An historic opportunity to create a new medium hangs in the balance, as the initial wave of Web content has yet to actively engage the burgeoning millions of online users who will ultimately determine the quality and usefulness of the Web, said Jerry Yang, co-founder of Yahoo, at Spring Internet World '98 this week.
"The Web is still very changeable. Put more into the Web than you take out," said Yang in a keynote speech. "It's like going to a local park or school, if you abuse it, it will fall apart. You have the choice and can be active rather than passive. It's up to you, and the future is much brighter than what we've done in the past three years."
The Web is powerful force if exercised, said Yang, who foresees the day when a close U.S. presidential election could be decided by how candidates conduct themselves online and if they seek the approval of the wired community.
Yang also emphasized that the Web is not a U.S.-dominated medium. The growth in the use of the Internet abroad will soon outstrip its popularity in America. The beauty of the Web, he added, lies in its unique ability to be both global and local in nature.
"The biggest potential for the Web is how global and local the medium is. We can communicate across the world, but have very local needs. It's truly a global marketplace," said Yang, who helped forge Yahoo in the spring of 1995 from a Web site directory -- a set of bookmarks -- while a student at Stanford University in Palo Alto, Calif.
The success of the Web lies with the ability for users to integrate it into their lifestyles to a similar extent that people now use telephones, even though telephones were initially considered a business tool only with no role in the home, said Yang.
Yang offered anecdotal evidence that the Web is increasingly entering people's lives. Yahoo users have found new jobs, met their spouses, arranged travel, and bought more and more merchandise during their online experiences, he said.
Unlike the advent of past communications mediums, the Web is now allowing for massive amounts of "user-generated content" from such sources as message boards, e-mail forums, chats, and instant messaging," said Yang. "This is content generated by the user community, and that will drive the Web," he said.
Among the countervailing forces to the Web lifestyle-shift are the problems of privacy and censorship. Web users can be powerful allies for marketers and advertisers, but if their privacy is threatened or their ability to choose is diminished they will flee, Yang warned.
"The Web remains user-driven, and they will go if you don't guard their privacy," said Yang, who also said that we need to protect children from threatening or unhealthy content while allowing for freedom of expression.
"In the future, health care, pharmaceutical, toys, sporting goods, apparel -- the Web will play a critical role for these industries," said Yang, who pointed to the online sale of computers from companies like Dell and Gateway, and the online brokering success of companies like eTrade and eSchwab as harbingers of things to come.
"But we must add more value, or the industry will fail. Unless the messages are powerful, people will ignore them," said Yang.