A column about America,
by Marylaine Block
originally published by
Fox News Online, 1998-2000
#31, March 31, 1999
PLANTING OUR FLAGby Marylaine Block
I was at a conference a while back at which representatives from AltaVista, HotBot, and Excite came to explain to us why their search engines were the best. (I thought of it as "the Great Search Engine Bake-Off.")
The French founder of Alta Vista began his presentation by saying "You Americains do not OWN ze internet," and went on to explain how his search engine was much better at finding international web sites.
I beg to differ with him. Even if his search engine does find international sites better, the net IS ours. We Americans have colonized it, and made it a reflection of us, because it's ideally suited to doing the things Americans do best:
- Assert our individuality. That's what every personal page on the net is about, including mine. It's a way of saying, "Don't dismiss me as a gray-haired lady (or black man or Jew or commie pinko). Look at my mind and see ME, not your stereotypes."
- Thumb our noses at authority. It's a paradise for nasty jokes about Clinton, Bill Gates, lawyers, and stupid government tricks. Here, riot grrls and geeks can mouth off at the society they refuse to fit in to. Americans, who seem to be born resenting rules and limits, are good at anarchy. On the net there are hardly any rules, and there are no grownups in charge to enforce them anyway.
- Sell stuff. The net is a great place to set up shop. Amazon sells millions of books without having too build humongous warehouses or parking lots. People with extremely specialized skills, like being able to translate from Latvian, don't need to near their target audience anymore; with a service provider and a fax machine they can sell it all over the world. Our long colorful tradition of conmen and snake-oil salesmen carries on here as well.
- PR. It's where governments tell us about the wonderful things they're doing, and Phillip Morris explains that it's a valiant, misunderstood defender of the first amendment.
- Organize. We're a nation of joiners, and the net is he ultimate place to join with other people who care about the same things you do, be it the Detroit Tigers, pop-up books, or getting better at your profession. On our web sites we can share information, organize petition drives, argue fiercely, and connect our members to each other with chat rooms and bulletin boards.
- Tell stories. With words, to be sure, but especially with sound and pictures and animations. American entertainment dominates the world at least in part because you don't need to know much English to understand it --we know how to tell our stories with flashing lights and pounding music, pratfalls and surroundsound. The showbiz capabilities of the net are made for Americans.
- Share. It's the ethic of a younger generation of net users, one that music publishers, Bill Gates, and movie studios find impossible to understand. The idea is, you give some of what you know away for free, whether it's source code, poetry, music, or good ideas, because you want to see if anybody likes your work, and maybe use it as a come-on to entice people to buy your other stuff. For libraries, museums and charities, sharing information is the reason they exist; the net lets them share it with people they'll never meet.
- Schmooze. Chat rooms and bulletin boards and e-mail are wonderful ways for people to find each other no matter where they're located. Families can post baby pictures and trip diaries online, stay in touch without racking up long-distance bills (don't think Ma Bell is happy about that, either).
- Help each other. The web is full of pleas for bone marrow donors and information about missing children. We use the web to help the homeless, aid victims of hurricanes, and keep rural hospitals from closing.
- Play games, tell jokes, and indulge in general silliness.
So, I'm sorry, Mr. AltaVista, but we DO own the internet. Rarely has there been a better match between a technology and a nation with a gut-deep understanding of what to do with it. We're a nation of opportunists, and when the net came along, our eyes lit up and we took it over. We have planted our flag, and it is ours.
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