Is cyberspace finally coming down to Earth?

ST. PAUL: John Broderick, 32, a retail clothing manager at the Mall of America, broadens his CD collection by surfing websites set up by bands and their fans; link hopping has brought new faves like the Dustbunnies and the Celebrators to his attention.

HATTIESBURG, MISS.: Michelle Marion, 22, a psychology grad student, uses the Web to maintain her Young and the Restless addiction by scanning plotlines and character histories at the CBS soap’s home page.

LOS ANGELES: Cindy Kerber, 28, assistant to the supervising producer of Ally McBeal, misses the Web so much from her previous job — researching medical subjects for the writers of Chicago Hope — that she’s finally caving in and going online from home.

The Wired demographic it ain’t, and that’s the point. 1997 has been the year in which mainstream audiences have started seriously kicking the new medium’s tires. None of these three average folks could tell a server from a serviette, but the Internet — particularly the World Wide Web — is now an integral part of their personal and professional lives. According to a U.S. Internet survey conducted by New York-based Emerging Technologies Research Group, there are ”only” 39 percent more adults online in 1997 than in the previous year — bringing the total to 27.7 million — as opposed to a 138 percent increase from 1995 to ’96. But more and more, that audience is logging on for pleasure: Eighty-eight percent of those polled use the Net for personal reasons, versus 56 percent using it for business. And it’s cutting into traditional media: Thirty-five percent say that their TV usage has dropped as a result of going online.

Clearly, there are needs suddenly being filled that people didn’t know they had: starting-point information on literally everything under the sun; backup for established entertainment media like movies, music, and TV; the ability to buy an obscure blues CD at 3 a.m. from a farm in Missouri. And oh, yes, there’s the matter of community. The astonishing online wake for Princess Diana has not only sealed the Internet’s status as combination soapbox/café/wailing wall but also pointed up areas where the mainstream media fall short (think empathy, irony, and inclusion).

The jury’s still out on whether the Internet itself is an entertainment medium. The Hollywood community continues to demonize the Internet in movies while nervously pondering how to make money off it (a tough nut, given that most surfers think it’s free, like permanently). Other areas of multimedia have proved their fun quotient: Videogames are a $3.8 billion business, and if the CD-ROM industry has essentially tanked, titles like Riven, the feverishly awaited sequel to Myst, are still capable of stunning the senses. Cyberspace, however, remains mostly about fun, and the past year has seen entertainment and computer companies alike consolidating their advances and hitting the fire wall of consumer indifference with a resounding splat.

Take Web soaps, which many were pointing to last year as the first mature manifestation of Net entertainment. While there are more of them than ever (over 120, according to Yahoo!), few have anything close to a critical mass of followers, and even American Cybercast, the company behind Melrose Place-in-cyberspace pioneer The Spot, has gone out of business. (Creator Scott Zakarin has resurfaced, as head of programming for Entertainment Asylum, America Online’s soon-to-launch entertainment megalopolis.) The Microsoft Network continues to overhaul its flashy but shallow offerings, while most media conglomerates see the Web as just another arm of the publicity department. ”Unfortunately, no one has yet come up with an ideally suited form of entertainment,” says Mark Hardie, a senior analyst for the consulting group Forrester Research in Cambridge, Mass. ”Everybody’s applying existing models in hopes that some will stick.”