My broadband connection went down earlier this year, and I was briefly forced to use a dial-up Internet service provider. I considered which of the icons to click on my desktop: “Free 6 Month AOL Membership,” or “EarthLink,” or “NetZero First Month Free!” I went for the 30-day free trial on EarthLink, and up popped a headline-news crawl. This provoked something of a flashback to 1997, when this innovation—basically, information you’ve requested being automatically delivered to your computer—was called “push technology” and was going to transform the experience of cruising the information superhighway. Wired magazine, at the very apex of its hyperbolic frenzy, infamously pronounced: “Push!” “The Web browser … is about to croak. And good riddance.”
In the Web hype-o-sphere, things matter hugely until, very suddenly, they don’t matter at all. Thanks to the unprecedented growth of MySpace and Facebook, “social media” matters hugely right now, but it is likely only another in a long string of putatively disruptive, massively hyped technologies that prove just one more step in the long march. Like “push,” “social media” is a functional advance pimped out as a revolution. Web 2.0, a term used somewhat interchangeably with social media, carries the not-so-veiled suggestion that everything else is merely 1.0—that is to say, Cro-Magnon. Really cool people now like to talk about Web 3.0. The pedant might note that the Internet, axiomatically, is all social media, but for the purposes of this discussion, let’s say that social media includes any digital environment built on the contributions of and interactions among people—or in the case of dogster.com, their dogs. Or hamsters. That would be hamsterster.com, where you can learn that an Oswego, New York–based hamster named Pistachio, member since January 8, 2005, likes jumping, climbing, and eating broccoli.