First Monday

Third Voice: Vox Populi Vox Dei?

Third Voice, a new "browser companion service" allows users to place annotations on any Web page they visit. These notes can afford an opportunity for netizens to use Third Voice to express their own views about content and communicate with each other. Advocates proclaim that this could this bring a rebirth of the democratic spirit of the Net, but Third Voice has proven to be very controversial. In its first few months it has mostly produced spam, graffiti, hyperlinks to pornographic sites and flame wars. Moreover, those who create the Web presentations that form the core of the new Internet resent a technology that, in effect, allows the audience to paint mustaches on their masterpieces.

We argue that the controversy is beside the point. Third Voice or similar browser companions, such as Gooey, are unlikely to amount to much because they require initiative on the part of users. The future of the Internet does not lie in recovering its more egalitarian and participatory past. It has become a mass medium used mostly by relatively passive consumers, and as such major content providers will dominate it.

Third Voice, a new "browser companion service" that intends to fulfill some of the hopes and dreams of early advocates of electronic democracy, debuted in May 1999. Designed as a companion client for popular Web browsers, Third Voice allows users to place annotations on any Web page they visit [ 1]. These notes can be read and responded to by other Third Voice users. The users see a small marker signifying each place that notes have been posted, and optionally, an extra frame that lists the postings. When they click on a marker or a listing, the full text appears as an image that resembles a little yellow Post-it® note. The process of reading and responding can create "inline discussions" which afford an opportunity for netizens to communicate with each other. Though the posts appear to be on the Web site, they are actually stored on Third Voice's server.

Third Voice has been greeted with great enthusiasm by many commentators because it seems to herald a rebirth of the old spirit of the Net. Enthusiasts once believed that access to cyberspace would usher in a new era of equality and participatory democracy. As the first truly interactive mass medium, the Net had the ability to free people from being largely passive consumers of information doled out by the established mass media. Everyone could become both a reader and a publisher, a viewer and a broadcaster. Before the explosion of users attracted by the World Wide Web and the graphical interface of the Web browser, the Internet was a text-based medium that facilitated communication through electronic mail, bulletin boards, newsgroups, and listservs. It also provided other useful functions such as remote logins and FTP downloads as well as proprietary services, available from CompuServe, Prodigy and America Online. Being online became exciting for Internet enthusiasts as forums and conferences developed through these channels.

The ability to exchange information online was particularly important because it could create virtual communities. These communities were grounded in conversation. A conversation is not a finished product, but an ongoing process. Any bit of dialogue in the middle of a conversation is open at both ends: it responds to what has gone before and looks forward to a response. Whether it is conducted on the Net in real time or asynchronously, it still feels alive and spontaneous. The Internet seemed like a new space, a Cyberspace, in which free flowing egalitarian communities could be built, grounded on the ability of their members to engage in ongoing interactive conversations [ 2].

Then came the invention of the Web. Originally conceived as a better way to enable scientists to distribute their research, it evolved beyond the scientific community and became the most popular part of the Internet. Indeed, most people today define the Internet as the Web and e-mail. While the old Internet centered around conversations, the Web-based Internet centers around presentations. By "presentations" we mean a published book, a dramatic or musical performance, a television program, an advertisement, and the like. A presentation is based on a script, can be repeated without losing its essential qualities and - most important - is intended for an audience. While there are brilliant conversationalists, conversations are essentially egalitarian. Presentations deploy some of the same skills used in conversation, but they call for additional aptitudes and abilities. Unlike good conversations, good presentations require special talents and demand expertise. They are fundamentally not egalitarian.

Presentations require an audience, and an audience is ordinarily not expected to participate in the presentation. The audience expects to be entertained, informed, inspired, awed, manipulated or energized. The Web is structured by formal presentations that are the product of thought and deliberation. Web sites are open to all, but they limit freedom and expression by audiences. Movement within a site appears to be free, but only a structured freedom is present. Some Web sites allow for interaction, but the interaction is strictly limited. Some even have space for the audience to communicate with each other, but such communication occurs only where and when the Web designer establishes it. Content can be censored, removed or otherwise controlled by the designer or those who own the site. Most Web sites are intended to sell, entertain, inform, influence or persuade those who log onto them.

Despite all the hype about interactivity, Web browsers are also largely responsible for transforming the Net into a relatively passive medium, considerably less active than claimed by those who celebrate the Web as a spectacular breakthrough in interactivity. Users need only point and click their mice, much like the proverbial couch potatoes point and click their television remotes.

Were it not for the invention of the Web browser we doubt that the Internet ever would have become a truly mass medium. Web pages are far more suitable to a mass audience than are text-based conversations. It takes less effort to flit from presentation to presentation as the spirit moves you than to engage in a conversation. Participating in a conversation often requires initiative and attentiveness, whether on the Internet or in the real world.

Third Voice promises to bring back a sense of spontaneity and freedom to the Net, which the Web's structured presentations seem to have dissipated. Third Voice users no longer have to accept Web sites at face value: they can add their own critical comments. Impromptu discussions can arise at any Web site, beyond the control of the site's owners or designers. These discussions can be fully public, or they can be restricted to members of particular groups, such as students enrolled in a course, subscribers to a journal, or residents of real world neighborhoods or communities.

At first blush there seems to be little reason to object to Third Voice. It's a free browser enhancement. It does not alter the content of a Web site, and its commentaries are visible only to those who wish to see them. Yet we must also remember that as the Internet became popular, it became evident that many users found it too difficult to engage in civil conversations online. Flame wars took the place of conversations, and multitudes of habitués of newsgroups dropped out. It looks as though what turned off so many thoughtful adults who had once enjoyed participating in online conversations may happen again with Third Voice. In its first few months of operation Third Voice has mostly produced spam, humorless graffiti, hyperlinks to pornographic sites and flame wars, though there have been reports of more edifying uses of the software. Public conversations using Third Voice, at least so far, have operated mostly like raucous chat rooms, hardly inspiring examples of the possibilities for human communication generated by new technology [ 3]. Still, liberal democrats contend that conversations about matters of civic interest (as well as other forms of civic participation) improve the quality of public life, at least over the long term.

Needless to say, however, not everyone is nostalgic for the old days. Those who create the presentations that form the core of the new Internet resent a new technology which, in effect, allows the audience to paint mustaches on their masterpieces. Indeed, Third Voice hardly had been released, when a "Say No to TV" group [ 4] dominated by Webmasters and Web designers sprang after it [ 5]. This group states that "Our goal is to stop this software from being distributed until they redesign it so you have to ask permission from a Web site before you can post to it" [ 6]. The group charges Third Voice with a multitude of sins that include everything from using excessive bandwidth to violating the privacy rights of their customers. The site is also replete with examples of nasty, stupid or otherwise distasteful postings that "Say No" volunteers have uncovered on prominent Web sites such as those of Dell, CNN, Yahoo, Apple, ESPN and (gasp) even the White House.

Of course visitors are no more obliged to view Third Voice postings than they are to view the teaser pages of Web pornographers. The postings are not visible unless a visitor has signed up with Third Voice and has chosen to open them. The site does not include examples of nasty postings on Web pages for which the "Say No to TV" designers claim credit. To take an uncharitable view of their interest, they seem most concerned with protecting the ability of established companies and power brokers to protect themselves from criticism. The criticism may be stupid or distasteful, but it is hardly democratic to forbid it, especially when it is visible only to those who choose to look for it.

The whole controversy is really beside the point. Third Voice or similar browser companions, such as Gooey, [ 7] are unlikely to amount to much because they require initiative on the part of users. All mass media have been based on the simple fact that users want something from the content providers. They rely on their expertise. There have always been some who care to express themselves in various ways. They write letters to the editor, call in to radio talk shows, take to the streets to protest their commitments, but the overwhelming majority have been content to pay attention to what is offered, or simply to turn aside and seek some other way of spending their time. Third Voice assumes that the Internet is a genuinely different mass medium through which people really want to speak in their own voice individually, as distinct from having someone speak for them, the traditional function of intellectuals, politicians, and revolutionaries.

Today there is a debate between Internet advertisers about how Net surfers experience the Web [ 8]. One group argues that they are "passive," and the Web experience is really a variant of television viewing. The other contends that they are "active." This group insists that they don't watch the Net, rather they use it. While the debate has implications for advertising and the structuring of commercial Web sites, whichever side is right - and there is no reason to believe that only one side must be right - the Web experience for the overwhelming majority of users is not genuinely interactive, nor do they want it to be. Even those who are active users of the Net basically want to get what Web sites have to offer, and we doubt that they will spend their valuable time sifting through irrelevant and silly postings. Of course some will, but for Third Voice to make a significant impact on the Internet rather than become a minor niche product, millions of people would have to find the experience of reading such postings useful. We would be surprised if this happened. The future of the Internet does not lie in recovering its more egalitarian and participatory past. It has become a mass medium and as such major content providers will dominate it.

About the Authors

Michael Margolis and David Resnick are professors of political science at the University of Cincinnati and co-authors of Politics as Usual: The Cyberspace Revolution, forthcoming from Sage Publications, Inc. in January 2000.


1. As of this writing (August 11, 1999) Third Voice is available only for Microsoft Explorer 4.0 and 5.0, but Macintosh and Netscape clients are promised; see

2. Howard Rheingold, 1993. The Virtual Community: Homesteading on the Electronic Frontier. Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley.

3. Janelle Brown, 1999. "Dangling Conversations," Salon (July 7), at

4. (visited 13 August 1999).

5. Teddy Pastras, Web Designer, quoted in Chris Oakes, 1999. "The Web's New Graffiti?" Wired News (20 July), (visited 13 August 1999).

6. See the mission statement at


8. John Buskin, 1999. "Online Persuaders," Wall Street Journal (July 12), p. R12.

Contents Index

Copyright © 1999, First Monday

Third Voice: Vox Populi Vox Dei? by Michael Margolis and David Resnick
First Monday, volume 4, number 10 (October 1999),