David Gauntlett

  • Entitled 'Web Studies: What's new', this is the introduction (8,700 words) to the second edition of Web.Studies.
  • If printing, use the printer-friendly version.

The first edition of Web.Studies began with a story about how I didn't get into the internet at first, in the mid-1990s, because it seemed too nerdy. Bloody internet, I said: full of computer geeks swapping episode guides for Babylon Five. This was, of course, intended to reassure 'cool' readers that they weren't reading a book aimed at an audience of computer scientists and boys who go to sci-fi conventions.

Today, such apologies are not necessary: the Web is so much a part of everyday life - and, in particular, so often at the heart of popular culture, or used to communicate pop culture - that there is no need to justify it, or be embarrassed. During the final years of the last century, the Web had only really managed to be 'cool' as defined by Wired magazine, the stylish but technology-obsessed fanzine of new media culture. Now, the Web is cool as defined by the worlds of fashion, music and art. In 1999, the Web was full of idiotic capitalists who thought they could become millionaires just by having a website. But in 2000, it all went wrong (of which, more later). That 'dot-com crash' was a blessing. Nowadays, the capitalists, like everybody else, have to be cool: thoughtful, streamlined, intelligent.

The idea behind Web.Studies was to have a book that treated internet media like any other popular media that appeals to people (without, of course, forgetting about the things that made it unique). In a world where people are still burbling about 'cyberculture' - a term whose useful potential has been killed off by the staggering number of tedious things that have been written about it - I believe we can still be confident that this is refreshing and appropriate. New media would be nothing if it wasn't meaningful to people, if it wasn't a site of sociability, politics, art, emotion, music and dancing. (Of course, that's what 'cyberculture' refers to - maybe without the dancing - but I'm not sure we need new nerdwords). Web.Studies is designed to address a cross-section of interesting cultural and social things happening on the net.

This second edition, like the first, came together entirely on the internet. We have never spoken to most of the contributors, but we've exchanged a lot of e-mails. The new edition is not just an 'update' of the previous one: half of the chapters are newly written versions of the most popular chapters from last time, and are often substantially different, since three and a half years is a long time on the net. The other half are brand new contributions, from invited experts, on important areas that have become more striking recently, or were requested by users of the first edition, or are dealt with here in a more contemporary way. These include the chapters on digital film-making; copyright issues; self-help online; new media art; online zines; pornography for lesbians; masculinities; the 'digital divide'; and the debate about one of the internet's biggest and most controversial applications in the 21st century, the free exchange of music online via peer-to-peer sharing programs like Kazaa.

This introduction contains revised versions of some old parts, but a greater amount of new material. Those of you who read the first edition will get a sense of deja-vu when you get to the obligatory 'origins of the Web' section, soon, but hang in there for all-new stuff about the collapse of the dot-com bubble, illegal file-sharing, and an interesting theme about how the Web has (partly) returned to its authentic, non-corporate, community roots with the help of things like wikipedia, Google and blogs.


In the previous edition, I argued that the arrival of new media offered a much-needed kick to the world of media and communications studies. (You can read this material from the first edition at www.newmediastudies.com). In general, media studies had entered a 'middle-aged, stodgy period', characterised by pointlessly contrived 'readings' of media texts, an inability to identify the real impact of the media, and a black hole left by the total failure of vacuous US-style 'communications science' quantitative research, which remained unfilled due to a corresponding absence of much imaginative qualitative research. In particular, I said, media studies was looking weak and rather pointless in the face of media producers and stars, including media-savvy politicians, who were already so knowing about media and communications that academic critics were looking increasingly redundant: chasing humbly after the media's top artists and manipulators, saying, 'Ah, I see what you've done there' - and publishing wilfully unreadable articles about it three years later - didn't really seem to add up to much, especially when the phenomena had already been dissected perfectly well by newspapers or magazines as it was happening.

Most of these things are still true: you wouldn't expect old-school media studies to reinvent itself within three years. But the arrival of new media within the mainstream has had an impact, bringing vitality and creativity to the whole area, as well as whole new areas for exploration (especially around the idea of 'interactivity'). In particular, the fact that it is quite easy for media students to be reasonably slick media producers in the online environment, means that we are all more actively engaged with questions of creation, distribution and audience. But before we consider the exciting implications of new media for today and the future, we'd better lay down some basic internet history.


This is the internet

The internet is a global network of interconnected computers. Rumours that it started life as a sinister US military experiment may be somewhat exaggerated, although a computer network called ARPANET run by the US Defense Department from 1969 was a primary component of the super-network which would eventually become the internet, and the US government was definitely interested in a network which could withstand nuclear attack. In fact the first talk about an internet can be traced back to 1962, when J.C.R. Licklider of MIT wrote a number of memos about his idea of a 'Galactic Network' linking computers worldwide (see www.isoc.org/internet/history).

The first event in the life of the internet as we know it today came in 1974, when Vint Cerf and Bob Khan defined the Transmission Control Protocol (TCP) and Internet Protocol (IP) by which information could be put into a 'packet' and addressed so that computers on the network would pass it along, in the right direction, until it arrived at its destination. Various tests and demonstrations were successfully conducted, and internet-style networks started to take off, but it was ten years before the TCP/IP-based internet rolled out across the USA in 1983. And then it would primarily remain the domain of academics and scientists for another ten years.

So what is the World Wide Web?

The World Wide Web is a user-friendly interface onto the internet. It was developed by Tim Berners-Lee (www.w3.org/People/Berners-Lee) in 1990-91, and caught on in 1993, when a freely-available Web browser called Mosaic, written by Marc Andreessen and Eric Bina, started the 'Web revolution'. (Mosaic went on to become Netscape Navigator, the hugely popular early Web browser which managed to keep Microsoft at bay for most of the 1990s). Berners-Lee is sometimes mistakenly credited with inventing the internet. But his actual achievement was perhaps more socially significant: he recognised that the internet was 'too much of a hassle for a noncomputer expert' (Berners-Lee 1999: 20), and created an elegant solution.

Berners-Lee's idea was to create a set of agreed protocols and standards so that documents could be stored on Web servers anywhere in the world, but could be brought up on a computer screen by anyone who wanted it, using a simple address. Central to Berners-Lee's dream was the use of hyperlinks, so that Web pages would be full of highlighted words or phrases, which would take the user to other relevant pages elsewhere. (Today, websites often only link to their own internal pages, to prevent users from wandering off to other sites too easily. 'External' links might be offered on a separate 'links page', or not at all. Berners-Lee had really wanted everyone to be much more liberal in their interlinking across these boundaries).

More surprisingly, Berners-Lee hoped that the World Wide Web would be built through collaboration - he wanted Web users to be involved in a two-way process, not only reading Web pages, but also adding to and amending them, creating links, and, of course, creating new pages. The Web's creator did not expect Web browsing to be a one-way experience, but the browser software which became popular, from Mosaic onwards, would only read and present webpages, not alter them. The World Wide Web Consortium, the advisory body which Berners-Lee established and still directs, has developed its own browser/editor, Amaya, which will both read and edit webpages. (See the Consortium's website, www.w3.org, for the latest, and Berners-Lee's book, Weaving the Web, 1999, for the story of the Web's development). But since this idea never caught on, almost all sites refuse to allow users to rewrite their main content.

Indeed, it is difficult to picture how this could work: who on earth is going to create a nice website, only to pass control over to visitors who can change, delete, amend, scribble, add their own links and 'contributions' and generally mess the whole thing up? An optimistic answer to this pessimistic question can be found at www.wikipedia.org, the online enyclopedia launched in 2001 and built entirely through the contributions of its users. Anybody can add the beginnings of an article, but - most importantly - that article, like every Wikipedia article, can be edited, changed and added to by any other visitor. All previous versions of an article can be viewed, or re-instated, making it easy to put things right if any user does indeed spoil an entry - although this happens rarely. The site, which reached the milestone of 100,000 articles in January 2003, contains interesting discussions about how this apparently free-for-all system works (see 'About Wikipedia' and 'Our Replies to our Critics').

The success of Wikipedia suggests, heart-warmingly, that Tim Berners-Lee was not being entirely nave when he dreamed of a Web built on the love and free labour of nice people all around the world, summarized in this 'vision' of what the Web should be about:

The dream behind the Web is of a common information space in which we communicate by sharing information. Its universality is essential: the fact that a hypertext link can point to anything, be it personal, local or global, be it draft or highly polished. There was a second part of the dream, too, dependent on the Web being so generally used that it became a realistic mirror (or in fact the primary embodiment) of the ways in which we work and play and socialize. That was that once the state of our interactions was on line, we could then use computers to help us analyse it, make sense of what we are doing, where we individually fit in, and how we can better work together. (From 'The World Wide Web: A very short personal history' at www.w3.org/People/Berners-Lee).


It is worth emphasising that the Web is something that runs on the internet. It is not, however, the same as the internet. The internet is the network of networked computers. Since it is basically all cables, wires and microprocessors, the internet can carry any kind of data, such as e-mail, computer programs, or illegally copied music files. The Web, however, is made up of a particular type of (easy to use, universally readable) data. At its heart is Hypertext Markup Language, HTML, a simple computer language which can be used to create webpages which include links, graphics, and multimedia components. The simplicity of HTML is also its weakness; it is difficult (but not impossible) to create graphically stunning, or amazingly interactive websites using just HTML. For this reason, other languages and formats have appeared, such as ASP (for sites which are driven by an underlying database, such as online shopping sites where the site is like a 'window' on the catalogue database, or indeed news websites where the site is used to view the news database), XML (an advanced sibling of HTML, which can also deal with databases), and Macromedia's well-established Flash (for fancy, interactive, scalable graphics in quite small file sizes).

For the first few years of the Web, there were a range of different search engines, often with fancy logos and complex layouts, and a substantial advertising budget. Everyone had their own favourite: Excite, Lycos, Altavista, and numerous others, all used different search methods, and were all a bit disappointing in different ways - especially in their desire to style themselves as 'portals', full of adverts and paid-for information and links. These sites were crippled under the wheels of the word-of-mouth juggernaut surrounding Google, which was launched in autumn 1998 with the no-frills layout and simple logo which the majority of Web users know and love today. As well as being impressively free of marketing gimmicks, Google had the cleverest way of ranking websites, developed by Larry Page and Sergey Brin at Stanford University. Google's system, as the site itself explains, 'relies on the uniquely democratic nature of the Web by using its vast link structure as an indicator of an individual page's value'. Every link to a page is taken as a vote in favour of that page; and links from pages which themselves rank highly in this system carry more weight than links from pages that nobody links to. In other words, links equal popularity, and Google will always give you the most popular pages on anything. Even Yahoo, which previously was an excellent directory put together by humans (rather than a search engine put together by software algorithms), seems poor now, simply because Google is so damn good.


In 2000, I complained that whilst the Web had become a colourful, complex, multimedia environment where people connected in new ways, many internet scholars were still writing about text-based applications (such as newsgroups, MUDs and MOOs) which ran on the internet (not the Web) and which were generally unknown to the mainstream Web users who had come online in the late 1990s. There was also an emphasis on the most basic, text-based uses of webpages. Thankfully, since then, academia seems to have caught up a bit. And the Web has helped out a little, too, by becoming a bit more simple and old-fashioned: less obsessed with ill-conceived 'get rich quick' schemes, and with more opportunities for Web-based sociability via easy-to-use outlets of self-expression, such as blogs. Let's explore both sides of this change.

The money thing, and where it all went wrong

At the time when the first edition of Web.Studies was being prepared - but not, ahem, for much longer - the internet was seen as a source of great wealth. Internet companies were very highly valued on the stock market, even though most of them had not made any money and showed little sign of doing so. In the first Web.Studies I felt obliged to explain this phenomenon. Indeed, the capitalist obsession with the Web was so great that some internet scholars felt that the creative potential of the global network had already been killed off by big business. I had to argue that this was not quite right, because the business and non-business spheres of the internet could exist quite happily side by side:

For example, let's say your town has an excellent public library which you enjoy using. One day a company opens a large supermarket next to the library. The library continues to be good and well-stocked, and indeed picks up more users from the influx of supermarket customers. Now, if your friend said, 'I see the supermarket has destroyed the library,' you would think they were a bit of an idiot.

In the same way, the commercial and non-commercial parts of the internet ought to be able to exist side by side. The problem, alas, is that in this town, we would probably see marketing people from the supermarket sneaking into the library, taking down the community notices in the foyer, and replacing them with adverts. They would also interfere with the library catalogue, so that it told library users that the answers to their questions would be found in the supermarket. Such forces obviously need to be kept in check.

This all remains true, and indeed the behaviour of obnoxious marketers online has only got worse: witness the huge amounts of spam (junk email) which jam up the average inbox. But clearly there was a huge shakedown in the much-hyped world of e-business - this event has now become a recognised phrase: 'the day the dot-com bubble burst'. It's not clear exactly which day this was, but during the spring and summer of 2000 - when Web.Studies first hit the streets, though we claim no responsibility - it became clear that things had gone very wrong.

A classic example is the case of online fashion store Boo.com, which went online in November 1999 in a flurry of expensive publicity, only to collapse spectacularly, six months later, in May 2000. Enterprising to the last, its co-founder turned this story into a book, Boo Hoo (2002), written in the style of a John Grisham page-turner: 'The story of how an international model and former poetry critic from Sweden dreamed up an ambitious and glamorous Internet start-up; how they convinced the world's biggest fashion houses and Wall Street to invest $135 million in their plan; and how they burned through it all in just over a year', as the blurb has it. Boo.com seemed to have a staggering mismatch between the amount of money that people were willing to pour into it, and what the company could actually offer. But their case was not untypical. For five years (1995-2000), venture capitalists and other investors threw money at all kinds of e-business ideas, based on the confident hope that these enterprises would become the hugely profitable corporations of tomorrow. They knew that some would fail, of course. But they didn't count on it being almost all of them. In the real world, it turned out, there just isn't room for everybody to run a super-successful internet business. Furthermore, many of these new businesses were neither as innovative nor as in-demand as their creators had liked to imagine. Investors lost faith, realising that their internet stocks weren't worth as much as they'd been wishing, and so the values plummeted.

Some have survived, of course, by performing a useful service in a well-organised way. Amazon, the online bookstore that actually makes a profit, is your classic case: it's a simple and usually cheap way to buy books (or music, films, toys, and an ever-growing range of other goods). It makes basic but effective use of the Web's unique interactivity, allowing users to post reviews of products (even if they hate the item in question), make annotated lists for others, receive recommendations based on their past purchases, view what other people that bought a product also bought, and so on. Importantly, Amazon has built a reputation for delivering actual goods efficiently in the real world - something you don't get just by having a fancy website.

Nowadays, then, everything's much more sensible: there's a smaller number of internet businesses, who are having to work extra-hard to dispel the now-standard assumption that internet businesses are money losers, and who have to demonstrate that they can provide effective and robust services in the real world. The prevailing spirit of the first years of the 21st century has been a sense that we should stop being silly, or gimmicky and fancy, and get back to basics with what we know we can do best. And this hasn't just affected the business sector.

Back to basics, and the rise of blogs

In the late 1990s, the websites that got people excited, even away from the commercial sector, were glitzy, hyper-designed temples to individualism and glossy graphic design. But as the new century has rolled in, we have seen a revival of the kinds of social communication which the internet always stood for, but which were more suppressed - and perhaps seen as embarrassingly 'old-fashioned' - during the Web's business boom years.

In particular, blogging has unexpectedly taken off like never before. A blog, short for weblog, is a regularly updated diary of a person's fascinations, thoughts, and/or experiences. Sites such as blogger.com make it simple to set up a blog, and - just as importantly - easy to update the thing regularly with no need for special technical skills. In February 2003, Wired magazine noted that 'the meteoric rise of weblogging is one of the most unexpected technology stories of the past year', and estimated that at least half a million people actively maintain blogs. (The site www.diarist.net has a good set of resources about this phenomenon). The 2003 war in Iraq brought particular attention to blogs. As William Gibson, himself a blogger, noted (in interview with Hamish Mackintosh, May 2003):

I think during the first week of the war in Iraq, I feel as if I saw blogging go mainstream. On a Monday, I'd mentioned to a friend in Vancouver that there was a guy in Baghdad who was blogging and my friend asked me 'what the fuck is blogging?' By the Friday, blogging was being discussed on the evening news.

Articles about blogging seem to have appeared in all major newspapers, and all current affairs magazines, during 2002-3. Half of them say that blogging is the perfect democratic internet application, giving everyone a platform to express their views, and giving non-mainstream voices an opportunity to contribute to media culture. (See, for example, Steven Levy's Newsweek article, 2002). The other half are by journalists furious that unqualified amateurs are being treated as legitimate commentators on current affairs - this, they feel, should be left to professional hacks (Naughton, 2003). Journalism professor Elizabeth Osder told Wired magazine, 'Bloggers are navel-gazers. And they're about as interesting as friends who make you look at their scrap books. There's an overfascination here with self-expression, with opinion. This is opinion without expertise, without resources, without reporting' (Shachtman, 2002). On the other hand, Steve Outing of the Poynter Institute argued that the diversity of bloggers is one of their strengths: 'What we're seeing more and more are webloggers breaking niche stories, and thus serving as an early warning system for traditional journalists' (ibid).

The most striking thing about these recent debates is that it's all so 1996! Blogging is a good old-style use of the internet, and thus we see just the same debates as when the first personal homepages were put on the Web in the early to mid 1990s. Those in favour see these things as 'democratic' and a chance for everyone to 'have their say'. The critics, usually professional print journalists who do not want to be usurped by the new technology, condemn the phenomenon as a sandpit for the rambling amateur.

There is a straightforward technical explanation for the newfound popularity of blogs: today they are much easier to create, on the Web, using simple tools which had not previously been readily available. But blogs also seem part of a new philosophy on the Web, that the best things are not necessarily noisy animated explosions of multimedia innovation, but are the simple and effective phenomena which use the medium in a measured, accessible way, and connect people around the world. It's what the World Wide Web was always meant to be about.

Whatever happened to the 'attention economy'?

Back in 1997, Michael Goldhaber argued that on the internet there is an 'attention economy'. I outlined this in the first Web.Studies, and it seems worth reviewing the idea to see if it still makes sense, several years on. Goldhaber's point was that the scarce resource, which everybody on the Web is struggling for, is attention. On the internet, money is not the most important scarce resource, for reasons which we will turn to in a moment. And information certainly isn't a scarce resource - the Web contains oceans of it. The Web's scarce resource is attention, because there is so much information out there, and everyone has so little time to look at it. To triumph on the Web is to have lots of people giving attention to your site, instead of giving it to someone else's. Attention is what everyone wants. So it's an attention economy.

Big companies don't get attention on the Web just because they have a lot of money. Having money can enable a company to make a stylish multimedia website, and generate awareness of it through conventional media and promotions, but if the website has no engaging content, it won't win much attention. Meanwhile, individuals and small groups are relatively empowered in this medium, because if they produce a website deserving of attention then, hopefully and ideally, word will spread around the internet and lots of people's attention will be drawn to that site. (The fact that Google has become the most popular search tool adds considerable weight to Goldhaber's argument: as we have seen, Google favours those sites which are talked about on other sites - so a buzz of attention has a significant impact on a site's visibility).

A commercial website, set up to promote a chocolate bar or a book publishing company, say, has the great advantage that its website address can be promoted on all of its adverts and all of its products. A non-commercial website does not usually have such an opportunity, and so is at a disadvantage. (The publishing company is also in a good position because it can give away bits of its product directly, on its website, as a 'taster' for the full product, whereas the chocolate manufacturer usually has to settle for offering news, games and quizzes associated with the product).

However, if the commercial website does not have any interesting content, other websites won't link to it, it will be ignored in Google's theme/topic listings (only appearing when users ask for it by name), people won't mention it in email discussions or chatrooms, and the poor site will only ever be visited by curious individuals (and the company's employees, partners or competitors) who have seen the address advertised and who visit the site - once.

Meanwhile, any website which is full of appealing and regularly updated content has a better chance of getting attention. Today, one of the best ways of getting attention is to be mentioned in one or more of the most popular blogs (see above), which also, due to the power of the top blogs, leads to a better Google ranking. Popularity can also be cultivated by some online networking - by sending personal e-mails (not spam) to potentially interested, and ideally influential, people. The whole thing takes effort, but not a lot of money. By getting linked to from other websites, and listed in directories, search engines, and magazines, a website can come to command a lot of attention. Of course, though, it needs to be a good site in the first place.

So, has the passage of time, and the dot-com collapse, shown Goldhaber to have been right about the 'attention economy'? Basically, yes. Goldhaber illustrated his point by saying: 'Money flows to attention, and much less well does attention flow to money'. The second part is definitely true: you can't buy attention. You can't make someone interested in what you have to say, unless they actually find the content of what you have to say engaging. This is what the now-extinct dot-coms found - there were so many sites, insufficiently unique or different from each other, and they were unable to capture enough attention to be successful, no matter how much money they had behind them. Meanwhile, 'Money flows to attention'? Well, this has turned out to be mostly true, but maybe the demands of attention were even greater than Goldhaber realised: Only a relatively small number of people got enough attention via the Web that they were able to convert this into a successful business, or writing/TV career.

* * * * *


Web.Studies 2 is not a mere updating of the first edition. The chapters are all either brand new or substantially rewritten, to address today's wired world, for as we know, these things change fast. The first, introductory part of the book consists of three chapters: this introduction, which can be read in conjunction with Laura Gurak's overview of recent developments and themes in internet studies, and Nina Wakeford's outline of methodologies for studying the Web. This is followed by the first themed section, 'Web Life, Identities, Arts and Culture'. This section is (even) bigger than in the first edition, because it seems especially important to look at the range of creative ways in which everyday people are using the Web, creating new cultures and interacting with existing ones. The contributors consider personal homepages, and the Web presences and interactions of fans, and women's zines, and online phenomena from virtual sex, and pornography for lesbians, to movie-making in the digital era, as well as a discussion of masculinities online. We also see how Web artists have reflected on the nature of the internet in their works which explore interactivity and online sociality; and the ways in which online connections have brought real benefit to people in self-help sites (in particular for sufferers of breast cancer). Finally we consider how the idea of fascination can be used to understand how websites entice audiences.

The next section, 'Web Business, Economics and Capitalism', looks at the ways in which commercial interests are affecting today's internet and the way that people use it. We consider the Web's relationship to capitalism, and deconstruct the idea of the 'digital divide'. Then we look at internet copyright issues in general, and as fought out in the ongoing battles between the music industry and file-sharing music fans. The final themed section, 'Global Web Communities, Politics and Protest', is about people coming together, for political or social reasons, on the net, and the ways in which the Web might change those political relationships and processes. The contributors consider whether the Web is really a tool for democracy, and its use in contemporary warfare. We also look at internet use by women activists, and two quite different communities: the Cherokee Indians, and the subculture of virus writers. Finally, the last chapter takes a look at some possible futures of the internet and new media culture.


This section outlines some of the main issues in Web studies. These are key themes which will recur in other chapters throughout the book. Being broad themes, they are reasonably timeless, and I set them out in the first edition. But since you may not have that, and these are important points, here they are again, revised and updated where appropriate.

The Web allows people to express themselves

The Web offers people an opportunity to produce creative, expressive media products (or texts, or art works, if you prefer) and display them to a global audience. Without question, compared to the pre-Web era, this is a significant new development. We may be able to produce a painting, or a poem, or an amateur 'magazine', but without the Web, most of us would not have the opportunity or resources to find an audience for our work. We could force our family and friends to admire our masterpiece, but that would be about it.

When I was at school, I made a 'magazine' for a useless musical 'group' that I was in. My materials were biro and paper. I was aged 12 and photocopiers weren't very accessible, so the single edition of each issue had to be passed around between members of its audience - approximately four people.

When I was a student, I published a fanzine (or 'small press magazine') with an anti-sexist theme, Powercut, which was reproduced by a professional printing company (in exchange for a significant chunk of my humble student finances). Producing and printing the thing was the (relatively) easy part: it was the distribution which would eat up my life. I spent hundreds of hours visiting and writing to bookshops, and getting magazines and newspapers to write about it - with ordering details - so that I could spend yet more hours responding to mail order requests. I published two issues, and for each one, it took me a year to shift 800 copies. This was regarded as a considerable success in small press circles.

Today, like many people, I can write a review or article, stick it on the Web, then sit back and relax. 800 or so people can have read it - well, seen it - within a week. I largely enjoyed the Powercut experience, back in 1991-93, but think how much simpler my life would have been - and how much more of a life I would have had! - if Tim Berners-Lee had bothered to invent the World Wide Web just a few years earlier than he actually did.

A website can be your own magazine, or gallery. Anything that can be put into words or pictures - or animation, video or music - can be put there. This is what made the internet fantastic, and it still is.

Cynics and miserablists here pipe up with 'What if nobody visits your site?' Frankly, this isn't a very powerful argument. If you put some effort into the site content, and then put a bit more effort into establishing links with other sites, and getting it covered by search engines and directories, then there are sufficient millions of Web users out there that some of them will come and visit. The Web, then, offers an extraordinary explosion of opportunity for creativity and expression. A decade ago, almost all readily-accessible media was made by a small bunch of companies (and the lucky people who had got jobs with them). Now look at it.

The Web brings people together, building communities

Since Howard Rheingold published The Virtual Community in 1993, much has been written about 'communities' on the internet. The basic point is simple enough: before the internet, communities were people who lived or worked close to each other. If you were lucky, you might have a community of like-minded people, although it was unlikely that you would get a very compatible bunch all in the same place. The global internet transforms this - for those, as always, who have access to it - because it enables like-minded people to form virtual communities regardless of where they are located in the physical world. Before the internet, scientists working in a particular field might have little contact with each other, and needed to organise expensive conferences in order to have a meeting of minds. Meanwhile, fans of obscure bands would have little to do with their counterparts elsewhere, and people interested in certain hobbies, or artists, or skills, could only feed their interest through one-way communications, such as reading a magazine or newsletter about it.

Again, the internet changed all that. Now, regardless of where they are in the world, people with similar interests, or with similar backgrounds, or with similar attitudes, can join communities of like-minded people, and share views, exchange information, and build relationships. And indeed, the Web has even been successful in virtually patching up previously-existing real-world communities, in the case of sites like Friends Reunited (www.friendsreunited.co.uk), which puts old school friends back in touch with each other.

Virtual communities are inevitably different to real-world ones, of course. They are much more flexible, with people coming and going, making new connections, or choosing to ignore parts of the community they don't like. They don't rely on the physical impressions made when people see each other in the flesh. In practice, what these communities look like are people sending electronic text to each other. Most of the studies of virtual communities are about groups exchanging messages on newsgroups and e-mail discussion lists, or groups who often meet in the same chat rooms. Internet scholars are also waking up to the phenomenon of the communities which develop in and around similarly-themed websites and their creators. I noted this in the first Web.Studies, saying: 'Participants in chattering groups may come and go, whereas the bonds of friendship and interdependence which the Web, by its interconnected nature, breeds amongst website-creators - expressed in public links and personal e-mails - may be more compelling'. This remains true, but maybe I was a little optimistic: website creators, and their interpersonal connections, come and go with some regularity too.

Nevertheless, it remains a good argument, that if more people had a website, and communicated with like-minded others, the more complex and deeply-entrenched these community webs would be. Some of us are quite moralistic about use of the Web, and feel that you must contribute, and not merely 'surf'. Everyone who uses the Web should, ideally, have a website, where they endeavour to put some stuff that may be of interest to someone else. It is difficult to take seriously, for example, internet scholars who don't even have their own website. You might say that we don't expect film critics to have their own movie studio, but this is rather different - making a website requires some effort, but not many material resources.

Whilst the net's global friendship-building is valuable, there is, as usual, a downside. As with any open-access communications medium, the Web can be used in ways which we may find distasteful. If the internet can foster communities of like-minded artists and poets, it can also give a home to groups of like-minded Nazis and child molesters. Many countries already have laws to deal with the real-world actions of such people, but we can't stop them talking to each other. It is important not to confuse the medium with the message: newspaper stories still appear which seek to show how evil the internet is because unsavory characters communicate using it. But when unpleasant people appear on TV, or make use of the telephone, we don't normally blame the box of electronics. We can hope that the opportunities for education and creativity which the Web offers will lead to a kind of human society which can find ways to get along without causing harm to others. That's the optimistic view, obviously.

Anonymity and identity play in cyberspace

Since the early days of the internet there have been bulletin boards and 'chat' spaces where users can interact online, and today, many websites include chat or discussion rooms where visitors can interact in real time. Since participants cannot see each other, and are not obliged to reveal their real name or physical location, there is considerable scope for people to reveal secrets, discuss problems, or even enact whole 'identities' which they would never do in the real world, not even with their closest friends - in some cases, especially not with their closest friends. These secrets or identities may, of course, be 'real', or might be completely made up. In cyberspace, where the 'people' we 'meet' are usually only seen as text or icons on a screen, it's clearly more difficult to tell which voices are 'true'.

Some aspects of this 'identity play' can be annoying, such as the sad middle-aged man who pretends to be younger, more handsome and successful in the hope of attracting the online attention of a young woman (who, in the real world, may be another sad middle-aged man). Other aspects can be criminal - paedophiles have been known to present themselves as friendly children online, so that they can arrange meetings with (what they hope are) other children. Sometimes, they might find that they have unintentionally arranged a meeting with another paedophile; sometimes it can turn out to be a police officer. (Some police services employ staff to wander around chat rooms pretending to be children to see if anyone asks to meet them).

Some internet chat stories are more heart-warming: men and women who have thought that they may be gay, but have been afraid to come out in the 'real world', have 'tested' this identity online. They have been so happy to be able to express their 'true' selves - and to receive such a supportive (and perhaps erotic) response - that this has given them the courage to come out in their everyday real-world lives as well.

And, of course, people of all sexual orientations have used the internet for 'cybersex', which involves people telling each other what they are doing to each other (within their shared cyber-imagination) as they fumble their way towards sexual satisfaction. Today, inexpensive webcams allow participants to see each other - although some may choose not to, preferring the pleasure of text.

The internet's scope for anonymous interaction, and therefore identity play, is significant for the way in which it fits in with contemporary queer theory. Queer theory suggests that people do not have a fixed 'essence', and that identity is a performance (Butler 1990; Gauntlett, 2002; www.theory.org.uk/queer). We may be so used to inhabiting one 'identity' that it seems to be 'natural' to us, but it's a kind of performance nonetheless. Because the internet breaks the connection between outward expressions of identity and the physical body which (in the real world) makes those expressions, it can be seen as a space where queer theory's approach to identity can really come to life.

However, the arguments made about this tend to be based on playful chat spaces which, in terms of most people's internet use, are not popular or mainstream today. As I argued in the first edition of Web.Studies, it has become more interesting, these days, to be studying expressions of identity, and community developments, within and between people's websites.

The Web and big business

In the previous edition, the main concerns regarding business and the Web were based around the idea that big corporations might ruin the Web, by filling it with corporate nonsense, and advertising, and by buying up all the best bits. There was also the associated fear that Microsoft might become so powerful that it would be able to influence the open standards of the Web so that all users would become reliant on proprietary Microsoft products - a threat which seems to have subsided, not least because of the huge court battle which took up so much of its time in recent years (United States vs. Microsoft - see www.usdoj.gov/atr/cases/ms_index.htm).

Nowadays, the bigger panics run in the opposite direction - big businesses are scared that the internet will ruin them. Peer-to-peer file sharing (via systems like Napster and its successors such as Kazaa) has famously upset the music industry, which is understandably distressed that pop songs (and videos) are being acquired for free, instead of via the traditional method of paying for them. Some file-sharers argue that the music industry has lots of money already and that rock stars are rich, so it doesn't matter. However, since we don't live in a post-capitalist utopia, this view is short-sighted and means that promising new bands would have no chance of getting a record deal (and indeed, the record industry has already become very reluctant to foster new talent unless it has 'instant pop hit' written all over it). File-sharing fans also point out that people who download songs are also more likely to buy CDs of the music they like most, which is a better argument, although the evidence for this happening is mixed.

In its response, the record industry gets over-excited and asserts that people who steal music are straightforward thieves, who should be treated the same as someone who steals your car. The analogy is faulty, because if you steal my car, I have lost the car; but if you take a copy of a digital file, nobody is left without a digital file. Nevertheless, you could say that its creator has lost, or been denied, the money that they would normally have been paid for it.

The music industry is slowly realising that online distribution isn't going to go away, and so is working out ways to offer this facility itself. The debate goes on, and is covered by Ian Dobie's chapter in this book. Meanwhile, related cultural industries, such as the movie and publishing businesses, continue to fear digital threats to their well-established empires - although certain traditions, such as going to the cinema with friends, or curling up on the sofa with a book, are well-loved and seem unlikely to be wiped out by a computer-based alternative in the next few years.

The Web is changing politics and international relations

This theme remains strong: the internet has the potential to create links between people and groups with shared political interests - and for them to promote their ideas to others. By increasing access to information - or propaganda - it is thought that the internet may bring about a greater engagement and interaction between the individual and larger political processes.

The public sphere

In an argument related to the idea of virtual communities, discussed above, internet scholars often relate the net to the idea of the 'public sphere', as developed by Jurgen Habermas (see, for example, Habermas 1989). In an ideal public sphere, citizens would discuss issues of concern and arrive at a consensus for the common good. Back in the 1980s, Habermas did not feel that we had an effective public sphere in Western societies, partly because commercial mass media had turned people into consumers of information and entertainment, rather than participants in an interactive democratic process. Now: you can see where this is heading. From the 1990s onwards, internet enthusiasts noted the kinds of discussions taking place in newsgroups (text discussion forums), and argued that, when even more people had access, the net would bring about a healthy public sphere.

The shortcomings of this view are equally obvious. Increasing numbers of people do have internet access, but most of them don't spend any time in online political debates. Intense discussion spaces, like newsgroups, will remain the province of the minorities of individuals who are so interested in a particular area that that want to spend their time debating specific issues. Most people won't bother.

Life in the webs

This conclusion led to the feeling that, alas, the internet won't help to foster a healthy public sphere after all. But that may not be true either. If we look carefully at the interactions between and around the thousands of websites which can be called 'political' in the broadest of senses, we do find cultures of engagement and discussion. The fact that people who are concerned about an issue can create a website about it, and then find themselves in e-mail conversations (or in different forms of electronic conference) with people who are interested, curious or opposed to their views, or who run related sites, does create a climate of greater public discussion. Compare it to the days when all you could do was read about an issue in a mass-produced newspaper, and then discuss it with a handful of friends in a pub. This Web-based political culture is not, of course, the same as a democratic online meeting where every member of society has their say, but that was never going to happen anyway (how do several million people chat about an issue at once? The only workable method would be... voting). There is also the problem that only interested people participate, which will always be the case. We can hope that the greater engagement with political issues which the Web can bring will mean that more people become interested in politics generally; but this is far from guaranteed.


Make your own

Unless you want to be a very detached critic who argues that all new media developments are really bad and that we're all doomed, in which case you won't really need to understand the Web very well anyway, then you'll need to experience the agony and ecstasy of building and promoting your own website.

You'll find instructions on how to do this in numerous books and magazines, and of course on websites. To make a website really quickly, visit Tripod (www.tripod.lycos.com) - or type 'free homepage' into Google for similar alternatives - where they not only give you webspace for free, but have clever page-building facilities where you construct and publish your webpage(s) on the spot, within the website, with no extra software required. To make a blog, visit the wonderful Blogger (www.blogger.com) which does all the hard work for you. To make a really good website, though, you'll need Web design software (Macromedia Dreamweaver is the best, but costs money, although you may be able to get a perfectly good early version for free on a magazine CD) and graphics software (such as Paint Shop Pro, if you're paying, or use free demo versions or shareware of that or other packages).

Keep up to date

As well as making your own site, and then getting it noticed on the Web, you will also need to keep abreast of what's going on in the ever-changing new media world. One way of doing this is to subscribe (for free) to the excellent Wired Newsdrop e-mail service, which will send you a daily message listing headlines and short summaries, with links to the full stories on their website (click 'Personalise this' at www.wired.com/news). Another method is to buy the more intelligent internet magazines, such as .Net and Internet Magazine in the UK, or Internet World and Wired in the USA. These magazines often come with free CDs containing copies of the latest Web browsers and plug-ins, other free software, and demo versions of new professional packages. Soon your home will be full of these shiny discs - especially promotional ones from AOL. Last time I suggested that these could be used as Christmas decorations. Now I have so many that you could build an igloo out of them.

Here we go

We hope that you find this book useful. Please send comments to david@theory.org.uk.


New Media Studies: www.newmediastudies.com

Where you can read the first edition's introduction (2000), and see how things have changed. You can also tut that, like many fickle Web producers, I have failed to keep this site very exciting, because my attention is more focused on Theory.org.uk (www.theory.org.uk), my regularly-updated site about media and identity issues. Tsk.

The World Wide Web Consortium: www.w3.org

Lots of useful basic (and advanced) information about the World Wide Web, with Tim Berners-Lee's interesting Frequently Asked Questions page at www.w3.org/People/Berners-Lee/FAQ.html.

Google: www.google.com

The invincible tool for finding anything on the Web.

Blogger: www.blogger.com

Read other people's blogs, or make your own with the excellent blog-publishing facility.

Resource Centre for Cyberculture Studies: www.com.washington.edu/rccs/

Produced by David Silver, RCCS is 'an online, not-for-profit organization whose purpose is to research, teach, support, and create diverse and dynamic elements of cyberculture'. It's been growing for years, and so by now is an absolute goldmine of information.

Wired News: www.wired.com/news

Daily articles about internet developments, regulations, and innovations, with an excellent searchable archive where you can find an article on anything Web-related.

The Internet Society: www.isoc.org/internet/history/

You want the history of the internet? It's here.