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TBTF: a site to behold

Jon Katz
First Amendment Center scholar


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Post-Monica, the press is full of hand-wringing: about what political and journalistic life will be like without the scandal.

One reporter called last week to wonder how life on the Web would change once the impeachment proceedings were resolved. I said I didn't think life on the Web would be different at all. Why would Webheads pay much attention to the journalistic sex police or shrieking ideologues on MSNBC, or to national reconciliation gatherings on CNN (the country doesn't need any healing; just Washington reporters and politicians do), when there's so much good stuff out there on the Internet?

Give me an example, she asked. I suggested Tasty Bits from the Technology Front, not only one of the best sources of technology news, but a prime example of how smart people are making their own media all over the Web and the Net and sharing it with the rest of us, usually at great personal effort and often for free.

TBTF was launched in l994 by Boston-based Web consultant Keith Dawson, who was fascinated by the digital culture. Setting out to collect news and writings so that he could educate his colleagues about Internet commerce, he called his gleanings "tasty bits from the technology front," and that's just what they are. Like many new media people, Dawson has some new ideas about what media really is. His mind ranges widely; his interests are eclectic. He's as apt to be writing about exploding digital cameras and the Open Source Software movement as he is about astrophysics and quantum computers.

TBTF is small, traffic-wise. It gets anywhere from 500 to 1,000 visits a day, depending on what's going on. Updated continuously, it always has something fresh and interesting to offer, from updates on the Microsoft trial in Washington to coverage of protests over high telecom costs.

Local TV stations love to brag that they're offering stories you won't get anywhere else; on TBTF, it's actually true. There was the story about a hare-brained Russian scheme to orbit a huge space mirror to light up Siberia (it broke), and a story called "Dark Skies" about how light pollution was seeping from the earth into outer space. "Silicon creatures" explained why your server pages might be a bit too active. Then there was the report on Kodak's recall of a line of AC adapters that, when not properly plugged into digital cameras, can overheat, leak acid, or even explode. The headline? "Ka-Boom." Plus there's running commentary on Microsoft in general and its antitrust trial in particular.

This is the opposite of the corporatized, homogenized, mass-marketed and "objective" media that have devoured journalism. Dawson publishes TBTF because he loves the Net and wants to contribute something to it. Rather than whine about the media's shortcomings, he uses new technology to do something about it: He creates his own medium. In that way, he's a harbinger of media's future.

Over time, TBTF's eclectic coverage paints a surprisingly thorough view of the cultural and political impact of new technology. One of my favorite features is the "Jargon Scout," a frequently updated report on new Net lingo. Web developers use the phrase, "We have to eat our own dog food," Dawson reports, to mean that they actually have to use the products they develop. As in a Microsoft designer announcing, "We have to dog-food the architecture before we release it."

TBTF saw the Open Source Software movement coming years before it reached the attention of most newspapers and business magazines. And while most journalists were slobbering all over Bill Gates, TBTF has been chronicling t he expensive and frustrating bugs endemic among arrogant software makers.

It pointed out, for instance, that the editors of BugNet have presented an award each year since 1994 to the software company turning in the best bug-fix performance. Last year the editors surveyed the field and, scowling in disgust, refusing to grant an award. "We are in the midst of a PC quality/support crisis," Dawson quoted BugNet's editors as concluding.

This consumer story, which affects millions of hapless American computer users, is routinely ignored by "consumer" reporters in journalism who scour supermarkets in search of tainted lettuce but never look at the outrageous, expensive foul-ups that routinely plague the greedy and arrogant computer industry.

TBTF is, in every journalistic sense, one of the best outlets in old or new media. It's impossible to go on TBTF without learning something new or interesting. Like most good Net and Web sites, TBTF includes vigorous public discussion areas where readers can share information and argue about Dawson's tasty bits, sometimes in brainy, usually civilized, running conversations that continue for months, even years.

TBTF will never show up on any journalistic list of important new-media sites — reporters are much too busy tittering about Matt Drudge. That's too bad. TBTF makes the point that news can have a point of view, can be personal and idiosyncratic — and still profoundly useful. In this case, it's also a prescient guide to what tomorrow's media are likely to look like.