MecklerWeb, Etc.

Jeremy Allaire (
Tue, 25 Oct 1994 20:23:45 +0100

To Online-News & WWW-Talk:

As is well known to all on these lists by now, one of the Internet's first
well publicized commercial ventures, MecklerWeb, has taken a drastic turn.
In fact, it could be said that it no longer exists, at least along the
lines of the original principles outlined by Christopher Locke.

These events are of no surprise, of course.

Since these events raise a number of important questions for the Internet
community, I felt it appropriate to begin a discussion in primary groups of

MecklerWeb was destined to fail. It was from the beginning a reflection of
the belief in the Internet equivailant of a centralized information service.
While it certainly allowed for technical deployment to be distributed, it
assumed that an umbrella would be necessary to bring together disparate
though associative organizations. Furthermore, MecklerWeb provided a far
too broad topology for these associations, instead of cultivating certain
domains as a distributed commercial and electronic environment allows so

In the end, MecklerWeb looked like a $25,000 directory service, offering
little additional technology or content advantages.

In a globally distributed commercial electronic environment, the need for
building "virtual associations", if you will, becomes entirely unnecessary.
The vision of Chris Locke was interesting, though his notion that pointers
on the Web could fulfill the vision was wrong.

In the recent COOK report (The COOK Report special issue of October 17,
1994), Locke identifies the following vision as the impetus for MecklerWeb:

"MecklerWeb was founded on several principles, many of them
contrary to the received wisdom about markets and marketing
in conventional media. We said that, on the Internet, advertising
was not the opportunity many imagined it to be. We said it
wouldn't work here, period. Instead, we said that "corporate
content" was not an oxymoron; that companies possessed
genuine knowledge that would be of real and immediate value to
the audiences now assembling in this medium. We said that
companies wishing to build new business relationships with
these potential micro-markets could accomplish that only by
offering their insight, experience, knowledge and perspective --
without charge -- to people who come to the net looking for
something other than the hand waving and hucksterism that
have characterized the mass media. We said companies could
learn much from the environment of open discourse that has
developed on the Internet, and that they would gain much by
contributing to it. We said it was time that the private sector
gave something back to the community that has created this
unparalleled resource with little thought of personal gain. All
this is well documented."

This vision is not wrong, though it is almost entirely misplaced.
Technologically, there is no reason why a placement system such as
MecklerWeb would provide any solution to these needs. In fact, the
"concept" of MecklerWeb is in essence the concept of the commercial Internet
as a whole, which is in fact MecklerWeb's achillies heel. By stating the
obvious possibilities of an advanced global distributed network, Chris
correctly identified an incentive for getting on the Internet, without
recognizing that companies would not need a special place beyond the
Internet itself.

Furthermore, the real solutions to the above vision come not by way of some
hazy and underdeveloped Web site, but in the development of higher-end
Desktop-PC based collaborative information sharing and conferencing tools.
Currently technology on the Web cannot solve these problems, at least with
much simplicity for the average end-user. And, valuable directory services
are almost non-existant, though would solve enormous problems both for
navigation and for the development of true commerce on the Internet.

On the other hand, Locke's vision was also quite wrong, in my opinion. His
notion that (1) vertical markets somehow would not drive commercial interest
in the Internet, and (2) that sponsorship was not a viable option.

First, as most would agree, the opportunities on the Internet are almost
completely in vertical markets, and, in fact, it's distributed nature is
what drives this. While there will certainly be opportunies for mass-appeal
content and services, much of its growth will be driven by the accessibility
of high-quality content within clearly identified niches. To a certain
degree, it will be newspapers and their equivailent in the magazine world
that will drive horizontal markets, not "collectives" of information
providers within a system such as MecklerWeb.

Second, and a corallary of the first point, is that sponsorship is the only
reasonable model for the development of the Internet as a commercial medium.
It is simply impossible to assume that a content provider will be able to
bear the costs of providing a low-cost, if not free service to the Internet
community. While clearly defined value-added information, such as database
services like Nexus, Info-Seek, etc., will require per-use or higher-cost
fee structures, other content will not be able to follow this model.

Publications that are interested in moving onto the Internet will be
overwhelmed with cost of delivering a viable commercial publication -- it is
not a simple, and discretionary expense, it is a complex and very costly
service to provide. As such, content providers are faced with the difficult
task of finding a cost-recovery system that can work. As most people know,
trials to this point in time have failed, almost entirely.

Here's why they have failed:

First, the model of a free service with no sponsorship puts the burden of
cost entirely on the content provider. For smaller services, this may be
sufficient, though is very unlikely to produce enough interest in the
company or the paper publication to actually justify the cost. This model
is worth only as much as the PR they receive.

Second, the model of a for-fee service with no sponsorship assumes that
people are willing to pay monthly fees for access to content in cyberspace.
This, for the most part, we know to be wrong. The CompuServe, Prodigy, and
AOL model is quickly be replaced by the Internet model, and, with the
exception of value-added databases, few people are willing to pay anything
for access to standard company or publication content. As with the first
model, this too is likely to fail, especially when content provider attempt
to deploy more sophisticated services.

My own assessment is that if commercial sponsorship does not very soon
become a major part of Internet services, we will see little progress, both
in terms of content delivered and quality of service. The ability to
provide value-added advertising and company information within clearly
defined vertical markets is both viable from both a commercial/advertiser
perspective and from the end-user's perspective as well.

I won't go on any further, and I open the floor to debate.

Jeremy Allaire
Culture Shock, Inc.