Did you ever read a book or see a movie "based on a true story" and wonder what happened next? I've discovered that the web is a great place to find out exactly that.
I first started thinking about this topic a year ago when I first asked the question "Whatever happened to my sister Eileen?" No, I don't have a long lost sister. My Sister Eileen is a series of hilarious stories written in the 1930s by Ruth McKenney about her and her sister, Eileen, later collected as a book. Unfortunately the book, though once a bestseller, is now out of print. It's still available in many libraries though including the central Brooklyn Public Library where I found it. Today, if someone's familiar with the story at all, it's probably via one of a couple of movie adaptations or the Bernstein musical Wonderful Town. Wonderful Town was performed at the New York City Opera a few years ago where I first encountered the tale.
Now, if you've read the book you'd probably suspect that Eileen's the sort of person who should have had an impact on the 20th century, one way or another. At least that's what I thought. So I began to wonder: why hadn't she? On the web I found out in about 20 minutes. (I won't spoil the suspense. If you want to know what happened to her, get the book from your local library, then do a search at Altavista (or better yeh, Google) for "My Sister Eileen". But I warn you, although the book/movie/musical is a comedy, the real story turns into a tragedy.)
More recently, I was reminded one more time how much I love the Internet and the Web. I'd just finished reading Fast Times at Ridgemont High by Cameron Crowe. You're probably familiar with the movie of the same name, a seminal film for many gen-X'ers. I'd been looking for the book for years (since I first realized the movie was based on a book) and finally found it at the central Brooklyn Public Library on Grand Army Plaza.
After I had finished reading the book I started to think: whatever happened to these people? They're 20th anniversary reunion was coming up. Would Crowe return to the pseudonymous Ridgemont and write about that? For that matter what was Ridgemont's real name?
Now in the pre-Internet days, I would have thought about it for a few seconds, and said "Well, there's really no way to find out." If I was really desperate I might do a search through the library's old periodicals for a few hours and try to find out something, but I probably wouldn't find more than a book review or two.
But now I've got the Internet. I logged on, did a couple of searches at Altavista and Yahoo, and before you could say "Bogus, dude!", I had dug up the treasure trove of copyright violations about Ridgemont High. Among other things I discovered that Ridgemont was really Clairmont High in San Diego, that Crowe hadn't gone to their 10th reunion and probably wouldn't go to their 20th, and that (not entirely unexpected) some of the kids portrayed in the movie weren't very happy about it.
Now this is where things started to get really weird. I actually discovered that I know one of the characters in the movie! Six degrees of separation compressed to one in an instant. Rat, something of a nerd in the movie and book, has since become a best-selling computer book author and I met him at last year's Waterside Computer Book Conference in San Diego! It's probably better that I didn't know his history then or I probably would have embarrassed myself (and him) pestering him with questions about the story behind the book. Discovering that he had ended up in the same small profession and industry as myself felt like one of those stories where twins separated at birth meet years later only to find out they're both paralegals working for labor law firms, and married to 6 foot, 215 pound, bearded construction workers named "Rick."
Now I doubt there are 10,000 people in the world today who are really at all interested in Fast Times at Ridgemont High. That's not enough to let you find much at a library other than the book itself, if you can even find that (The book's out of print, and apparently there's only one copy in the entire borough of Brooklyn). But it is enough to start a web site. And that's what people have done. The real action in web sites isn't at the Pathfinder/cnet/New York Times that are just trying to give people the same old stuff online instead of on paper.
What makes the web exciting are the small sites (The Fast Times site has gotten only about 13,000 visitors in the last year) that cater to a unique audience. These sites aren't going to make a lot of money or sell a lot of ads, but they are the Web's killer app. They're amateurish, poorly done, infrequently updated, rarely visited, and about a thousand times more interesting than the big commercial sites.
Let me define a killer app: it's a use of a technology that people want desperately but simply cannot do with existing tools. It is not enough for a new platform/protocol/software to do the same thing better. They have to do something new that can't be done any way or any how with existing tools. So putting the New York Times online is not a killer app for the Web. You can already read it on paper. But putting the history of "Fast Times at Ridgemont High" online is a killer app (for perhaps a dozen people) because it could never be supported in traditional media. The web isn't one killer app. It's tens of thousands, all of which merge together to create something viable.
The sites that are making money on the Web today are the sites that draw on people's intense interest in things that are too small to hit mass media radar. Yahoo, Altavista, Geocities, etc. all collect many thousands of these small sites into seachable collections. Yahoo does the best job and makes the most money. Commercial sites complain that Yahoo's two-listing maximum discriminates against them, but I think that's a good thing. It keeps the fun, amateur sites from getting drowned amidst all the professional, advertiser supported drek that already saturates our culture.
Of course, there's still a place for old media. I couldn't read Fast Times at Ridgemont High online or watch the movie. I had to find it at a library or a video store. The old media does the same stuff it's always done, and it does it pretty well. After all it's had decades and centuries of practice. But there is stuff the new media does that the old media can't touch, and this sort of localized, highly targeted information is a large part of that.
The printing press put the consumption of information (reading) into the hands of the masses. But writing and publishing remained mostly in the hands of an elite group of professionals. The Internet brings the masses into that too. The changes that are wrought by the Internet are only starting to become obvious, but they're likely to be every bit as wrenching and society-transforming as the ones brought about by the printing press several hundred years ago.