Jane Wakefield: Keep on believing the Internet hype

We are abandoning the Internet to get back to the real world but how long will the backlash last?

What the Americans start, Europe usually copies. So expect the Stateside Internet counter-revolution to wend its way over to those of us in quaint old England who are foolishly still enjoying ourselves on the Web.

Soon we will be describing ourselves as "former users" and thrusting our noses in the air at the outmoded use of the Internet for such things as banking, shopping and email. In fact, to admit at a dinner party that you surf the Web will be considered as passé as cheese fondue and giving your email account as a contact address will be as socially embarrassing as announcing your hostess is a boring old cow with a big fat arse.

Or so the media furore this week would have us believe. The Daily Telegraph began the vicious rumour that the Internet was just a "passing fad" and it was a story quickly picked up across media land -- even the Daily Mail abandoned its curtain twitching for the day to devote a page to it.

The facts are undeniable. Twenty eight million people in America abandoned the Internet during the course of 1999 and surveys about Net use are finding they need a new category -- "former Internet user" -- to give an accurate picture of surfing habits. Academics put this down variously to the cost of getting online, frustration at the constant stream of ads and general commercialisation of the Net and a desire to get the hell out of cyberspace and back into the real world.

In many ways the Internet was bound to become a victim of its own success. The hype surrounding it has gathered into a huge snowball, threatening to wipe out those who stand in its way and leaving those who haven't added their own snow to the ball feeling decidedly left out in the cold.

Managing directors who went into the year 2000 without an Internet strategy stood like a child in the playground without a pair of Nikes -- uncool, friendless, strange and dated.

The government got cross with businesses, even say, Mike the baker from Walton-under-Lyme who did not have wired up PCs, email accounts and all the other paraphernalia of the digital revolution to get his bread products online.

But as the year progressed the success of Internet companies began to wane. Dot-com collapses became as common as a cold and those still maintaining share price or profitability started seriously to consider brick-and-mortar strategies to prop up their faltering online businesses. Being online was no longer cool so much as uncertain and those happy souls who began the year with the promise of thousands of pounds worth of shares, ended it with not quite enough money to buy a king-size Mars Bar.

In the summer ISPs did their utmost to destroy the reputation of the Internet, promising free-for-life access deals and following them with terrible connections, huge queues and services that went from free to not-at-all-free overnight.

If cost was not enough of a barrier, content has also not exactly had a great year. Free stuff like Napster and Scour excited plenty of interest but by the autumn the record companies decided to end the fun and make music fans pay.

Porn has continued to dominate the headlines and more and more horror stories of prowling cyber paedophiles have emerged.

Companies like Boo who attempted to do something different with e-commerce found that there was still a hell of a lot of things that were hard to do, given the limitations of Net technology and the slowness of most people's connections.

At the same time fears over privacy and security failed to be quashed.

So it should come as no surprise to us that people are failing to see the point of the Internet. If you don't need access to a huge online encyclopaedia, if you don't fancy trying to buy a cheapish CD online, if you don't enjoy watching jerky videos of hardcore porn, then you might be right to question why you need a Net connection. Unlike TV (how many times have you heard the phrase "former TV watcher") the Internet is still dispensable.

Except of course for email.

And the fact that email is the only application ever to deserve the monicker "Killer App" means it is far too early to be writing the Web's obituary. Email is so much a part of everyday life that it is hard to imagine how we communicated without it. It is as necessary to us as our mobile phones and our ready meals. Of course many people have abandoned their home email accounts in favour of their work ones, which will do nothing to help the statistics about home Internet use, but I am of the school of thought which suggests emailing at work is living on borrowed time.

Employers are getting more and more twitchy about the implications of the joke email which turns into a law suit or the gigabytes of porn being shared and goggled at by employees while they should be concentrating on their spreadsheets. I would not be in the least bit surprised if email for pleasure was not banned from the workplace altogether. And then we will be returning to our home PC in droves to check out our mail.

We must also remember that the Internet is still very much a baby and the toddler version promises to be a whole lot more sophisticated. Broadband connections will give us faster, always-on connections (and for the porn lovers out there end forever the jerky video of narrowband). We won't be tied to our PCs either as the Net is about to cut its umbilical cord to the PC and venture out into the wireless world.

So those abandoning the Internet before it has even learnt to walk are making a big mistake, and I urge you all to get back on the bandwagon. It may not always be going in the right direction but the alternative means being left in the real world. Which soon will be a very dull place to be.

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