Published June 1997
Push Technology, Free Speech, and the World Wide Web
Big money and big resources are being devoted to the development of server push. If you have managed to avoid the countless column inches devoted to it, server push is the means whereby information gatherers push content out to subscribers, rather than waiting for them to visit. A number of large newscasters are interested in the concept which dominates development discussion at major trade shows.
Lazy Man's Load
The push concept appeals to the busy executive, who wants up-to-date information but can't spare the browsing time to seek it out. S/he can visit a large push site, such as the Pointcast service, and subscribe to have various categories of information delivered directly to the client computer. The service has its attractions but is of limited value to users who aren't online all the time, and subscribers often report dissatisfaction with the level of useless information that travels in with key items. Like the lazy man's load, information overload can be the result of this bid to cut on browsing time.
Given the hype, it is reasonable to assume that there is strong vested interest in pushing push. The technology to deliver the service is not cheap -- estimates put it as high as half a million dollars - so there must be significant promise to entice developers. Pushers can offer guarantees on circulation and usage statistics. This in turn makes their services attractive to advertisers and content generators, who will pay willingly to be carried by the service. There is also a potential market for paid subscription to push services, particularly in specialist categories. So, for commercial information providers push offers a pathway to guaranteed circulation which has, until now, been lacking on the internet. This is what the marketing wizards and the admen want - to revert to what some might regard as outmoded marketing classifications. (That is another story and another day's work).
Of, perhaps, greater concern is the appeal of push to the media moghuls. Until now, the real delight of the internet for many has been its freedom and equality. A guy with a story in Small Town, Nowheresville, armed with the basics of html, had as direct an access route to readers as Mr. Big Editor from the Global Planet Controller. The increasingly homogenous face and voice of international media was pleasantly disturbed with the onset of online communications. Now cheque book journalism has within its grasp the potential for controlling content in yet another media frontier. Whence free speech and politically unpopular opinion. Are push services poised to present another face of mainstream media, while the remainder of the web is sidelined as a limited interest alternative, with low readership and revenues? Or will we be optimistic like James Gleick, and assume that the spirit of independence that underlies the internet will overcome and bear fruit?
Side by side with push push is shove shove, with the proliferation of dynamic news pages on many smaller sites (such as my own!). This simple, cost-effective method of news publishing offers a small voice response to the roar of the giant pushers. But here, also, there are inherent dangers. I recently was drawn to a small news site which offers a ticker tape news service, nicely presented with quite a lot of up-to-date information. But one of its sources was pulled in from another site, also offering ticker tape journalism. There is a danger that we will lose sight of the source of information, in an increasingly complex route from publisher to reader.
Somebody once told me that the consummate liar cloaks his lies in a vast armature of truths. The more complex the route the information takes, the less likely it is that we will identify its source. And we know what happens with gossip, rumours and hearsay.
Published in Essays from Ireland in In Motion Magazine - June 9, 1997.