A Cultural Transition: The Commercialization of the Internet

Christopher R. Vincent
25 October 1995
Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Table of Contents

  1. Introduction
  2. Usenet and Today's Network
  3. Spam, Velveeta, Canter & Siegel
  4. Legitimate Advertising
  5. HTML 3.0: The Banner Element
  6. Conclusion
  7. Appendix
  8. Works Consulted


A cultural transition has clearly taken place on the Internet. Even in the past several months, there has been a staggering increase in the number of commercial sites on the Net. In the past several years, Internet usage has expanded from almost exclusively academic and military interests to encompass a much broader scope. The average user demographic as reported by the GVU Center is undeniably tempting: 31 year-old male professional earning $65,000 a year. These stats are rapidly diversifying, however, as current online services begin to offer Internet access. The Net is fast becoming a more visible factor in our society. Magazines such as Newsweek contain weekly "cyberspace" sections, while popular television shows like the Simpsons boast their own web sites. The effects on the medium have so far been mixed. The Internet is still developing as a means of communication, and the original network was not designed with the interests of corporate retailers in mind. Some have chosen to exploit the weaknesses of systems such as Usenet in the name of business. Others have made genuinely useful services available in exchange for prominent advertising. The driving force behind these cultural transitions has been the World-Wide Web, introducing a much more graphical, esthetically pleasing means of conveying information to the average user. Future developments such as the adaptation of HTML 3.0 will undoubtedly add momentum to the change. The advent of secure electronic money and URL content labeling will also have a sizable effect on the business climate of the Net. There are many factors driving cultural change on the Internet; this paper gives an overview of a few of them.

Usenet and Today's Network

Usenet is an Internet system that propagates postings to news and discussion groups all over the world. There is no one in charge of or accountable for the system as a whole. Usenet is a largely anarchic entity helped along by the occasional discretion of the system administrators responsible for individual news servers. There is a voting system for the creation of new groups, with an acceptance meaning that the group will probably widely propagate to other servers. Aside from some moderated groups, however, Usenet is a largely unregulated system. There are so-called charters, but there is little threat of enforcement. People can post whatever they want, and that is the way that most current users seem to like it. The newsgroup categories are subdivided into very specific topics. Ideally, the topics are divided enough times that a user can keep up with all the messages of interest, as determined by their subject headings. This system works well in most cases, but depends almost entirely on the cooperation of all parties involved. Little keeps a rogue user from "killing" a newsgroup by posting numerous, irrelevant messages. This form of anarchy has proved relatively effective so far. Usenet presently handles a large number of posts, but the continuing influx of Internet users could push the load out of control.

The newsgroups depend largely on the fact that those who post there have some idea of common netiquette. People argue all the time about what exactly is acceptable behavior on a newsgroup, but the point is that most seem to care. The people reading the group want it to keep working because they gain some information or entertainment from it. As accessing the Internet continues to grow easier for the novice user, it is inevitable that many of these social guidelines will fall to the wayside. This is not to say that new users should be denied access to Internet resources. It has been the first reflex in many newsgroups to flame any user who posted from an online service provider. Some of the larger providers, such as America Online have not received a very warm welcome to the network (note the formation of the alt.aol-sucks newsgroup.) This reaction does not necessarily stem from elitism, but from a genuine fear that as more and more users appear, Usenet will fall apart. Indeed, this is a valid concern. The current system is not designed for the commercial-oriented direction the Internet is now taking.

Spam, Velveeta, Canter & Siegel

While large-scale commercial interests have the common-sense (or subcontract it) to stay out of trouble, those who abuse Usenet for profit are mostly small-time entrepreneurs. They may or may not have much experience on the Internet, but realize that they can use the system to reach a large number of users, willing or not. One of the most obvious and most easily correctable abuses is sometimes called "velveeta." This is the practice of cross-posting an unrelated article to many newsgroups, usually some kind of advertisement or political diatribe. Cross-posting means that the article shows up in several newsgroups, but only one copy of the text is stored on the news server. A more problematic abuse is the "spamming" of Usenet groups. This refers to when a message is sent separately to many unrelated newsgroups. This is not only an annoyance, but causes multiple copies of the posting to be stored on every news server. If enough users decided to do this at once, it would surely be more than the system administers could keep up with. Except in moderated groups (where someone takes the time to preview or censor all the messages) the groups are largely left to themselves.

It has been well over a year since the Canter and Siegel spamming incident, and their wake of flamage can still be found on the Web. In April of 1994, The two Arizona immigration lawyers used an automated script to post their advertisements to almost all Usenet newsgroups. The postings offered assistance, for a fee, in the U.S. Immigration Service's green card lottery. See the original text of the spam. They also managed to get the postings onto moderated groups by forging the correct authorization field. Members of the Net community were not only outraged that the two broke Usenet charters, but that they openly planned to do it again. A taste of their attitudes toward the Internet and business can be gleaned from an interview by Ed Ricketts on FutureNet. Here is their response to one question:

Q: Would you do it all again? Are you going to?
A: Yes and yes. Irrespective of the "moral" objections of the vandals and hackers, who are hardly in a position to judge the standards of others, the fact is that every time someone advertises a product on Usenet, it sells. No matter what the objectors would like to believe, it is a fact that if everyone, or even the majority of people had a real problem with Usenet advertising, they wouldn't buy the products or services offered. It is a fact that they do buy. On the day the anti-advertising vandals can convince customers not to buy from Usenet advertisements, that is the day advertising will stop. The time hasn't come yet, and we predict it never will.

These attitudes angered more than just a few hackers and vandals. Canter and Siegel drafted an agreement with PSI, their Internet service provider stating that they would no longer make inappropriate postings to Usenet. After additional offenses their account there was cut off. More than a year after the original incident, the two partners were still abusing Usenet, doing their best to avoid the technical obstacles placed in their path.

This brings up some more interesting issues concerning Usenet. The system's architecture allows for not only commercial abuse, but vigilantes as well. While Canter & Siegel were figuring out clever new ways to disseminate their postings, certain users were working to cancel them. "Cancelbots" are programs written to automatically forge and send cancel commands for messages sent by a certain user or matching other criteria. There exist blacklists of advertisers who have spammed Usenet or sent unsolicited electronic mail, urging the user to take action against the perpetrator. Many would say this is anarchy at its best: someone hurts the group as a whole, and they get punished accordingly. The use of cancelbots, however, is a dangerous thing. Who is to say where the line should be drawn. From sampling a few newsgroups that discuss these issues, it became clear how easy it is to abuse the power that comes along with a little technical knowledge. In some sense, cancelbots can be seen as worse than spamming. At least everyone knew what Canter & Siegel did. How many postings are made every day that are wrongly canceled for political or moral content? Just consider the Church of Scientology and its encounters with Usenet. It is almost impossible to know how many messages are stopped short by vigilante censors.

All this points to the fact that Usenet in its present form is ill-suited for a hostile Internet environment. As more users appear who are willing to abuse the current system, more problems are bound to arise. The popular system of newsgroups is an attractive target for legislation regulating the Internet. While numerous groups continue to quietly function, serving their useful purpose, a relative few have attracted a great deal of negative attention. Areas such as the alt.sex hierarchy have called the legal accountability of Usenet groups into question. Another problem is that if a user is legally accountable for a posting, how can his/her identity be verified. Electronic mail is relatively easy to forge, at least to the extent that will fool an automated Usenet server. This is already a problem on some newsgroups. There have also been cases where spams were allegedly faked to give certain others a bad name. One example is a white power political message spammed to several groups, and the alleged author's denial of responsibility. It is hard to tell what really happened, and their service provider was put in the position of deciding what to do about it. This can easily come down a system administrator trying to guess who sent a particular message and why, with meaningful consequences for the parties involved. The Usenet system needs to be rethought if it is to continue into the next century, but restructuring is a big project. A lot of convenience would be traded for a more secure system, even if the information infrastructure did exist to support it. Controlling content is a whole other issue, quite far from any kind of resolution.

Legitimate Advertising

While the problems discussed in the previous section are a good example of cultural shifts on the Internet, a far greater impact has been made by legitimate commercial interests. Mostly through the World-Wide Web, companies of all sorts are scrambling to get online. Commercial interests of all sorts proudly boast new web sites either through service providers or their own host. The URL, or universal resource locator, is fast becoming a recognizable addition to a print or television advertisement. As more individual users move online, the Internet becomes less threatening, more culturally accessable. The network is now being seen as a new media, and a new market. The advertiser's role in cyberspace is still in the early stages of development. The electronic mall metaphor was quick to grab media attention, though it is a phenomenon that seems to be fading fast. The current trend is to have one's own web site, hopefully taking advantage of the Internet's uniqueness as a media. Examples of this are airline sites that offer specific flight information, or delivery service pages that allow you to track your package.

As the Internet population grows, commercial sites will adapt to the culture that develops. At this time, there are two major markets that a business can cater to: a market for physical goods, and a market for information. The most obvious purpose for a site is to allow the user to browse and purchase physical goods, usually via credit card. A fast growing niche, however, is the brokering of information. Online magazines, originally a free experimental service, are beginning to charge for subscriptions. An Internet user can pay for access to current stock prices, or other information previously hard to attain. With the massive amount of information on the web, some sites have even begun to charge for a list of hotlinks, pointers to other people's documents. Marketing on the Internet is still in its infancy, and it is interesting to watch the tactics evolve. Reading some of the business resources available on the Net tells a lot about how advertisers see the new medium. One such "resource" is an overview to Internet marketing provided by Netresource, a marketing firm. As part of their description of what the Internet is, they include the statement:

There is no such thing as "advertising" on the Internet. There is no medium on the Internet for advertisement. The Net isn't organized enough for such blatant commercialism. Besides, the user population would cry foul, and your marketing efforts would backfire. There's a subtlety inherent to getting your message to your target audience (More later).

On the other hand, they also point out the following:

What marketing goals are achievable via the Internet? Here are a few:

... The current Internet population is enchanted by the idea of "something for nothing," provided that something is perceived as valuable. 90% of users surveyed stated that they could spot and advertisement disguised as information.

The something for nothing strategy does seem to turn up a lot on the Web. Of course, the "nothing" part of the bargain usually includes giving up some kind of personal information that, in actuality, has a measurable dollar value. There are free services available, such as the New York Times Syndicate, that do not require a fee, just a registration with name and address. Most users are willing to give up this information (or make it up, at least) in order to view what is perceived as valuable information.

HTML 3.0: The Banner Element

Over the last several months, corporate sponsors have become more and more common on already popular web sites. Whether it is to generate revenue for an online magazine or to buy hardware for a search engine, site sponsorship seems to be the main direction that advertisers are moving in. A prominent ad on part of the Hotwired site currently goes for $15,000/month, while a smaller image on a Yahoo page goes for $20,000/month. Spots on Pathfinder (Time) and ESPNET both cost over $30,000/month. Sites such as these receive huge numbers of hits every day, and the commercial potential is now being realized. After navigating through a few of these sites, you will notice that almost all the advertisements are about the same size and shape. This is no doubt in anticipation of the forthcoming HTML 3.0 standard. A new hypertext tag is being introduced to denote the banner element. The proposed 3.0 specification defines the element as follows: The BANNER element is used for corporate logos, navigation aids, disclaimers and other information which shouldn't be scrolled with the rest of the document. It provides an alternative to using the LINK element in the document head to reference an externally defined banner. The banner must appear at the beginning of the body section, and will always appear at the top of a page. Online publications are gearing up to use this space for corporate sponsorship. It is almost the perfect scenario for an advertiser. In television and print, the audience does its best to ignore ads, which appear at intervals between content. On the Web, an advertising banner will remain on the top of the screen as a user scrolls through content, always in the realm of vision. Once a user can be convinced to click on the banner, the advertiser has his or her complete attention.

It has not taken long for the advertising firms to catch on. Banners tend to be colorful and detailed with large, bold print (see appendix.) Most are about 10K, perfect for downloading (a large graphic might annoy the target audience.) The prevailing theme seems to be "click here!" urging the user to enter the sponsor's private domain. The banner does not usually comprise an entire advertisement in the traditional sense. It just needs to convince the user that something worthwhile exists beyond that link. It will be interesting to see how banners change as the novelty of a commercial web site wears off. Right now it seems interesting, if not ironic that a product like Advil has a web page. The casual surfer will probably check it out for now. This is an issue which is going to change the appearance of the Web for the majority of its users. It will be possible to filter out the banner tag, but this may not be feasible if it is also used for purposes such as navigational aids. Also, Netscape has financial motivations for not allowing users to turn this feature off.


The developing business climate on the Internet is testing the limits of the current network architecture. The Net was designed for resilience, not for security. It was designed for easy information transfer, not for mass, regulated traffic. Internet culture is already going through a visible metamorphosis as commercial interests stake out their niche. It is becoming clear that traditional Internet systems like Usenet are not currently suited for the changes ahead. We have also had a taste of an advertising medium that is still in its earliest stages. The next generation of Internet users are paying directly for their use, by the hit or by the minute. For the first time, large numbers of users without a special interest in computers will seek information over the Net. The services offered will be used by people who do not necessarily understand anything about the network they are connected to. Personally, I am hoping that something better can be done on the Net, better than on television or the print media. The most valuable asset the Internet has is its sense of individualism and grass-roots input. Hopefully, the Internet will not become a space where advertisers set the moral standard. This has become the case in most other media, and could easily happen here as sites grow to depend on advertising revenue. All that can be said with true confidence is that the cultural atmosphere of the Internet will be very different in the years, and months to come.


I have compiled a document that displays some of the advertising banners I encountered while researching this paper.

Works Consulted

Specific Documents:
"Selling on the Internet" Scott Bourne for InfoNation
"Executive Summary" from Marketing on the Internet
The Greencard Spam sent out by Canter & Siegel in March of 1994
Eating Dust on the Information Superhighway book review by Glenn Fleishman
Interview by Joel K. Furr concerning Canter & Siegel
The proposed HTML 3.0 specification supplied by W3
"Understanding the Latest Net Security Breach" David Joachim for NYT Syndicate
"The Canter & Siegel Report, Number One" ed. Thomas Leavitt
PSI and Carter & Siegel Negotiate Agreement
"Canter and Siegel speak..." Interview by Ed Rickets for FutureNet
"How to Make a FORTUNE on the Information Superhighway" book review by Mary E.S. Morris
Statement on Sponsorship by WebCrawler
"Why Market on the Internet?" from Marketing on the Internet
Presentation on payments by Dr Phillip M. Hallam-Baker on 24 October, 1995 at MIT AI Lab
Business Resources:
Black Star's Web Site Checklist
The Business of the Internet
Internet Marketing
IPA Online Advertising Index
Marketing on the Internet
W3C Payment Resources compiled by Dr Phillip M. Hallam-Baker
WWW Yellow Pages
The Internet Advertising Resource Guide
The GVU Center's WWW User Survey
Online Periodicals:
Internet Business Journal
NYT Computer News Daily
Phrack Magazine
Blacklist of Internet Advertisers and its archive
Usenet Newsgroups: