I. Introduction:

"The medium is the message," is Marshall McLuhan's most frequently quoted and least understood mantra. It basically means: The fact that we watch television AT ALL affects us more profoundly than any single piece of "content" we watch on television. Each communications medium has its own inherent characteristics and ways of impacting people, regardless of the "content" sent via that medium. And the web is a communications medium.

why the dot com bomb? Lots of reasons. One reason is: We were trying so furiously to make the medium do what we wanted it to do, few of us stopped to ask, "What is the web good for? What can the web do that other media can't do? What can the web NOT do that other media CAN do?" In other words, what are the unique media characteristics of the web? What are its inherent strengths and weaknesses? How does the web "fit in" with existing media? Let's answer some of these questions...

II. Six Media Characteristics (Strengths) of the Web:

No single characteristic, in and of itself, is unique to the web; but the web is the only single medium to which all six characteristics apply. Almost every web service takes advantage of at least two of these six characteristics. Yet rarely does any single web service take advantage of all six.


1. old media analogy:
conference calls. telephony.

2. notes:
a. Net was started to distribute and de-hierarchize, making all servers equal.
b. Web was started so physicists could collaborate with each other globally.

3. examples:
a. email, bulletin boards (many-to-many, time-shifted)
b. web-based email <hotmail> (many-to-many, time-shifted, location-independent)
c. ICQ, internet relay chat, instant messenger, chat rooms (many-to-many, live)
d. MUDs <ultima online> (many-to-many, live, multimedia)
e. beauty and chaos (many-to-many, live, multimedia)
f.playdo graffiti (many-to-many, live, multimedia)
g. vectorama (many-to-many, live, multimedia)
h. net.flag (many-to-many, live, multimedia)
i. open source software development community (many-to-many)
j. decryption via distributed computing (many-to-many, automation [offline])
k. letsbuyit.com (many-to-many, location-independent)
l. modular web services: atomz search, yahoo store, cafepress, mapquest, blogger, geocities site hosting (many-to-many [many service providers to many businesses], automation)



1. old media analogy:

2. notes:
a. I just mean anything more than text and still images.
b. Not every site need be multimedia, but the web is more than the front end to a text database.
c. If multimedia is all you have going for your site, it might not be enough. With cable, satellite TV, and video rental stores, why do I need movies on the web?

3. examples:
a. CNN (multimedia [to enhance news], near-live [as required])
b. born magazine (multimedia [to enhance literature], automation)
c. quilt collabs (multimedia, many-to-many)
d. all your base (multimedia, many-to-many)



1. old media analogy:

2. notes:
a. coupled with many-to-many = a world library to which anyone can contribute
b. coupled with automation = instantaneously searchable
c. subsumes the terms "hypertext" and "non-linear"

3. examples:
a. bible online (database, automation)
b. dictionary.com (database, automation)
c. Project Gutenberg (database, automation)
d. internet movie database (database, automation)
e. search engines (database, automation)
f. search engine image search (database, automation, multimedia)


D. AUTOMATION (programmability)

1. old media analogy:
application software, ATM

2. notes:
a. The web's "killer app," literally
b. often coupled with database, but combines in more ways than that
c. subsumes the term "interactive"

3. examples:
a. babelfish (automation, database)
b. automated text <market-o-matic, permutations, dialectizer> (automation)
c. automated art <turux, soda constructor, pianographique, ambient player> (automation [low entry-level participation], multimedia, time-shifted)
d. monocrafts [fingertracks studies] (automation, many-to-many, time-shifted)



1. old media analogy:
TV, radio

2. notes:
a. "Live" is instantaneous streaming media.
b. "near-live" is frequently updated non-streaming media (like CNN regularly changing their front page during crisis).
c. live web media can then be archived on the site, immediately becoming "time-shifted."
d. more live, more addictive (ebay addicts, why I don't IRC)

3. examples:
a. net radio/ streaming media (live, time-shifted)
b. ebay (live, many-to-many)
c. online interview in chat room environment (live, time-shifted, many-to-many)
d. photoshop tennis (near-live, time-shifted, multimedia)
e. wirefire (live, time-shifted, multimedia)
f. dreamless hacks (near-live, time-shifted, multimedia, many-to-many, database)



1. old media analogy:
existence (only needs animate hardware, depth of experience varies depending on sophistication of device)

2. notes:
a. mobile devices
b. mainframe >> desktop >> laptop >> palmtop >> cell phone >> pager >> ?

3. examples:
a. PDAs + WAP-enabled cell phones (location-independent, many-to-many, NOT multimedia)
b. GPS navigation in cars (location-independent, database, automation)
c. any web site that can be read on a mobile device (location-independent, device-independent)
d. XML web services/ .NET (many-to-many [many service providers to many businesses] + automation = location-independent, device-independent)

III. Case Studies

A. amazon

1. purchase groups (database, automation, many-to-many)
2. customer reviews (many-to-many)
3. the page you built (database, automation)
4. recommendation lists (many-to-many)
5. customers who bought that bought this (database, automation)
6. internet movie database (database, automation) [cf: cdnow.com]
7. auctions (live, many-to-many)
8. wish lists (many-to-many)
9. sales ranking (database, automation)
10. resellers (many-to-many [many service providers to many customers])
11. listen to audio samples (multimedia)
12. available in PDA version (location-independent)

TOTALS: (many-to-many, multimedia, database, automation, time-shifted, location-independent) All 6. Always testing. Exploit their database for more than just storing orders.


B. napster

1. A combination of a novel service with a media-aware approach.
2. Example of how being media-aware but blind to legal issues doesn't do you much good. There's more to success than clever exploitation of media.

TOTALS: (many-to-many, multimedia, database, automation, time-shifted)


C. beatnik

1. example: <moby's "bodyrock">
2. a clever combination of media strengths, but is it necessarily a successful business model?

TOTALS: (many-to-many, multimedia, automation, time-shifted)


D. rhizome

1. online art gallery (many-to-many, multimedia)
2. news article (time-shifted)
3. database of critical texts (database, automation)
4. announcement of events (many-to-many, time-shifted)
5. raw list (many-to-many, live)
6. filtered lists -- rare, tech, digest, daily (many-to-many, time-shifted [value-added])
7. available in palm version (location-independent)
8. pseudonymous posting (*any-to-many)
9. anyone can change .sig on all posts (*any-to-many)

TOTALS: (many-to-many, multimedia, database, automation, live, time-shifted, location-independent) All 6, plus two strange variations of many-to-many. Like, Amazon, always testing.

IV. Partnering with other media:

A. Brief analysis of old media characteristics --

1. telephony:
a. many-to-many
b. live
c. location-independent [a boon w/ cell phones]

2. radio:
a. live
b. time-shifted
c. location-independent [a boon w/ car radios]

3. TV:
a. live
b. time-shifted
c. multimedia
d. location-independent [but so what? location-independent + visual multimedia = too distracting to be useful.]

4. application software:
a. automation

5. CD-ROM:
a. multimedia
b. database
c. automation
d. time-shifted

6. library (print):
a. database
b. multimedia
c. time-shifted

7. ATM:
a. database
b. automation

8. existence:
a. many-to-many
b. multimedia
c. device-independent
d. location-independent
e. [NOT automation, database, time-shifted -- our media supplement our existence]


B. Cross-Media Combinations amongst Old Media --

1. (telephony + TV) and (telephony + radio) create call-in talk shows: a hybrid and unexpectedly popular genre.

2. telephone + automation [automated voice mail, automated operators, automated telemarketers] -- we know how much fun this has added.


C. Cross-Media Combinations Incorporating the Web --

1. web + TV:
The Food Network puts all their recipes on foodtv.com, and they advertise this fact during every show. This frees viewers to enjoy the shows without having to take notes, and the chefs can be flamboyant and entertaining without having to give a boring litany of exact measurements.

CNN combines TV + web to produce a sidebar during their news of viewer comments submitted via the web. The comments refresh every few minutes.

2. web + outdoor billboards:
The web has revolutionized outdoor advertising. You no longer have to fit your entire pitch on the billboard. By simply including a URL, the rest of the billboard space can then be used to make an impacting marketing statement without all the fine print. Some billboards simply contain a URL.

3. web + standalone application software:
n_Gen and auto-illustrator are automated, multimedia, stand-alone apps used for (web) design. You have to download them to use them, but they are distributed via the web, with examples of what the apps can do on the web, and communities of developers on the web. Just like Photoshop, Flash, etc.

Many desktop applications regularly check for their latest version online and talk you through a download/upgrade. These apps don't run on the web, but the web maintenance services are integrated into the apps. (automation [offline], live and database [online], but the distinction is relatively seamless.)

V. Summary:

Yes, the web runs on computer technology, moreso than any other medium. But the web is NOT computer technology; the web is people communicating with each other VIA computer technology. In the final analysis, the web is best understood as an emerging communications medium.

Some general takeaways, then:

  • use web in conjunction with exisitng media
  • be aware of old media that do your web job better
  • use as many of the 6 web strengths as applicable
  • avoid illogical combinations (like visual multimedia + location-independent)
  • mind other crucial factors besides media (cf: napster + copyrigh law)

Focus on your overall services, and accomplish them however you can. If you can do something better offline, do it offline. The goal is usefulness, not strict adherence to one medium or another.

Develop strategies that use as many of the 6 strengths as are applicable. Always ask, "Am I taking advantage of this or that media strength?" If not, at least know why not.

The web is its own animal. The web is like... the web. Can AOL/Time Warner see this, or will they only see the TV-like characteristics of the web? Can Microsoft see this (Bill Gates already missed the web once), or will they only see the software-like characteristics of the web? The web is its own unique communications medium. The successful company will be the one that takes the web on its own terms, working with the web rather than against it.

VI. Bibliography:

A. Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (Marshall McLuhan) [on the nature of media]

B. Experience Design (Nathan Shedroff) [on the way we process media]

C. The Language of New Media (Lev Manovich) [on new media art]

D. Computers As Theatre (Brenda Laurel) [on computer/human interface]

E. Design for Community (Derek M. Powazek) [on many-to-many environments]

F. The Cathedral and The Bazaar <full text online> (Eric S. Raymond) [on the nature of online, para-commercial, collaborative culture]

- Curt Cloninger
<lab404, playdamage>

[Please email thoughts, comments, other examples, outraged objections to curt@lab404.com.]

updated 1.13.04