Sign of The Times

Multimedia Gulch flips the bird


Written November 17, 1996
Published by Websight Magazine in February, 1997


It was inevitable, I suppose. They were obviously asking for it to be hacked. In fact, I saw a forwarded email that said they had a team waiting in the wings for just such an occasion. Who? Microsoft, when they were putting those giant "This Way to the Internet" billboards everywhere. You've probably seen them, or maybe the print or TV ads. The icon they use is a white digitalized hand, index finger pointing skyward, and it pretty much provokes the same response in everyone who sees it: "wouldn't it be great if that was the middle finger pointing skyward? Someone oughtta change it." Well, one night, someone did.

This way to the internet. Fuck
 you.  The Microsoft Network.This billboard sits across Third Street from where I work in San Francisco -- the very heart of Multimedia Gulch. This is a part of the world where there is no love lost for any product that starts with the word Microsoft, (with the possible exception for the grudging respect shown for Internet Explorer). For better or worse, it is a virtual Mac & Unix island. Let's put it this way, I'll betcha that the percentage of people using Windows to develop Web sites for a living is directly inverse to the percentage of those who use Windows to actually look at those sites.

I've worked with a few different online content developers, and out of all of the engineering, creative, art and production types at those companies, I'm one of a tiny handful that uses Windows as my primary operating system. (Yes, I know, boo-hoo for me but not, really, of course, because it forced me to learn how to operate Macs and at least be conversant with UNIX. And I'd like to develop on all three.) And I've seen a fair amount of contempt and vitriol spewed towards Redmond from the majority.

So I'm sure some people took that billboard as a special insult. Or at the very least, a dare. So they hacked it, and if you look very close, you can see that the method that they used was akin to the way you'd manipulate the same image in Photoshop, which means that it might be the first time someone used Photoshop skills to manipulate a Real Life™ image. And while it only lasted a few hours before being covered over (some wag at work speculated that one of Bill Gates' spy satellites noticed it), I fully applaud those who did it.

Still, the fact that somebody changed the message of a billboard to essentially read: "This way to the Internet. Fuck You. The Microsoft Network" is a very real manifestation of the free-floating angst that surrounds those who are watching the Net explode from our very fingers into the greater public consciousness. I think that Microsoft bears the brunt of a lot of this anger, but they aren't the cause. How could they be, not when the Net.hype level is now so high that it isn't even hype anymore. As I cobble this together with the 49ers-Ravens TV broadcast in the background, I notice there are more Computer/High-Tech/Net commercials than beer and car commercials. That's not hype, it's just selling another product to sports fans. After the game's over, I have a choice of a smorgasboard of High-tech TV shows to watch The Web, The Site, TV.Com, Log-on TV, Cyberlife, etc.

Commercials I can understand, but the exact raison d'etre of the TV shows confuse me. The Net has its own rhythms, and they do not translate well to TV. Watching people -- even ones who know what they are talking about --pointing to flickering computer screens showing mostly static pages gets real old real fast. So, to compensate, most of these shows and commercials go with lightspeed image collages, quick edits, swooshing transitions, swooping camera angles and aggressive music beds. Naturally, all of this hyperactivity is supposed to show how exciting the most profound Pop Culture Achievement of the Late 20 Century is. And they do, they do. Only they seem to show that the most profound Pop Culture Achievement of the late 20 Century isn't the Internet, but rather the visual style of MTV. As usual.

And let's say that one of these shows decides to do a piece on, say, how the MSNBC Web site covered the recent Presidential Elections. That would mean a computer-oriented TV show excerpts images from a Web site that is dedicated to another TV show that uses networked computers to intrepret something that actually happened in Real Life™. And naturally, a lot of these shows also have their own Web sites. Which would mean a Web site about a computer- oriented TV show excerpting images from the a Web site dedicated to a TV show using networked computers to interpret something that actually happened in Real Life™. Now suppose one of those shows decided to run an piece about Websight Magazine's site, and focused on this article. That would mean a TV show about a Web site about a magazine article partially about TV shows about Web sites about TV shows using networked computers to interpret something that happened in Real Life™. Hmm, maybe life will be easier when everything is owned by Microsoft.

Still, I gotta wonder why Microsoft is even still beating the dead horse of proprietary online services. Look at AOL, almost universally hated, and "popular" only in the sense that the number of free discs they've sent out into the world outnumbers the grains of sand in the Sahara. Their great trick is that once you sign on to AOL, it's virtually impossible to leave. And if AOL really is "profitable," it's only because it's learned the fine art of charging users for every second they wait for an unwanted download of "new art" for an area that they accidentally clicked in the first place. It was a brilliant scheme: those millions and millions of charges to customers' accounts while they waited due to glitches in AOL's network are actual proof that the oft-bandied scheme of microcharging for content works provided the people don't realize that they're being charged.

But now that AOL has been spanked, they've decided to go with the flat-rate scheme. That means that all of those people with "free" AOL accounts stuck forever on their 2nd, 3rd and sometimes fourth credit cards will be charged twice as much every month. Still, just ask poor, stumbling Prodigy about the flat-rate model they abandoned it three years ago. Not that it helped they've been bleeding customers ever since.

A confession about Prodigy. I'm still a member. It came with my first 2400 baud modem nearly four years ago, and I instantly made some good friends there (Alternative BB L-Z -- Replacements ...) , and I still check with them pretty regularly. Of course, Prodigy's big mistake was pretending that the Net didn't really exist, and if they closed their eyes and wished real hard, that it would go away. Instead, it sucked them into its gravitational field, and ripped open a hole, pretty much taking any incentive to stay. Or even try it in the first place.

But I guess that's Microsoft in the late 1990's: they have enough drive and money right now to throw everything against the wall -- browsers; online services; network computers ; political magazines; servers; hell, entire cable networks -- figuring that something will stick. Cos they've learned by now that something usually does. I don't think that they'll take over the Net or anything, but they ain't going away, either.

Meanwhile, in this weird little period of Net History, where a lot of us are increasingly getting "Hi, I made it" email from our friends and family who have just got online, it's beginning to look like the question of whether the Net will be the Next Big Thing or the Biggest Boondoggle Ever is going to be answered. Which is why those with the most to gain and lose are getting more and more nervous. Because nobody nobody, knows what's gonna happen next. Unless Microsoft puts up another billboard on Third Street.


A "think piece," I guess, prompted by the hilarious hacked billboard and a slow time at work.

Ironically, this was in an issue that had a cover story entitled "HTTV://Shows you can Interact with," meaning that my cynicism had some context. For once.

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This page HTMLized on 6 October 1997
I was listening to Bob Dylan -- Time Out Of Mind