Push Me, Pull You
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also Calling all touts! Today's online watchword: Push.
  Those responsible for pre-announcing the Internet's hot new ideas are pushing Push with a ferocious unanimity. The concept of Push hit the covers of Business Week and Wired simultaneously. Push led the Wall Street Journal's front page. The nuances and ramifications of Push more or less dominate the computer trade press.
   Still, you may be forgiven for not knowing what anyone is talking about. The idea behind this huge four-letter word goes something like this. The Internet is a vast and confusing junkyard. You should not have to click your way aimlessly hither and yon. Companies with the information you need should Push it to you.
   If you want a weather forecast, you shouldn't have to ask for it. It should come direct to your screen. When the forecast changes, your screen should update itself. That's Push—you don't lift a finger. An assortment of startup companies are designing services featuring Push: they can already push news bites and stock prices. And if that doesn't convince you, maybe this will: Microsoft has chosen a Push-y approach for its revamped online service—information flowing to you in channels—and has let it be known that it will build engines of Push into the next version of Windows.
   So much for this month's conventional wisdom. Now for the reality: the promotion of Push is the silliest piece of puffery to waft along in several seasons. In fact, Push is nothing more than a thinly disguised return to ideas of information delivery that the Internet has made obsolete. The failure of Push is preordained.
   Most likely, you've barely caught up with Pull. It's easy to forget that most of the world is still a long way from discovering the Internet, let alone enjoying it. The still-small population that does browse the World Wide Web, pointing and clicking hither and yon along chains of pages and cross-references—these people are new masters of Pull. Just a few months ago, this was considered easy, as in, "so easy you just point and click," but it does require your attention. You must look, think and choose. Push, presumably, lets you just sit and stare.
   "The Web browser itself is about to croak," shouts the current Wired in multicolored large type. "And good riddance." So much for the cultural revolution!
   Pull, it turns out, has begun to disappoint advertisers. If you control your Web browser, you have gained the power to seek out or to ignore the kind of commercial messages that, in traditional media, are pushed at you more or less indiscriminately. In the long run, that may actually benefit advertisers and their targets as well: a consumer who takes the trouble to click on an advertisement is pure gold. In the short run, Internet advertisers are looking at numbers in the thousands or even hundreds, instead of their accustomed millions. You aren't Pulling those ads with sufficient predictability.
   Information flowing to you in channels: does that have a familiar ring? It should. The lingo of Push involves plays on the word broadcasting: Webcasting, narrowcasting, pointcasting. PointCast is an Internet startup company that feeds news tidbits and advertisements onto your screen without your moving a finger. Marimba, another new company, in the Push business, speaks in terms of channels, tuners and transmitters. So: multimedia content, sound blended with pictures, appearing on the screen before your eyes, supplemented with advertising from commercial sponsors. Yes, we have seen this before. It's television.Narrowcasting is meant to improve on broadcasting by sharpening the focus, with millions of channels personalized to individual taste.
   Narrowcasting will come, in the airwaves and on line alike. That's the direction of modern broadcasting anyway. But all these forms of casting mean that the information provider acts and the user simply waits and receives. Most of the time, that is no longer enough.
   Some forms of information must be pushed, and the intelligence of the pushing can only improve. E-mail is pushed, of course. Warnings about storms and traffic jams should be pushed, and they will be more timely if your information provider knows where you are. You might want to let weather forecasts and stock prices flow into small windows on your screen, especially if you are the kind of person who leaves the Weather Channel on in the background or stares at the stock ticker through a brokerage storefront window. News bulletins can be pushed, but if you have ever tried subscribing to a service that clips and filters news to your particular taste, you know that the necessary forms of artificial intelligence do not exist. Do you want news about the Internet or the Clintons or the trade deficit? You are certain to be either overwhelmed or underwhelmed by the mass of material that will be pushed your way.
   Push implies interruption and salesmanship. Pull implies choice. Even when you do settle back and watch television, you reveal your boredom with Push as soon as your hand drifts toward the remote control. Most of us find ourselves unwilling to sit passively, a fact that the networks and their advertisers struggle with daily. Every time you click, you are casting your vote for Pull. Your children vote for pull every time they turn off broadcast television to play a video game.
   Most of the valuable information you pull from the online world will never be pushed by content providers. If your particular obsession is aerial kite photography, or Sesame Street lyrics, or the past and future of baseball parks, or the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest ("where www means wretched writers welcome"), you will be able to find resources and kindred souls, but no one will push them your way.
   The Web browser and other Internet tools are making their way into users' hands with astonishing speed precisely because they allow the operator to move, find, control and wander at will. They are evolving, not as receptacles for content providers' Push, but as tools for your Pull. They are not about to croak. On the contrary, they are the ultimate remote control.

Copyright 1997 James Gleick
First published in the New York Times Magazine 23 March 1997