Big Four blues 

As a tech journalist covering the post-Web-boom era, I’ve gotten used to hearing bad news about the Internet.

It’s really no big deal anymore. In fact, I try to see the dot-com downturn as just a temporary setback.

Technologies can fail (good riddance, DSL). Cool sites can close down (I’ll miss you, suck.com). But someday — maybe soon — the Web will rise like a giant pissed-off phoenix. Breathing fiery digits, it will kill boring old media, break the corporate stranglehold on popular culture and make information free for everyone. Digital diversity … at last!

Or maybe not. The latest report from Jupiter Media Metrix has given me pause. According to the report — issued last week by the industry measurement juggernaut — just four Internet companies account for more than half of all time spent online by U.S. Web surfers.

That’s right, four companies. The names are familiar — AOL, Yahoo, Napster and (of course) Microsoft. We might call them the Big Four … to coin a term, as tech journalists often do.

If the report is to be believed, the nation’s Web usage has become as stale and predictable as our mega-mall shopping habits. Translation: Visit the same place — real or virtual — that everybody else visits. Point. Click. Repeat.

It wasn’t always like this. For example, in March 1999, more than 100 companies controlled 60 percent of online time. Now that number is down to just 14 firms, says Media Metrix. And, if we are to believe the trend, it’s going to drop even further. (Even Bigger Four, anyone?)

Something doesn’t fit here: Anybody can publish anything online. And anyone can read it. I thought the Web was supposed to be the great equalizer. With infinite possibilities. And infinitely diverse content.

Not anymore, says Media Metrix. “(This) data shows an irrefutable trend toward online media consolidation and indicates that the playing field is anything but even,” chirps Jupiter senior analyst Aram Sinnreich in the report’s requisite press release. In other words, say goodbye, deep unlimited content. Welcome back, 57 channels and nothing on.

Now I don’t know about you, but that’s not how I use the Web. I have the usual bookmarks and regular haunts, but I’m constantly jumping around to discover the new and the weird. It’s partly because of my job. But I believe it’s also the nature of the Web. In my experience, something about this report seemed fishy.

And I’m not the only one who’s had that reaction. The Media Metrix report has caused a small but measurable stir online. For example, visit plastic.com (one of my favorites, and not run by the Big Four). You’ll find a burgeoning message board filled with theories debunking the report’s validity.

Some users blame the messenger. “(The report) was no doubt written by some ‘e-Marketing specialist’,” says Taft, a longtime plastic.com user, who adds, “In other words, a buzzword-spouting, frappuccino-swilling MBA graduate who needs to call tech support to figure out how to ‘put a CD in my hard drive.’”

Others question the report’s statistical validity. Notes another user: “Considering the ungodly numbers of users (and) the near-infinite number of Web sites, I think you have a nigh-impossible job of figuring out what everyone on the Net is doing.”

Good point. There are probably dozens of reasons to question the report’s technical accuracy. For example, Napster isn’t a Web site. It’s an Internet application — a program that many people leave on all the time … even when they’re not using it.

However, a vocal minority prepares for a more disturbing possibility: The report is actually true. “If people want to be lazy and just read AOL and Yahoo news, then let them,” says Anatta dejectedly.

More pragmatic is this comment from h.jones: “Could it be possible the problem is that nobody does it better than Yahoo, AOL, Microsoft or Napster?” h.jones is actually Derek Dahlsad, a plastic.com regular who also runs a Web site (lightning.prohosting.com/~receipts) that catalogs hundreds of Wal-Mart receipts — a virtual record of his every visit to the notorious yet indispensable superstore.

As for me, my faith is shaken. While other tech journalists are trying to spin the Web back to its late-’90s hipster relevance (check out Wired’s latest cover story: “Believe in the Net more than ever”), I’m a bit more realistic.

The Web is simply a reflection of who we are. And right now, we’re a nation struggling to shake our addiction to corporate sameness. You know what I’m talking about. Weekend trips to Home Depot. A visit to Starbucks every day. And a Blockbuster Video card in your wallet. Put another way: Maybe tomorrow I’ll stop using AOL. I can stop anytime I want to … OK?

However, at least one Web denizen finds good news in the Media Metrix report. Witness this final comment, posted by a plastic.com user who goes by the handle “Seymour Paine”: “This (news) gives me some hope that Americans are still a moral people,” he writes, adding, “I thought most Web usage was for viewing porn.”

Ah, the eternal optimist.

Adam Druckman wanders the World Wide Web for the Metro Times. E-mail adruckman@metrotimes.com

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