The Old Media Still Demonizes the New

The Internet helps save a family and reshapes a democracy, but it still gets broadsided from predictable places

by Sky Dayton

(Originally published February, 1999)

Two very different recent events illustrate the range of ways that the Internet has changed our lives for the better: Parents, distraught after years of shoulder-shrugging by physicians and specialists, use the Internet to find a cure for their nine-year-old daughter's crippling illness. Sound like a movie? Actually, it's the true story of the LaGrow family. And on the other end of the spectrum is the Internet release of Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr's report. While I won't comment on the report's content, Friday, September 11, 1998 (the date of the release), was a landmark for the Internet and the democracy of the United States.

The moment the Starr report was uploaded to the Internet, it was immediately available to anyone with an Internet connection, anywhere in the world. For the first time in history, average citizens had access to a powerful political instrument at the same time as the Congress and the President himself.

The Internet represents a striking advance in the free flow of ideas, information, and commerce — all necessary elements of democracy. It gives everyone a voice, a chance to listen and be heard.The Internet is clearly changing the world for the better.

Misconception or Disinformation?
So how do we reconcile this with the recent Carnegie Mellon University study that asserts Internet use would probably make you depressed? The Internet opens doors to more communication and social interaction, which would seem to enhance life, not diminish it.

Some history helps put this study in perspective:

In June 1995, Carnegie Mellon released a study which concluded that 83% of Usenet newsgroups images were pornography. With little fact-checking, Time magazine actually made the study and its conclusions the centerpiece of its "Cyberporn" July 3 cover story. This story stirred up to an anti-Internet hysteria, which culminated in the Communications Decency Act, passed by Congress and signed by the President, only to be struck down later by the Supreme Court as unconstitutional.

After a strong backlash from seasoned Internet experts and the Internet community at large, the Time reporter responsible for the story acknowledged that the study's credibility was suspect. In fact, the holes in the study's logic and methods were big enough to drive a truck through. In reality, pornography made up only about .5% of the Internet's traffic.

Recently, when Carnegie Mellon once again released a study critical of the Internet, you probably noticed the mass media again seized it and promoted it broadly. (Time actually bucked the trend and ran a story rather critical of the report.)

This latest study, a survey of only 169 Internet users living in Pittsburgh — purported to represent the tens of millions of Internet users in the U.S. alone — claims Internet use causes depression. The study has, of course, been vehemently rejected by the Internet community.

It stands to reason, if more communication, access to ideas, and information make you depressed, something other than your Internet access is probably wrong.

The traditional mass media, broadcast and print news, often appear overeager to find fault with the Internet. Why? One motive could be that the Internet strips the old media of their monopolies. Though journalists certainly won't become obsolete, the ivory towers they are accustomed to working in will.

The Bigger Picture
You are already one of the estimated 25% of U.S. consumers who have access to the Internet. You already know what the Internet really is and how it affects you.

But what about the other 75% — those who have yet to connect for the first time? Will the Internet's demonization by some in the old media prevent it from taking root in our society?

No way. The Internet is a juggernaut. EVERYONE will be connected in some way in the next 10 years. It is a revolution in communication that is certain to change the fabric of our society.

With Internet access, the world is at your fingertips. You can harness its power, the global free-flow of communication, and you can change the world with it. Or, heck, you can just order pizza a lot easier.