The www is an oral medium (actually, an oral medium hybrid, but I'll come back to that): The fastest you can hear about a page on the www is the fastest people can carry the message by telling each other.
This is even more true of email, before spam, and more evident too. The fastest information can travel is the fastest you can receive the email and forward it or a version of it to someone else.
There are two large hybrid parts in the nature of the www.
- The message has been split into the message itself (the webpage) and a
reference to the message (its address). The importance of this addressability abstraction should not be underestimated -- it means that the message itself is mutable in transit, that the webpage can change according to feedback, even while the reference to the page (the address) is being communicated through the oral part of the medium. The message, the webpage, is therefore unique, and this means the www is more like geography. In the physical world, there are directions (the address) and the place (the webpage). Since there's only one unique place, it changes according to who has followed the directions. Just like a webpage.
- The message itself (the webpage) can carry more message references (addresses). Whereas in speech making this kind of explicit reference is hard, footnotes and references are common in the written word (implicit references, that is, hints and allegations, are easy in speech but comparatively hard in writing if, as on the www, you don't know your audience and have to rely on the implicit references being understood). The written character of the medium also means there is time-binding: the message can alter over time, gather more wisdom (and addresses), take feedback and so on.
There's a different abstraction point in email. The message and message reference are once more combined so that when you forward a message you take a copy of it and send it on. This is oral. However, the break is between the person and the reference to the person (you, and your email address). Because of this break, people-references can be gathered in a way people themselves can't -- the relationship is similar between your television and you. Your television is a reference for you, the viewer. That these addresses are independent of you gives email the aspect of a broadcast medium, hence spam.
I've deliberately not mentioned anything about webpage being person-proxies because I think that's an abstraction point too far. The nature of the www is independent of the means the webpage addresses are communicated.
A few further throw-away points:
- The www is like a world-enveloping library crowded with people. A book is a webpage, and when you open it you step inside it, through a wormhole to another aisle somewhere else in the library. You can only talk to the people in the same aisle as yourself. There are ghosts of previous visitors. You can write in the books, and write your own books.
- Email is like a rich oral society with people chattering and gossiping. Towering overhead are giant megaphones which shout messages that may or may not be applicable to you. Incidentally, his is much how I imagine China.
- What sort of medium is IM, currently, in this way of thinking?
- What kind of medium might 3G be, in this way of thinking, and what kind of applications does that make you think of?
(Yes, I'm currently reading Understanding Media (Marshall McLuhan, 1964), so apologies to all the media studies students out there for getting everything wrong as I undoubtedly have. Any pointers towards understanding the various media on the internet would be very welcome.)