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98.11.25
Digital Sunlight, Digital Shadows

Using the Web to shine light on campaign financing is supposed to make elections more honest. If only.

98.11.18
A Little Help From My ... Friends?

Hey, it worked with Linux. Enlisting the aid of countless strangers is a strategy that's catching on.

98.11.11
Biotech at the Barricades

Some would say the avant-garde is dead.This avant-garde wants to live forever.

98.11.05
Dharma Geeks

Sure, there's Buddhism on the Net, but maybe the Net itself is Buddhist.

98.10.28
Revisions of Slavery

What the Web accomplishes that neither Hollywood filmmakers nor PBS documentarists can.

98.10.21
Liberty and Linux for All

Microsoft's worst nightmare may not be a courtroom in Washington, D.C.

98.10.15
Everything for Sale

In the world of online auctions, anything (and everything) goes on the block.

98.10.08
The Numbers Game

Baseball's days as our national pastime may be numbered.

98.09.30
Neurodiversity

On the neurological underpinnings of geekdom.

98.09.23
It's the Medium, Stupid

Amidst all the clamor over the Starr Report, one Webzine reminds us what journalism on the Net was supposed to promise.

98.09.16
Psychotherapy on the Net

Boldly going where Freud never went.

For more, see the complete Web Citations Index.
Break on Through
December 3, 1998

Through the Portal When historians get around to writing the chapter on consolidation in the Internet industry, the "portal" -- that most coveted of prizes in the Internet's coming of age -- may well be seen as the moment's defining relic. The portal: the "home" or "start" page that appears when most Web users open their browsers (either by default or because they've selected it), and through which they are supposed to make sense of the Web's vast sprawl. Yahoo! still reigns as the most popular portal, indeed the most popular site on the Internet. But it has vigorous challengers in Microsoft's MSN.com, America Online's AOL.com, and of course Netscape's Netcenter. And there are other competitors: Excite, Lycos (which recently acquired Wired Digital), Infoseek (now owned by Disney), and Snap (which has entered into a joint venture with NBC), to name the most prominent. Now, as everyone knows following last week's announcement, AOL and Netscape will become one and the same. Something like three-quarters of all Web users are said to visit the two sites every month.

The portal is considered one of the keys to the emerging bonanza in electronic commerce, and anyone who wants to be a major player needs one. The conventional wisdom has it that as the Web develops into something more like a truly mass medium, it will differ from previous mass media in that it will be less about content and more about commerce. In other words, making big money on the Web will be less about capturing an audience's eyeballs for the sake of advertisers and more about capturing consumers' mouse-clicking fingers for the sake of retailers. To many people, for example AOL's Steve Case, this is the promise of the Web. To many others it is a nightmare -- the closing of the Internet frontier and the opening of the "world's largest mall."

U.S. News cover If the conventional wisdom is correct, someday (perhaps fairly soon) there will be just a few main portals to the Internet: most likely AOL's, Microsoft's, Yahoo!'s, and maybe one or two others. This might look an awful lot like the straight-jacketed three-network world of TV's yesteryear -- and if the TV and PC continue to converge as predicted, it will really look that way.

But it will only look that way.

Whether the prospect of the World Wide Mall is your fondest hope or your deadliest fear, you might want to pause and think about what a portal is, what it represents.

All the Internet portals are the same in one crucial respect: each one, when you get right down to it, is a mere surface layer, a kind of membrane through which you pass. All of the portal sites are built around a search engine and a Web directory. The purpose of a portal -- the only reason most people find it useful -- is to serve as a point of entry to something infinitely greater, and to lay a facade of order over the teeming chaos of the Web. Portals do everything they can to direct traffic where they want it to go -- which usually means their own news and shopping services -- and most offer severely limited listings in their Web directories. The fact remains, however, that beyond every portal are literally millions of individual Web sites, many of which, believe it or not, have nothing to sell -- in fact have nothing to do with shopping or e-commerce of any kind.

As the megaportals are consolidated and the virtual malls are constructed, no doubt the Web will become a better, easier place to shop -- and the money will flow. Yet before we get too wound up, either celebrating or despairing, we should remember that the Net is nothing so orderly as a mall -- and never will be. To put it another way: the day the Internet becomes something walled in and finite, something directed toward a single purpose such as commerce, is the day it will cease to be the Internet.

--Wen Stephenson


Join the conversation in the Technology & Digital Culture conference of Post & Riposte.

More on Technology and Digital Culture in Atlantic Unbound and The Atlantic Monthly.

Wen Stephenson is the editorial director of Atlantic Unbound.

Illustration by Sage Stossel

Copyright © 1998 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
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