October 1997

A Real Use for the Internet

Can We Talk?


by Paul D. Lehrman

Watching the world go nuts over the Internet is like witnessing a really messy car wreck: It’s repulsive, but you can’t tear your eyes away. Most of the breathless prose that’s written about the Net makes my "bogometer"–that internal device that tests the degree of bogosity–fly off the scale. Venture capitalists are pumping billions into companies that won’t show profits for at least five years and that don’t even know what product they’ll be making that far down the line. Every IPO seems like the launching of the Titanic: Unimaginable sums, which would buy you, me, our studios, this magazine and half the companies that advertise in it 100 times over, are bound for the bottom of the ocean.

But the Net and its nephew, the World Wide Waste of time, are here to stay. And if you can get around all the hype and blather, it’s true that the Internet is creating some valuable new ways to get people to communicate with each other. To those of us in the writing biz, or who just like the idea of people talking to each other in general, this is good. But as Sgt. Phil always said to the men and women of Hill St., let’s be careful out there.

First of all, of course, there’s e-mail. I love e-mail. I sincerely don’t know how any of us got along without e-mail. Not as intrusive as a phone call, much faster than a letter, not as much of a bother to send or receive (and none of the environmental costs) as a fax, e-mail can be casual, as in a "how are you?" note to an old friend you haven’t seen in years, or as formal as contract negotiations. There’s no such thing as e-mail phone tag. For many, it’s brought back the art of letter-writing, which was put on ice for decades by the telephone.

I knew e-mail was going to change everything some years ago, when I found myself doing a session in England while the synthesizer patches I needed were back on my computer in the U.S. I called a colleague at home who went into my office and uploaded the patches to my mailbox on PAN, a dedicated online service for the music industry. The studio also had a PAN account, and I could download them right into the machine I was using for sequencing. I had the patches an hour (and about five bucks for the phone call) later–as opposed to the two days and 30 bucks it would have cost me to ship them by air express.

Thanks to e-mail, I haven’t submitted an article on paper in about ten years. I’ve written entire books using nothing but e-mail between myself, my editor, my co-author and the graphic designer. I can even submit scores for approval by film directors via e-mail: make a time-stamped, 22k, 8-bit mono AIFF file of every cue and send it to the director, who plugs it into his Avid and tells me whether it rings his chimes or not. Beats the hell out of putting the phone up to the speaker.

Of course, when you get involved with e-mail, you run the risk of sacrificing some of your privacy. Last year I finally (after ten years) canceled my CompuServe account when the ratio of junk mail (most of which was for blatantly illegal pyramid schemes and for which I was still paying connect time for the privilege of reading) to real mail reached 100 to one. And as I write this, AOL is announcing a plan to sell all 8 million or so of its members’ phone numbers to its "marketing partners." Whoops–now they’ve taken it back. They’ll keep them all in-house. Whew! I know it’s going to be a big comfort to you to know that the jerk who interrupts your dinner to huck magazine subscriptions is calling from AOL’s own office and not some boiler room!

Besides the point-to-point communications of e-mail, another of the great promises of the Web is the one-to-many mode, loosely called electronic publishing. This takes three forms: the mailing list, the electronic magazine, or "e-zine," and the Usenet newsgroup. Mailing lists are text only and are useful mostly for things that people will read once and throw away, like press releases. An e-zine can be created by anyone with an Internet account. Theoretically, it doesn’t cost anything more than the cost of the account: Most Internet Service Providers will give subscribers a home page and 5 or 10 MB of storage, which is a lot of words. Someone with something to say can get a freeware program like BBEdit Lite, or even just a word processor and a list of HTML (that’s the formatting language you need) commands, and a Web site is born. No mailing costs, no buying dead trees.

Of course, most e-zines are garbage. Just because a medium is open to everyone doesn’t mean that everything that anyone does with it is good–check out some of the piles of free MIDI files available on the Web if you don’t believe me. A few years ago, author Michael Crichton predicted that information would become so plentiful that we would no longer pay for it–instead we’d pay to be shielded from the trash we don’t need. Most no-budget e-zines are worth, unfortunately, exactly the investment that has gone into them. They are unreadable because their creators have nothing to say besides "look at me," and don’t even say that very well. They’re fun the first couple of times, but get old very fast.

So although it’s a nice idea, cost-free electronic publishing is for the most part a myth. An e-zine that has something to say, and can hold readers’ interest for more than a few minutes, needs somebody with at least some talent and ability behind it, and people who fit that description, unless they are born wealthy or have an unending source of free time and energy, need to get paid. How does an e-zine generate money? Paid subscriptions are an idea whose time came and went and are anathema to people who are used to surfing the world for free, even if they really are getting just what they pay for. So most e-zine editors/publishers who need to be paid for their time try to sell advertising.

Whether it’s on paper, on the air or online, advertising influences any publication’s editorial content. Face it: In our society, the goal of any profit-making institution is to make a profit. In our corner of the world, the ultimate goal of a publication is to sell gear. While some magazines (like this one) do a better job than others of putting a "firewall" between editorial and ad sales, once a publication starts taking money to promulgate an advertiser’s message, it can never be free from the imperative, however subtle, to protect that message.

I’ve had advertisers try to muscle editors into pulling me off an assignment, because they thought I would treat their product unfairly (it didn’t work). Recently, a freelance writer friend sold a piece about the Internet to an "alternative" newspaper, well-known for its political and cultural independence, but when it was published he discovered that all his negative comments about AOL had been chopped out–it turned out the paper was in the process of negotiating a co-operative advertising and publishing deal with the online service.

Then there’s newsgroups. Newsgroups evolved when the forums used by the academic community who pioneered the Internet melded with the Special Interest Groups, or SIGs, found on the pre-Net proprietary services. Although the population was relatively small, early forums provided a sense of community, of people sharing a particular professional or personal interest coming together to communicate as equals. For those in an industry like ours, where creativity and high-tech mingle, online interest groups and technical support are a natural, and these were very successful. CompuServe, at one point, had something like 60 companies providing online interactive customer support in its MIDI forums. There and on PAN (which is still around at www.pan.com), representatives of companies partied alongside their customers, with everyone asking questions of each other and getting answers from all directions. PAN’s archives–the service for a long time kept online all of its posted messages, going back to day one–remain one of the best primary sources of material on the early days of MIDI, commercial music software and project studios. CompuServe, regrettably, has always used a scrolling format in which only a certain number of messages were kept, and so older messages were lost forever.

Unfortunately, what has grown up on the Internet to replace proprietary forums isn’t doing this at all. Instead of participating in open forums, companies now expend their energy on their own Web sites, which (sometimes) have plenty of information, software upgrades and technical support in the form of Frequently Asked Questions lists (FAQs), but they are essentially one-way conduits–the interaction, the ability for users to talk to other users dealing with the same issues, is gone. And the main thrust of any company’s Web site, not surprisingly, is selling gear, not stimulating communication.

Usenet groups, those wide open spaces for communicating with untold others on countless topics, are supposed to fill that role, but unfortunately, at least in the ones I’ve seen, they have become unusable as serious sources of information. While paid e-zines and Web sites tend to inhibit freedom of expression, Usenet groups wallow in it and pay a price. They have been hijacked by the incessant adolescent prattlings of a handful of people who desperately need to get lives and seem to be unaware that there is, or ever was, such as thing as "netiquette"; by purveyors of filth (I have nothing against filth per se, but when I’m looking for information on rec.pro.audio about the Mackie lawsuit I really don’t want to deal with "live video naked teens!"); and by "harvesters" who scan the e-mail addresses of everyone who posts a message to the group, and sell the resulting list to spammers, who can then send the same "live video naked teens!" message directly to your mailbox.

Though Usenet groups were once very valuable, today I visit them infrequently, and with great trepidation–like the readers of my column who are uncomfortable being reminded that there’s a world of politics out there, I don’t want to have my face constantly rubbed in the fact that the Internet is populated largely by imbeciles and slimebags. And if I post anything, I use an obviously fake e-mail address.

"All right, Lehrman," I hear you cry. "Stop complaining for once in your life and try to do something positive about this." Well, surprise: That’s just what I’m doing. Earlier this summer, some colleagues and I quietly started an interactive, noncommercial, Web-based journal for the professional audio community.

The central concept behind this enterprise is to stimulate debate about any and all subjects in professional audio. We have articles about recording, post-production, studio design, product development and dealing with trade shows, just for starters. But the information doesn’t just flow one way. The articles are designed to be jumping-off points for what we hope will be extended discussions and debates–after all, one of my favorite sections of any magazine is the Letters to The Editor page. So each article in our little world has a Talkback button associated with it, which links to an ongoing column in which readers respond to the article and to each other. Unlike a published-on-dead-trees journal, however, on the Web the cycle of article, feedback and more feedback can be measured in hours, instead of months.

The thing that’s going to make this aspect of our journal different from a Usenet group, and keep it from descending into anarchy, is that the staff and I are going to moderate it. While we want to let anyone say anything they want, we will be filtering out the junk, the spam, the incoherent, the personal, the blatantly commercial and the irrelevant. We’ll keep the content level high and the noise level low, and in honor of this, we are calling our venture Signal2Noise. The "2" is there because a "/" is not a usable character in a Web address. Our Web address is simply: s2n.org.

We can also attach QuickTime videos, streaming or downloadable audio or MIDI files, or anything that can be sent over a phone line. We’re also running "Departments" to which everyone is welcome to contribute, including studio horror stories and favorite jokes, and a Download area where interesting shareware, freeware and demos can be obtained.

We have tons of server space, and we intend to keep all articles and Talkback items online indefinitely, so there will be no distinction between current and back issues, and you’ll never have to tear apart your bookshelves looking for an old article that someone has mentioned.

Who’s paying for all this? At the University of Massachusetts Lowell, the state university where I teach courses in Sound Recording Technology, we set up the Center for Recording Arts, Technology & Industry (CRATI) a few years ago to be a liaison between our school and the pro audio industry. CRATI has been doing projects like developing curricula for ourselves and other institutions, offering continuing education courses to industry professionals, lending our technological expertise to other departments, and creating and carrying out marketing and technical research studies for manufacturers and trade organizations. I happen to be the associate director of CRATI and I think that Signal2Noise is a wonderful way to use the resources we have to carry out our mission. Think of it as an online classroom, with several dozen courses and discussions going on simultaneously, which you can drop into and out of at will.

The university is providing us with a couple of gigabytes of server space, and is handling our Web access, e-mail and all of the other technical issues involved in keeping the magazine going. Various other faculty members are contributing their expertise in HTML programming, CGI scripting (for fancy things like search engines) and site design, while a small but elite coterie of students is taking care of much of the day-to-day operation of the site. The fact that we are noncommercial will, I hope, make us particularly valuable to the pro audio community, as we won’t have any financial axes to grind.

Come pay us a visit. There’s no charge, no password, no registration, no credit card needed, and we won’t send a single cookie to your browser. If you see something you want to comment on, jump in. We’ll publish your comments (and we’ll even withhold your name and/or e-mail address if you wish) alongside other readers’ comments.

It’s a small start, in an awfully big pond, but we think Signal2Noise has the right formula for putting together a "virtual" community on the Internet that can make the audio industry an even more exciting place to work. Let’s use this medium for something noble, and fun. Please join us, and let’s see some sparks fly.

Paul D. Lehrman, composer, technologist, writer and educator, can be reached at lehrman@pan.com. Rest assured he has no plans to stop complaining in these pages.