Club Wired

Tuesday, 14 March 1995

John December is the prolific, Internet-savvy founder of the online publication Computer-Mediated Communications, and the author of The World Wide Web Unleashed (Macmillan), an extensive guide to creating information on the Internet. He's also a candidate in the Communication and Rhetoric Ph.D program at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, and a generalist with a background in poetry, computer science and math. December believes that the synergies from these interdisciplinary fields have contributed greatly to his work. He's well-known for his lists of Internet resources, which cover areas that include software applications, technology, culture and literature.

scamp says: John, tell us about yourself!

Well, right now, I'm in the computer lab that was once a church on RPI campus, so I guess I'm very prayerful at the moment.

kreth asks: In a fit of navel gazing, I have to ask if you think "chat" environments like this will survive. What have you seen recently that impressed you, as far as either telnet or Web-based chat environments?

Right now, I think it is apparent that the lag time in chats can be constraining. I think chat environments, particularly MU* environments, are essential toward creating community on the Net.

proteinman asks: Hi John. In VCC? I'm RPI '90 '91'93.

Yes, I'm in the VCC (a computer center on the RPI campus). It has stained glass windows, and computers where the altar had been.

yorbster asks: John, what are the current growth rates for the Web?

I'm not sure what the growth rates were for this month, but I know that the growth (327,000%) from last year continues to this year. Interest in the Web remains high, particularly for businesses.

scamp asks: John, how has the Web increased your visibility, in each or any of your various undertakings?

The Web brings a lot of attention to my work. I'm really very amazed at how people get to know me through the WEb. When I meet people in person, they sometimes have an idea of who I "am" that can differ from my online persona. In general, I've found that the Web has helped bring my work to people it would not otherwise reach. With my magazine, I'm experimenting with the Web as a mass medium.

gard asks: Is it possible for a person to operate as an Internet server for many users out of their home? What expense is involved?

I've never done that, so I can't say. There are benefits to running your own server---you own your "press." Expenses involved: working with a service provider for the Net connection, and, of course, the skills required--Server construction and administration, HTML design and development.

brian asks: yeah, john, traceroute from here at Wired shows a distinct lag at MAE east, where sprint connects to PSI - that's why you have lag. Not a question, just a comment :)

Yes -- I notice the lag.

microstation asks: So how well has your book sold? :)

My check at the end of last month showed that over 17,000 copies were sold as of the end of January; an average of 200 a day have been sold since its release in late October.

yorbster asks: And how much of the traffic is Netscape compared to Mosaic or other?

I'm not sure of the Netscape v. Mosaic breakdown of WWW traffic -- my feeling is that most people are migrating to Netscape. I have. I feel its features outweigh its faults as a browser. Now, the HTML extensions Netscape offers are a whole different issue.... I don't find some of the extensions very beneficial -- <BLINK> is pretty annoying; Netscape needs to work more closely with the standards community -- IETF as well as the W3O -- to make sure their "extensions" don't become incompatibilities. The purpose of the Web is to have an "open" system where no one browser enforces non-compatible features.

julie asks: Do you think that CBS promoting its URL on national television is a sign of general acceptance of the Web... or a sign of its faddishness?

I think it is part faddishness -- but also smart marketing. CBC Radio pioneered this use of the Web for supporting broadcasting. CBS and other national networks should do the same. However, the CBS Web lacks some of the passion of the amateur webs supporting the same functions -- for example the "unofficial" Letterman webs have more detail and interest than the "official" version. Same with the "official" Star Trek sites versus the "unofficial" ones -- something is lost in the "corporate" design.

gard asks: Have you tried Arachnid yet? Is it all they say it is? What can it really do?

No -- I've not tried it, but I plan to.

yorbster asks: what's your favorite MUD? Any future you see for graphic MUDs?

I don't do MU*s very often --I've never got into them. I do, however, see a future for a MU*-Web interface -- that will be the next killer app of the Internet. The draw of human-human communication outweighs even the draw of people to information (which the Web supports in abundance right now).

jeffd asks: I just want to thank you again for WWWU and for giving me a critique of my Web site, John!

You're welcome. I'm very open to comments from readers -- this helps me in future projects. I also enjoy helping people.

scamp asks: What's your take on the potential limitations threatening the Web by potential copyright infringements created by interactive links?

Copyright is an important issue. The Web as a medium switches things around--the Web "unbinds" content from a location or an object and makes it "free floating." The result is that the potential to exploit works is there. New laws have to be developed which carry over the traditions from other media (the Web does share *some* characteristics with other media) while at the same time address the unique challenges the Web offers.

jeffd asks: What do you think of Netscape going out and adding extensions to HTML? While they are useful to many, others do not seem to appreciate them.

Yes, I touched on that in a previous answer. Innovation -- that's necessary; I'm glad Netscape presses the envelope of what we have on the Web. But the interoperability issues demand attention -- the growth of the Web as well as the development of competitive browsers demand it.

[ The hotwired chat system crashed at this point ;) The discussion continues below with an answer to a question about the relationship of poetry and the Web.]

Poetry is still best experienced through the human voice. Modern poetry plays with many typographic conventions. I see the possibilities for hyper-poetry to evolve on the Web, creating new forms. The power of the Web is in its essence as a system for associative linking -- this is precisely the power of metaphor, the heart of poetry.

microstation asks: How much of your book do you think was outdated by the time it was published (be honest now!)

I know the browser section was "outdated" in the sense that we didn't cover Netscape. Otherwise, my approach was to work conceptually, to build a structure of concepts, definitions, and methods for searching and using the Web that would be valid as the applications and tools on the Web shifted. I know how fast stuff changes on the Web/Net -- I work with that daily. I'd say the conceptual stuff in the book is still valid. The book was released just before the November elections. I featured Ted Kennedy's Web in the book--he was the first legislator with a Web site -- so I was thrilled to see him win! That was one more item that *wouldn't* be out of date! ;)

filch asks: John, what do you think has been the affect of the release of Netscape? It had not been introduced by the time your book was published and I know it has had a huge effect on browsers: I saw a NY Times poll on March 1st which put it as the browser of choice for 77% of surfers.

I prefer Netscape, hands down. I wish they had a way to change the font style (like in Mosaic). Netscape enables a surfing style that is much more rapid, agile, enabling the user to shift quickly from pages that have not even been completely downloaded. It re-defines "surfing." The effect? Probably higher traffic -- people can move more rapidly, working in a way that almost guarantees a constant flow of bytes from the servers to the browser.

proteinman asks: What's the coolest/most excellent CMC you've seen?

You mean CMC system or tool? I guess, just the Web itself. And I'm thinking more in terms of its potential. What we see today could, if trends in expression continue, be overtaken by what might be done on the Web in one or two or five years.

yorbster asks: but isn't it often true that one piece of software often blazes the trail that others then follow -- becoming a de facto standard? I'm not sure what's so wrong w/ Netscape's features if they are so useful.

Definitely -- as I mentioned above, the trail-blazing of Netscape (and Mosaic before it) has been essential -- in fact, I'd love to see more of it -- but there reaches a point where the trail-blazing threatens the standardization process -- and the essential interoperability that defines the Web as a total system.

filch asks: What do you think has been the effect of your poetry on your work on the Net? And is any of your poetry online?

My experience in writing -- poetry and computer programs -- has helped me get a sense of complex, carefully crafted structures of meaning. While earning my M.F.A. in poetry, I was a software developer for Boeing -- one of my programs was over 200,000 lines; my M.F.A. thesis was 40 pages. I have one poem in the "works" section of my index page. I found some other poems (rejected from a magazine) that I plan to put on soon.

artisan asks: What do you think computer-mediated communication's greatest effects on society and culture will be?

Creating community -- few forces in our society and culture can accomplish this. Safe public space is eroding quickly -- yet people of common interests seek each other out -- online is a very rapid way to do this. However, the limitations of current CMC systems can only enable this interaction to a point. In producing my magazine, I've found that face-to-face interactions with my staff here in Troy is essential--we have face-to-face meetings to take care of all the equivocal items that are too hard to negotiate via email or through Web structures.

drt asks: If the web goes "mainstream" do you think the amateurs will keep it up?

Already, I see the loss of many amateur kinds of activity -- Yahoo has gone commercial, as it deserves to; amateurs need to seek out what kinds of expressions the "mainstream" has not a clue about yet--as I mentioned above, some corporate webs lack the passion that amateurs often bring to a web or a collection of Net resources. I think there will always be opportunities for amateurs to get wide attention through innovation.

effluvia asks: John, have you found a way to inexpensively count the number of accesses to the CMC magazine yet?

Yes. I'm on Sunsite -- CMC magazine is now distributed from Sunsite -- and I can check the access logs. During the first part of this month, we were in the Sunsite top 40--around #36; Elvis was #6. Elvis is hard to beat.

effluvia asks: John, for the Moo-Web interface, do you think broadband and video links will destroy the mystery--if we can really see each other?

That's partially true -- we don't want picture phones-- part of the power of text is in its imaginative power -- text in novels has a pull that is different than spoken words in person; and radio as an "auditory space" that some find immensely appealing; the idea that all CMC Systems must inevitably include full sensory stimulus doesn't fit the ways that different kinds of media meet our needs.

yorbster asks: how long before you think full motion video will come to the Web? Or, hell, half-motion video, for that matter!

Ok -- depends on advances in compression technologies and bandwidth availability. Check out CU-SEE-ME -- a very good system; MBONE has its value; widespread use, I think is close at hand.

artisan asks: How do you find the time to go to grad school, run a magazine, and write a book, all at the same time?

I try to have a balanced life. I just got back from Ann Arbor Michigan. My book publisher sent me there as part of netweek@borders -- a series of talks Borders bookstore hosted there (their headquarters store). I stayed with friends, stayed out late, had long (actual) conversations -- it was great! I'd like to have more things like that in my life. But I find working on my Net and Web activities (as well as another paper object that will be in bookstores in June !!;)) immensely rewarding. Its a balancing act I'm sure everyone must make.

filch asks: I just visited your poem & it's great. Has your success, etc., taken a lot of time away from your writing?

I've not written poetry in a while. I'm writing fiction now, I find it more relaxing than reading fiction. I'm working on a novel with the Web as a setting, with the characters interacting in CMC tools that haven't yet been invented...

sm3 asks: What is CMC mag?

In CMC Magazine, I'm trying to experiment with content more than form -- I seek to attract some of the best writers and thinkers in the field, and to give them a forum where their ideas are seen, and where their work will be archived for further research and reference. Check out -- CMC Magazine seeks to explore human communication via computer -- to bring together great authors to explore the implications, possibilities, and ways to study online interaction and communication.

rinpoche asks: Can you recommend something that will remove stubborn grease stains from fine fabrics?

Try baking soda, soda water, spit, in that order.

filch asks: Do you know if Sterling or Gibson or anybody else has any work in progress involving some prodigy of the web?

No. But if they would tell me, I could keep a secret ;) It would be a great novel, if they get that *feel* for the Web -- a sense beyond just a logical knowledge of the medium or a cursory "I read the Web for Dummies book" understanding.

effluvia asks: In your latest issue, there is a piece that is experimental in form, by Nancy Kaplan. Did it come to you that way, or did you encourage her to put it into nonlinear form?

Nancy Kaplan prepared the form of her current article for her keynote speech referred to on the start page for the article. I encouraged her to let me archive the entire contents of that talk; although she will expand it and change it, its publication in CMC Magazine marks its form at that historical moment -- an important function of archiving. I'm proud she chose CMC Magazine -- its a wonderful article.

artisan asks: How old are you, and when and how did you first become interested in CMC, the Internet, Web, etc.?

I'm 32 years old. I first became interested in CMC when I was in graduate school at the University of Wisconsin -- Milwaukee -- I was completing my MS in Compsci, and I wanted to study something more human than just the theory of computation. I applied to RPI's program in Technical Communication because it combined my interest in writing as well as new media -- Working here, interacting with other graduate students, I've arrived at my specialization in CMC. The field has been around for a while; only recently has CMC become an official "field" (with the arrival of the Journal of CMC) -- an academic field is defined as one which has a peer-reviewed journal.

scamp asks: What's your email, in case your fans would like to follow up?

My email is My Web page is at I'm really very happy to answer email and take comments... Thanks!

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