Where are the surfers of yesteryear?

 

Four years ago, a friend of mine provided party entertainment by downloading live Nasa photographs of space online. We all crowded round the computer terminal at his flat and marvelled at the images on the screen.

But the pictures could just as easily have been live shots from next door - it was not space we were fascinated by, but cyberspace. The photographs served no useful purpose. My friend fished out the photographs simply because he was able to, which seemed to be a good enough reason at the time.

The other day, I got involved in a debate with mothers at the local playground over which Internet grocer was best. There was a collective crisis over the temporary shutdown of the Internet grocer Homeruns, and the neighbourhood was running out of paper towels and frozen peas. Cyberspace these days means nappies on our doorstep, not dreamy electronic meandering.

The way people use the Internet has undergone a sea change. In the infancy of cyberspace, we pondered how the Internet would affect our relationships and communities. We trembled at tales of an electronic Big Brother. We thrilled at stories of online romance. Nicholas Negroponte, cyber-evangelist and head of the Internet research group the Media Laboratory, proclaimed that the new medium would bring world peace, and we almost believed him.

Throughout it all, the Internet took on and cast off personalities as fast as a quick-change artist. Three years ago, John Goydan became the first person to cite his spouse's online affair with a paramour as grounds for divorce. Cyberspace as home wrecker. Shortly afterwards, news leaked that an online surfer had pursued an Internet personality called Fabulous Hot Babe electronically for months, only to discover that Babe was really an 83-year-old man living in a nursing home in Miami. Cyberspace as a cesspool of deception.

Romance and crime still exist online. The difference is that we now see the seamy side of the Internet as an extension of the seamy side of life. By insinuating itself so utterly into our daily lives, cyberspace has lost its ability to shock and enchant. It has come down to earth with a thud, and most users today are not in search of adventure as much as ways to save time and money.

According to the service America Online (AOL), the amount of time users spend in chat rooms has halved from 40 per cent of total online hours four years ago to 20 per cent now. Time spent researching prices and purchasing items, on the other hand, has surged to 23 per cent from almost nothing in 1994. Some of the hottest Web pages today are those that track stock quotes or offer mortgage information. The new purposefulness even makes the term "surfing" seem out of date. Users now have specific destinations in mind.

Jack Davies, president of AOL International, says this is no surprise. The folks who used the Internet early on were geeks and hobbyists who didn't have a life off-line, he says. The early adopters are always very different from the mass market. The average person will not spend three hours surfing for cool sites. In the Internet's infancy, one of the big questions was whether cyberspace would act more like a television or a telephone. The telephone metaphor seems to have won. Cyberspace as an entertainment device has, for the time being at least, largely failed.

Aborted entertainment ventures on the Internet abound. Last year, the online soap opera company American Cybercast closed its doors. Earlier this year, AOL itself cut staff in its entertainment division AOL Studios. Microsoft Network has heavily reduced its entertainment focus.

OTHER sites have shifted from a whimsical to a more practical approach: Microsoft's venture, Sidewalk, initially focused on content about the arts. The managers of the site eventually realised people were far more interested in mundane stuff like checking a movie time or getting traffic data, and changed their format, says Mark Mooradian, an Internet analyst at Jupiter Communications.

The biggest change in cyberusage has been in the area of ecommerce. Ironically, online shopping was once considered an unlikely growth area. Analysts argued that Americans would be loath to shop on the Internet, since they find their entertainment in going to shopping malls and would want to touch and feel items before buying them.

Pundits fretted about online security it was believed consumers would blanch at the idea of handing their credit card number over to an electronic cashier. Sophisticated encryption techniques have smoothed the way, but the main engine behind electronic commerce has been consumers' willingness to assume some risk for the convenience of online shopping.

The Internet's transformation from dream machine into tool means people are increasingly likely to access it from work, not home. A few years ago, many companies denied online access to employees for fear it would encourage extra-curricular surfing. Those concerns have largely fallen away. According to the research group Arlen Communications, most people now access the Web from the office.

Shifting demographics on the Web have fuelled changes in use. Initially, the Internet was used mainly by people who had a lot of time on their hands, notably, teenagers and the elderly. Men, said by analysts to be more likely to spend time in aimless surfing, dominated the medium. Men and women are now nearly on a par, says the research group IDC, and there are far more timepressed middle-aged users online than ever before.

Although most of us had not heard of the Internet until a few years ago, the shifts have already been so profound it is easy to feel nostalgic. The earliest users say they miss the time when the medium was one big happy family of academic techno-wizards. In the early 1990's, electronic chat-rooms, such as The Well, were used by most of the people on the Internet.

Some of the early dreams now seem quaint and distant. Remember Sony's interactive cinema venture? We voted through electronic devices on our chairs to determine whether or not aliens would take over the planet.

The Internet has not yet taken on its final form. Bandwidth restrictions probably undid some of the earliest attempts to turn cyberspace into an entertainment medium, and new technologies could make that happen.

In April, the World Wide Web Consortium gave its blessing to a new technology that would limit the bandwidth needed to turn the Internet into a television-like device. With technological improvements, a lot more entertainment uses will evolve, predicts Tim Koogle, chief executive officer of the Internet search engine company Yahoo!. We'll see more game-playing and passive viewing. Whether or not the entertainment aspect of the Internet returns, the clubbishness of the Internet's early years has probably disappeared for good.

Just like the fax, automatic teller machines, and word processors, the Internet has become very much a part of our lives.

Photographs from Nasa may be cool, but nappies on your doorstep may, in the daily scheme of life, be an even bigger deal.