A Net of Plenty; Making room for the worst and the best

CRITICS HAVE FOUND plenty to fear on the Internet: too many weird political beliefs, too much sex, too many strange religions, too much untamed communication.

When discussing the libel case against electronic gossip columnist Matt Drudge, for example, Washington Post reporter Howard Kurtz warned Nightline's audience that cyberspace is just one big swamp of dangerous diversity: "There are thousands of Drudges out there, political opinion mongers, college professors, neo-Nazis, conspiracy theorists." Lumping together "political opinion mongers" and "college professors" with "neo-Nazis" and "conspiracy theorists" makes it pretty clear that what's scary about cyberspace isn't just its fringe elements -- it's the terrifying, uncontrolled variety.

What's got the critics upset isn't technology per se. It's plenitude.

That's the apt term anthropologist Grant McCracken uses for the way a dynamic society fills every available cultural niche. The world's plenitude is increasing for many reasons, including the growth of communications technology.

As an anthropologist, McCracken is most interested in social groupings. He notes, for instance, that teenagers no longer fall into two or three cliques but into at least 15 distinct categories: punks, goths, hippies, skaters, and so on. "We are not just talking about lots of differences," writes McCracken. "We are talking about differences in depth . . . dramatically different values, outlooks, points of view." Plenitude applies to economics too. It shows up in brand segmentation, specialty firms, and targeted markets. Check out any large newsstand and you'll see social plenitude reflected in commerce, generating specialty publications and the advertisers who support them.

As social groups fragment and recombine, they more nearly approach the variety of individuals. The Net speeds the process by bringing like-minded people together. "There once was a time," writes McCracken, "when a 14-year-old in Tacoma, Washington, who happened to have a passion for his new skater-goth-propeller-head fusion was a voice in the wilderness. He could count on being a short-lived minority of two (and this only if he persuaded his little brother to go along). Now the Tacoma enthusiast can find and interact with every other 14-year-old who thinks the fusion holds some interest. The minority of two can critically mass at several hundred. The skater-goth-propeller-head fusion can 'take.'"

As for the critics, they're right: The plenitude of the Net reflects the plenitude of human beings, and that includes some unsavory characters. But they're also wrong. Plenitude also makes room for the best. It doesn't force everyone into one mediocre mold. Getting used to the world beyond mass culture is hard, especially for journalists and intellectuals. They're too used to either commanding the mass audience or criticizing it.

Last year, neoconservative historian Gertrude Himmelfarb slammed the Internet for undermining traditional research. In passing, she wrote that of course someone could put Paradise Lost online, but "more likely is that something like a Cliffs Notes version is online" -- the lowest common denominator. The Net is a place of plenitude, however, and Milton lovers definitely belong: A Yahoo search turns up five full-text versions of Milton's epic.

FOR HIS PART, McCracken is hoping to produce some plenitude of his own -- to rally a community of authors discouraged by the sluggishness of book publishing. His book Plenitude is sold via a Web site (cultureby.com) that also houses his Periph Fluide publishing house. Finding a bypass around traditional publishers is a trial-and-error process. McCracken struggled with credit card orders and publicity issues for a time.

"We haven't got the formula even close to being right," he says. "But at some point you have to put your money where your mouth is. You can't do a book about the culture of commotion in a conventional way."

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