Robert Atkins: The title of this morningís panel is ìOnline Interactivity: Will the Online Media Live Up to Their Technological Potential?î It seems pretty odd seeing this title six months after I coined it. Was I on drugs? Can you imagine a more open-ended or loaded title? Who could possibly decide what the technological potential for online media are? Or what living up to their potential might entail? But perhaps this open-endedness will be productive and lead to a far-ranging discussion this morning.

Online media are characterized by interactivity in the form of interactive links, but also in such pre-World Wide Web, pre-hypertext forms as E-mail lists, MUDs, MOOs, and the like. Some questions to consider: To what purposes have these interactive formats been put? Will online readers and viewers be offered intellectually stimulating choices or are we going to be faced with a lowest common denominator sensibility a la television? In my experience, online interactivity is pretty unimpressive. Banality seems to be the order of the day, whether it's in the form of responses to my journal TalkBack!--where people will say ëgreat site,í ëterrible site,í but nothing thatís very useful--or in bulletin boards that resemble late-night, college bull-sessions. Or in MUDs and MOOs that may be only incrementally more interesting than AOLís pick-up rooms. Speaking of pick-ups, I have to mention an Ann Landers column last week in which a woman talks about how she lost her husband to a babe in cyberspace. Keep telling your readers, Ann, that on line technology has already changed our social world. The ability to communicate intimately without seeing one another gets to the heart of the power of this new medium. Not to mention offering a new twist on safe sex.

So we might ask ourselves whether the new forms of online interactivity are still too new to evaluate? Have we only been offered poor choices so far? Or are we, as viewers and readers, so passive that we arenít even interested in any kind of intellectual stretch?

We might also consider a couple of scenarios. I like thinking in terms of scenarios, but not because any of them are likely to come true. In fact, the point is that they're always too extreme to bear any resemblance to reality so they can help us frame and engage the issues. Scenario #1 is a utopian vision of unmediated and uncensored communication, low cost access for everybody, with a benevolent corporate role that allows for non-commercial possibilities. The opposite of this would be a kind of distopian scenario. Weíd have an Internet thatís corporate-dominated, where everythingís been commodified, offering only expensive and limited access to an advertising-driven realm of false--and boring--choices. Every visit you make to a Web site is recorded and you have piles of junk mail cluttering up your E-mail box. More in line with the former, utopian vision, we might also consider what entirely new forms of interactivity might emerge with the express purpose of building community, rather than just building audiences. So let's turn to our distinguished panelists.


First Panelist


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