Self-Help for the Cyber-Smug

...Think of the Internet as tool, not a toy.

I'm starting a new group for journalists. Any reporter or editor can join, but most of the memberships will be reserved for online journalists. The affliction my self-help group will cure is serious: Internetus Hypeus Self-Importantitis. This condition is viewed by some physicians as an inflammation of the ego, while others see it as a degenerative disease of the Common Sense. All report, however, that sufferers find themselves unable to talk about the Internet without using phrases like societal renaissance through digital revolution or new age of cyberpolitics and electronic democracy. Worse than the design, however, is the content, strewn with abstract jargon and woolly socio-babble about "revolutionizing" or "counter-revolutionizing" this or that aspect of daily life, and featuring at least one article per issue about the possibilities of cybersex. The writers in these magazines refer to themselves and their wired peers obsessively, and indulge in the literary equivalent of a wink and a nudge with their audience as they refer in various code phrases to the great"reactionary" unwired majority. Reading these magazines, I'm reminded of a group of teenagers writing about their own secret club, including the required use of the latest buzzwords and the preoccupation with sex. The only thing missing, it seems, is a club-issue decoder ring, and even that may be covered by the use of encryption software. Other, more sober magazines make the same mistakes in other, more sober ways. Typical is the news magazine coverage of the Internet--almost nonexistent three years ago, and bannered now with dramatic headlines proclaiming the end or beginning of a new age of (pick one): a) consumerism, b) communication, c)isolation, or d) democracy. Read with an eye, these doomsday/dawn-of-a-new-day pronouncements might convince you that we're just months away from a Brave New World in which old skills--and the unwired--will have no place at all. Yeah, right. The Internet is slowly changing our lives, of course. Who doesn't like checking their flight reservations online at night, or reading news updates on breaking stories every 15 minutes or so on USA Today? But journalists who proclaim the gospel of the Web--the Internet as creator and destroyer of worlds--do their readers and the Internet a disservice. It comes down to this: For all the bells and whistles and fun and useful stuff on this and other Web sites, the real value of the 'Net is in linking organizations internally and externally to speed and simplify their operations. A recent cover story in IW -- "Success in Cyberspace: Managing the Net for Business Advantage" --is full of examples of firms that have made the Internet a component of their business strategies. These companies view the 'Net not as a revolution, but as a tool. Journalists who insist on portraying the Web as more--who feel driven to hype technologies that will change how we work and live--might as well sing the praises of the photocopier, or the VCR, or even the flush toilet. I wonder, too, whether the Internet's journalistic acolytes would have worshipped as fervently 100 years ago at the introduction of the telephone or automobile, two innovations that did--over the course of 30 to 40 years--fundamentally reinvent society. I don't think so. What's more, I suspect the reasons that journalists find themselves so infected with Internetus Hypeus Self-Importantitis have less to do with the technology itself than with the fact that it affects their careers--and their pocketbooks--more dramatically than anything since the printing press. While most citizens will find the Internet gradually becoming more important in their work and personal lives, most journalists I know are already scared to death about what online news will mean to print or broadcast consumers, and how they'll make a living in a world of virtual publishing. The mistake these journalists make in their coverage of the Internet, though, is to confuse their own fears and preoccupations with those of their readership. That's why I think my self-help group will be such a boon, not just to afflicted journalists but to readers as well. We teach sufferers of Internetus Hypeus Self-Importantitis an old-fashioned but simple technique to use whenever they feel the urge to use phrases like digitally revolutionize or cyberinnovate: Just say "No."

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