April 8, 1996

Section: Columnist

Column: Mark Stahlman: The Big Picture


Why The Web Will Die -- The problem lies in its inability to effectively support consumer ads

By Mark Stahlman

The april issue of wired magazine has a clever parody of a fake January 1997 Time magazine cover story titled "The Great Web Wipeout." When this "never-a-discouraging-word" magazine spoofs-on a topic like this-a publication known for boldly manipulating public opinion, it begs the question, "Have the facts become so clear that they're starting to sweat it-but have to pretend it's a joke?"

The article comes complete with a fake quote from me, predicting the death of the Web.

The irony is that I am quite certain the Web will die this year-just as in the parody. The reason is the same-advertisers will dump the Web, and businesses that depend on ad support will become uneconomic. But the cause won't be the poor performance caused by "clogged pipes" that's cited in the sendup; it's more fundamental. The Web is a terrible place to manipulate people's unconscious fears, which is the aim of consumer advertising.

There are many types of advertisements. Consumer advertising isn't fundamentally informational like trade magazine ads; it's psychologically manipulative. The aim is to change your behavior through "impact" and "impressions." The "target psychographic" is supposed to buy something for essentially irrational reasons. Invoking insecurity, fear, and fantasy, consumer advertising is mild brainwashing.

But advertising on the Web has to be information, not manipulation. This is because the medium doesn't permit the psychological games that "impact" a modern audience.

Web advertising has to be what technology analyst Esther Dyson calls "presales support"-more like a trade magazine's ads. It has to be factual details about new GM engines or the latest Zima contests. But that will never generate enough consumer ad dollars to lift the Web industry out of what Time Inc. president Don Logan is parody-quoted as calling "The Black Hole."

Unless the Web becomes television, as @Home and others hope. If the Web could readily deliver video-server-based moving images, then the manipulative techniques of TV ads could also be Web-delivered. But the bandwidth just isn't available, and probably won't be for as long as 10 years.

The Web cannot effectively support static, magazine-style consumer ads, either. Small, low-resolution PC screens simply can't rival the visual quality or format of glossy magazines.

Latest Failure

Without consumer ads, the Web will no longer be the "next big thing." Instead, it will be seen as the third in a series of failures-after multimedia CD-ROMs and interactive TV. The billions invested in Web-related development and companies will be redeployed.

The hunt for the next next big thing will be even more frantic, which means life will probably go on much as we know it: Wired will still declaim the digital revolution, for instance.

But there's still a chance something quite new could happen. The Web is a medium for information and education-not unconscious mental manipulation. What if the Web's real capability is taken seriously and it becomes the world's largest adult education system? What if people start signing up and paying to be educated about subjects in which they are genuinely interested but never found the time to take an extension course? What if some of the world's greatest teachers become the pioneers who found Web University?

Mark Stahlman is president of New Media Associates, a media research and financial-services firm in New York. He welcomes your comments at newmedia@mcimail.com

1996, New Media Associates, New York

copyright 1996 CMP Publications, Inc.

Copyright 1996 by CMP Publications. All rights reserved.