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Who wants to read books about the Internet? 

Wednesday, Oct 1 2008

"There is still so much we have to learn about TV!" Kurt Vonnegut wrote in 1991. Now it's 2008, and there is still so much we have to learn about the Internet!

Although we kinda already know, don't we? The one big question remaining, basically, is how to live with the thing. The short answer, according to two new books: not sure. But give them a break. No one said holding forth on history while it's still happening would be easy.

Bill Tancer, the San Francisco–based general manager of global research at Hitwise, an online intelligence consultancy (and subsidiary of Experian), has concluded after four years of scrutiny that the Internet is changing the way we experience the world. We acquire news, friends, and stuff differently than we did even a decade ago, he figures. He would like to bear witness to the way TripAdvisor can make your life feel like the movie Groundhog Day. He would like to know if there can be a proper accounting for the popularity of Fall Out Boy.

Brave soul. Tancer's new book is called Click: What Millions of People Are Doing Online and Why It Matters: Unexpected Insights for Business and Life. Yes, one subtitle should have been enough, but padding is of the essence here. Hence the emphasis on stuff he did at conferences (or, in some cases, "unconferences") he attended, such as gathering data, finding it interesting, posting it to his blog, or writing about it for his column, The Science of Search. On Tancer's acknowledgements page, he says he loves books and has too many in his house. Too bad Click makes it seem he loves PowerPoint presentations more. Is Click even a book, really, or just a proposal fluffed up from recycled columns full of what-is-Web-2.0 talk, with a little Malcolm Gladwell-ese, some good snapshot history of technology, and a sales pitch for Tancer's own consultancy? He keeps saying that how we search the Internet can tell us a lot about ourselves, without really saying much about what it tells us.

For instance, Tancer's all-but-aborted analysis of why, for a while there, people were searching for Republican presidential candidate Ron Paul online more than they were voting for him doesn't even consider that maybe it has something to do with what they learned. Likewise, Tancer reasonably wonders whether Internet search patterns will reveal "why celebrity has become so important in our culture," and fairly documents our Internet-enabled revelry in dubious priorities, but hardly shatters any earth with his discoveries.

"The most searched-for phrase containing Paris Hilton is 'Paris Hilton sex tape,'" Tancer writes, missing the point or not admitting that, well, no shit, because what else about her will ever be interesting? Instead, he seems to need a psychologist who has studied celebrity worship to tell him that, generally, men like to look at pictures and women are less into pictures than personal stories.

It's a bit like how Tancer needs a guy from the publishing industry to tell him that the reason for an annual January spike in online searches for prom dresses (many months prior to the hallowed rite itself) is that teen fashion magazines put out prom-fashion editions every December. (To be fair, apparently even prom-dress retailers haven't quite figured this out yet.) That guy could have saved Tancer the trouble of concocting a teenage girl's persona on MySpace, sort of Weird Science–style, to better understand the prom-dress search phenomenon. But then Click really would be a bore. For starters, consider the silly notion of a prom-dress search phenomenon.

So do we need a guy from the market-research industry to tell us that the Internet enables instant gratification, goads unwholesome self-expression, and baits with social connection but switches into isolation?

Well, it all happened so broadband-fast; there's no harm in a refresher course. Jack Goldsmith and Tim Wu's Who Controls the Internet? Illusions of a Borderless World was first published in 2006, but the recent paperback edition's new preface assures us that "enough has happened in the fight to control the Internet to fill another volume. If anything, the tensions between state power and the challenges posed by the Internet have become more interesting."

Interesting to professors at the Harvard (Goldsmith) and Columbia (Wu) law schools, definitely. The authors can be forgiven for not actually filling another volume but rather simply reprinting the initial one, in which they make a rigorously organized and still highly topical argument: that in spite of all our libertarian-idealist dreams of yesterdecade, "Information does not, in fact, want to be free. It wants to be labeled, organized, and filtered so it can be discovered, cross-referenced, and consumed. The organization of information has always been a key component of successful communication."

Their book shows how legal wrangles over file sharing, Net neutrality, and globalization have cleared the path for a sort of manifest destiny 2.0; how boundaries briefly erased now must be redrawn; and how Yahoo went from protecting neo-Nazi auctioneers to ratting out pro-democracy Chinese dissidents.

"We do think that the death of the 1990s vision of an anarchic Internet should be mourned only a little," Goldsmith and Wu write, "for on the whole, decentralized rule by nation-states reflects what most people want."

That's because the nonvirtual world remains palpable and relevant and large. It brings to mind the way that distance-compressing railroads augured unimaginable liberation by obliterating our old understanding of time — only then to force the issue of its standardization.

And when does standardization ever go as planned? Goldsmith and Wu's reminder that in recent years the overall percentage of English-language Web pages has not risen, as expected, but instead has diminished, should matter, particularly to a linguistically inquisitive search-term sleuth like Bill Tancer.

But then again, not even he yet has a handle on why it matters.

About The Author

Jonathan Kiefer

SF Weekly movie critic Jonathan Kiefer is on Twitter: @kieferama and of course @sfweeklyfilm.


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