofar as its different. We speak our mind. We make our jokes and flame for the fun of it. We sound like ourselves. Unlike the real world public space, our voices are not heard within the public space. Rather, our voices constitute the public space.

The Web is putting faces back onto the faceless crowd.

Everyone knows that Michael Jackson has sex with kids, that Keanu Reeves is secretly married to David Geffin and that Jamie Lee Curtis is a hermaphrodite. The evidence? Little to none. So why do these “facts” fall so easily from our lips when we’re much more circumspect about the people around us? Easy: The Gloved One, Keanu and Jamie Lee are famous. The gap between The Famous and us is unbridgeable. They are so far removed from us ordinary folks that when we bump into a Famous Person at an airport or on a city street, we feel that our realities are colliding. “He sneezed, just like a normal person,” we say, surprised that The Famous are human.

Fame is the counterpart of our culture’s mass public. We are so faceless taken collectively that we assume that a person who has retained her or his face while in front of the crowd must be quite unlike the rest of us poor schlubs. The larger and more faceless we are as a crowd, the more fame counts and the more extraordinary the famous are.

Fame on the Web is different, and this tells us something about the nature of the Web public…

The pointlessness of online mass politics is apparent at where you can start up your own petition as easily as tanking a dot-com ("210,033 electronic signatures on 4,522 petitions " [16] ). Here you'll find petitions on topics ranging from decriminalizing marijuana, to recalling our ambassador to Vietnam to protest human rights abuses, to banning amalgam dental fillings, to "We, the undersigned ... hereby declare the Governor [Bush] to be a big smirky doofus." Even the more serious petitions have accomplished nothing beyond giving the signatories a warm sense of pride for “getting involved” and “doing something.” The same factor explains both the frivolousness of so many of the online petitions and the impotence of the serious ones: it’s too darn easy.

Nevertheless, the predictions that the Web will change the nature of government are likely true, but not because it wires the masses and not even because it makes it harder to keep secrets from the citizenry. The biggest change in our way of governing is likely to come from the way the Web public is changing the nature of the private…

…It is literally like being a kid again. We can try on clothing and pretend without worrying that we’re being undignified or giving people “the wrong idea.” The self can be what it’s always been: a play of habits and creativity, responsive to the people around us. We just don’t have to keep up appearances because there is no private self – and not even a consistent public self – that needs the maintenance. More exactly, there is a private self, but it’s sitting on its butt in the real world. The anonymity of the Web means that tracing your Web ravings back to your physical self is beyond the capabilities of most of the people you meet on line, although there are always concerns that nosy governments and unscrupulous businesses may know more about the relation of your online and real world selves than you’d like.

On the Web, you become many small selves loosely joined.

More later…

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Small Pieces home page

[1] Dave Bryan, “Parent: Teen accused of threatening Columbine student was 'bored'”, AP, December 18, 1999. Cf.

[2] According to the Urban Legends Reference Page, the Twinkie Defense was never actually offered. Instead, an expert witness testified that White’s abandoning of his usual health food regime was evidence of White’s deep depression. The witness did not claim that eating junk food caused the depression. Barbara and David Mikkelson, 1999.

[3] Sherry Turkle has written two superb and prescient books on this topic: The Second Self and Life on the Screen.

[4] Ten Thousand Villages has a Web presence too, of course:



[7] inFORM: The Vax and Alpha Migration Magazine, Issue 11 (May/June 1996)

[8] Colonel Mark B. Roddy, “Data Warehousing: A New Tool for Maintainers.”




[12] American Heritage Dictionary

[13] A sad coda: Blue Mountain sold itself to Excite in ____ for close to a billion dollars and has since lost much of its character.

[14] “Among the 260 e-commerce Web sites tracked by Harris Interactive, Hallmark ranks as the 38th most popular site. That's far behind, which is ranked fourth.” Jennifer Mann,  “Hallmark is slowly making progress with e-commerce,” The Kansas City Star, June 12, 2000,,business/37748803.612,.htm

[15], March 2001

[16] As of June 5, 2001