A bubble of bad news hides true Web reality

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Even before bin laden's terrorists, America had an all-purpose, everyone-pile-on fall guy-the Internet. Following the pop of the dot-com bubble, the Internet swung from glory to folly faster than any phenomenon in my lifetime. It took 10 years for perceptions of the Vietnam War to change to lost cause from gung-ho; with the Internet, it took six months. The tide of stories about bankruptcy, trade publication closings and supposed downturns in Internet use has made it seem as if cyberspace is shrouded in a cloud, its own dark bubble.

So then what do we make of these statistics?

* Internet traffic has quadrupled in the past 12 months. Quadrupled.

* Personal use of the Internet continues to climb. In the U.S., people spend 20% more time online this year than they did last year. Abroad, the growth is exponential-reaching a milestone this year of nearly half a billion souls online.

* E-commerce has increased 30% since the Nasdaq slump began.

* Those who say they consider the Internet to be more essential than a TV set, already a majority, have continued to grow in numbers.

* As users adopt high-speed connections (and there are now 12 million), time spent online doubles.

* Studies now emerge that show much-caricatured Internet users to be, compared with the average, smarter, healthier (that depression study was debunked), more physically active. Admittedly, diversity and access for the poor are still challenges.

In the avalanche of gleeful stories chronicling the fall of the latest dot-com, or the comeuppance of the latest 29-year-old billionaire, a few voices reminded us this was all about a relative handful of busted entrepreneurs and goofy business plans. Mainstream users continue, in increasing numbers, to log on, look up, e-mail, instant-message, purchase, worship, gossip. Kids, especially, couldn't give a damn whose stock options cratered, and are growing up with buddy lists of best friends. Some trade or Net-related publications have failed famously; others with a broader consumer focus have marched on (OK, limped; I wouldn't wish this ad downturn on my worst enemy).

It is this confusion between personal use and its profit-making frustrations that continues to get attention. But stronger enterprises will come along in a second wave to provide online services at a profit. Indeed, the challenge for future users will be not so much the shakiness of so many new enterprises as the encroachment (and privacy assaults) of a few powerful megacorporations.

We in the media do love our bubbles. This dark one, surrounding the Internet as a whole, is just the latest. Pop, anyone?

Mr. Golson is editor in chief of Ziff Davis Media's Yahoo! Internet Life. ([email protected]).

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