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Friday October 05 12:15 PM EDT

Time for a Net obituary or a celebration?

By Roget Ebert, Yahoo! Internet Life

Roger Ebert thinks it's time to stop reading about the Internet on the financial pages. If your interest is in using the Internet, not getting rich from it, then stock prices are insignificant.

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COMMENTARY-- The Internet is in economic crisis, but its brilliance and audacity continue to amaze me. The stories of its decline are stories about money, not technology or communication. If millions of investors felt compelled to throw their cash insanely at Internet investments that made zero economic sense, is that an indictment of the Internet, or a demonstration that they were greedy herd animals?

I think it's time to stop reading about the Internet on the financial pages. If your interest is in using the Internet, not getting rich from it, the stock price of Cisco is insignificant. In my life, the Web and e-mail play crucial roles every single day. If I had to replace e-mail with the telephone and the fax machine, I would go mad. If I didn't have the research resources of the Web available to me, I would accomplish half as much work. If I couldn't order Saigon Sizzle Sauce at a moment's notice, I might have to move to Saigon.

And without the Internet Movie Database, I would have to return to the Dark Ages of movie press kits and publicity handouts as a source of information. I actually wonder if I could find the energy, the patience, or the will to do my job without the Web; I did it once, but how?

A lot of us were using e-mail, FTP sites, CompuServe, AOL, or whatever a long time before the Web came along. When we all crowded aboard the first browsers, there was an electrifying moment when we realized that this, at last, was the interface the Internet had been yearning for. It was way cool. I bookmarked New Site of the Day and actually visited it.

Some investors allowed their personal joy in the medium to cloud their financial judgment. "If this is such a gas," they thought, "it's sure to make me a lot of money." But there was no sound economic model under that thinking. The Internet and all its suppliers and content providers existed in a warp in economic space. Nobody owned it, nobody paid for it, nobody ran it, everybody visited it.

There is a new documentary titled Startup.com about the rise and fall of a Web company. I can think of another recent documentary that more accurately mirrors the first five years of the Web. That would be Dark Days, by Marc Singer, about the people who live in the railroad tunnels under Manhattan. Down there beneath the city, they build houses from plywood and cardboard, and supply them with running water and electricity tapped (that is, stolen) from the city's pipes and wires. Some of the houses surprise us; they have second stories, kitchens, TVs, household pets, shower stalls.

The Web essentially spent its first years living in tunnels under the economy. Web sites lived off the free transmission of their images. The pipes and wires they tapped were paid for by the government, people thought, when they thought about it at all.

The difference between Dark Days and "Web Days" is that the heroes in Singer's documentary go up top to panhandle and search through Dumpsters for food, while the heroes of the Web found that people were shoveling truckloads of money down through the manholes. Talented workers even gave up jobs on the surface to work in the tunnels under the economy.

Dark Days has a happy ending. Most of the people in the tunnels are relocated into subsidized housing aboveground. "Web Days" will have one, too. Now that no one wants to throw money at the Internet anymore, the owner-operators of Web sites will have to come up top and earn or beg for money like anyone else. No more overnight millionaires.

The Internet Bubble has been compared to the Tulip Craze, when 17th-century investors bid the price of Dutch bulbs to insane heights. Both bubbles burst. The collapse of the Internet economy was inevitable, and clears the way for sane and reasonable rebuilding. Good news: There are more tulips in the world than ever before.

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