Masthead CMC Magazine August 1, 1995 / Page 5


The Internet's Army Ants Attack Time

by Chris Lapham (

When the Berlin wall came down, the mass medium of television was there to chronicle the event for millions of people around the world. We watched and celebrated as brick by brick the wall that divided the world slowly came down.

Another powerful institution is starting to slowly crumble, but unlike the highly visible and tangible Berlin wall, you won't get to watch its final demise on television for a long time yet. But even though it's not being reported on the nightly news, this force is real and it's being felt in surprising ways.

Time Magazine now knows just what the force is and how powerful it can be. Time's senior editor for technology, Philip Elmer-Dewitt, wrote a July third cover story about pornography on the Internet that an army of ants on the Net attacked with a vengeance. The story was literally dissected paragraph by paragraph by some very knowledgeable and intelligent people and then chewed up and rehashed for weeks on mailing lists, chat rooms, and bulletin boards around the world.

Most of the criticism of the story focused on the credibility of Marty Rimm's research study, which Elmer-Dewitt used to shore-up his reporting. While the study may be flawed (Rimm was recently pulled from a list of witnesses for the Senate's Judiciary Committee hearing on computer pornography and children) the real issue here is not the value of Rimm's research. This isn't the first time, nor will it be the last time, unfortunately, when a news story was based on questionable scientific research. In fact, if Elmer-Dewitt wrote about breast cancer or PCBs, I believe reaction would have been minimal.

The real conflict comes from the inevitable clash of two very different communication models. Elmer-Dewitt and his colleagues at Time are part of the mass media -- an institution made up of television stations, newspapers, radio stations, and magazines that are based on a one-to-many model: an editor, publisher, or producer decides what is news and how and if it will be covered. A story is written to appeal to everyone from your nerdie brother-in-law in Seattle to your neighborhood sanitation engineer and old aunt Nellie in the senior citizens home. When Elmer-Dewitt wrote what may turn out to be the most important story of his life, he was doing what reporters have been doing for a long time. He started with a hypothesis, looked for some facts, found research to back up his theory, interviewed experts, found examples of how it was working in the world, and pulled it all together to come to a grand conclusion: there's lots of pornography on the Internet.

The reason why it didn't work this time is that Elmer-Dewitt's audience was now very different from the broad, usually silent masses most national magazines, television networks, and newspapers target. The Internet is based on a many-to-many model in which millions of people around the world can not only quickly receive information, they can produce and send information as well. They have a way to respond to what they read, and a way to share their responses with other like minds. The wired world is smart, savvy, and sophisticated, and Elmer-Dewitt quickly found out that you can't write broad trend stories that make sweeping generalities (at least, not about the Internet). And if you do, you better be absolutely sure that you got all the facts right, because you'll be called on it.

Which is exactly what happened. Instead of mumbling into their magazines or maybe even sending a letter to the editor (even an email letter!) those objecting to Elmer-Dewitt's words used the many-to-many power of the Internet to let their voices be heard. The responses were overwhelming (don't let the 19 letters to the editor in the recent Time fool you) and ranged from a sophisticated parody of Time's cover story to credible academic opinions and even comments about Elmer- Dewitt's tie! What's also interesting is that seven of these letters came from readers living outside the United States.

There is an alternative source of news and opinion about news and events that offers a very different lens from which to view the world in your neighborhood and across the globe. It's powerful and it's exciting because it's now cheap and easy to become an editor or even a publisher. But it requires more of a commitment than sitting on the couch with the remote control or reading in bed. It takes time, energy, and above all a compelling curiosity. There is a price to pay -- you'll have to guide your children's ventures into cyberspace and you'll have to read and know more -- but the pay-off is enormous. You can have a voice in what is being said about your world, and as clear a lens as you can design from which to view your global neighbors.

Think about it and stay tuned because this is only the beginning. [CMC TOC]

Chris Lapham, Chief Correspondent for CMC Magazine, is an online content consultant and freelance writer and reporter who lives in the Capital Region of New York. She recently received a Master's degree from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York.

Copyright © 1995 by Chris Lapham. All Rights Reserved.

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