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The O.J. Trial Comes Online

A debate on CourtTV during the OJ trial

In Chapter 2 of what I’m calling my complete history, I traced one of the most massive shifts in the history of the web to 1995, a transformative year, it turns out, not just for technology but for the United States generally. A year that, incidentally, also included the trial of O.J. Simpson.

To say that the trial of O.J. Simpson changed the cultural trajectory of the United States would be an understatement, and this post is in no way an attempt to chart that trajectory. The effects, and after-effects, of that trial have been well documented, parsed and continue to be central in debates about our society. It is highly unlikely that we will ever fully understand its impact.

But what I’d like to focus on is a much narrower result of the O.J. trial. This is, after all, a website about the web, and the trial changed the web in many of the same ways it changed the entire media landscape. It was the spark that ignited a seismic shift for media and news, both news more generally and the larger collection of institutions and ideologies that makes up what we often think of as “The News.” Capital-m Media was, by the time of the trial’s proceedings, an industry already in transition from a once or twice daily dose of updates across a few different mediums to a near-infinite stream of 24/7 news cycles brought across an expanding network of channels and sources that dealt in audience retention and, at times, all out sensationalism. The O.J. Simpson trial did not cause any of this. But it was the new media model’s first major dress rehearsal. And it went off in spades.

A debate on CourtTV during the OJ trial
CourtTV would bring on pundits like these to argue about the particulars of the trial. Photo LA Times

It started in 1994, when CNN and Court TV, both still relatively minor players in a battle for growing television audience’s attention, made a risky decision at the beginning of the trial. They shifted most of their airtime to coverage of the trial, day and night, with live footage from inside the courtroom, endless analysis from pundits, and recaps aired throughout the day. They wouldn’t be the only channels on television to glob on to the spectacle. But they did certainly lean in to the concept at a time when no one knew if the world was ready for that kind of programming. I mean, who would want to watch the news all day?

In the end, their bet paid off. Millions of viewers turned from their regular television consumption to watch day after day in real time as the trial unfolded, one dramatic turn after another. And when the television barrage proved to be not quite enough, scores of digitally-minded viewers turned to the web.

During the trial proceedings, the New York Times called it the “first trial of the digital century.” It’s unlikely that online media, news distribution, and public discourse on the web would look the way it does today without the O.J. trial. It sparked an insatiable demand from a ravenous consumer base, backed by some of the highest stakes this country has ever seen. Put simply, everybody wanted to talk about the trial. And the web offered the perfect place to have that conversation, and make every participant an active one. The trial wasn’t the first media sensation of all time. But the web helped make it one of the biggest.

First came the news organizations hoping to make a play for this new digital audience. CNN had got its start in the 80’s, but it was the events of the Gulf War in the early 1990’s that elevated the channel to a household name. Hoping to capitalize on their growing popularity, they shifted their attention to the web with a centralized hub that gathered all of their O.J. coverage into a single webpage (which is amazingly still active today). The page was crude and haphazardly updated, but it was the first of its kind. As more platforms moved to the web, the experience would become much more refined at a near rapid clip.

The website’s crude design didn’t do much, but it was packed with information

Next up was a new generation of digital publications, native to the web themselves and much more in-tune with the needs of a web-based audience. Yahoo quickly followed CNN with an oft-updated hub of their own. Pathfinder, Time Inc’s earliest foray into a digital world and their answer to more traditional news publications, hosted a page dubbed “O.J. Central” on their site which garnered a million views a week. In 1994. They updated frequently throughout the day, not bound by traditional media schedules. But their key insight was to turn the trial into a conversation. Sites began using the web as a platform for discussion, through open message boards, comment threads and engaging posts and articles that left room for interpretation and response. Perhaps none more famously than Salon.

Salon, which got is digital start towards the end of 1995 and just weeks after the trial’s verdict came down, featured a roundtable discussion on race relations in the wake of that verdict in as part of their very first issue. Contained within was the kind of outside the box coverage that Salon would soon become notorious for. Salon understood something fundamental about early users of the web. They didn’t just want more useless noise. They wanted to be a part of the conversation, and a roundtable discussion offered the opportunity for just that. During a time of endless speculation, Salon offered the starting point for an ongoing conversation that could spread through the web’s many mechanisms of discussion. If not for their coverage of the trial, Salon may not have enjoyed the same level of success early on.

Yet even the abundance of information that permeated news-backed platforms online proved not nearly enough. The web, after all, is far from a passive medium. In many ways, it was primed for such a spectacle. At least in theory, the web was built to give everyone a voice. Anyone could publish a website, or post a theory, or toss around unsubstantiated claims and speculation.

The web was built and spread by a group of starry-eyed technology who believed deeply in an utopian vision for the future. A future were diverse experiences connected and coalesced in unique intellectual exchanges. Digital conversations would lead the world to a place of shared understanding and empathy. Few were naive enough to believe that this rose-colored future was inevitable, or even possible, they simply believed strongly in its ideological premise. It would be entirely too reductive for me to say that his vision failed completely. Even today, there are those that work tirelessly to make it a reality. But ultimately, there was a flip side to that vision, a different version of the web that bore out, one that exposed users of the web to a much more hostile environment.

You might see where I’m going with this.

As the trial marched on, certain corners of the web filled up with independent investigations, amateur analysis, and in some cases, full-on conspiracy theories with little basis in reality. Suddenly, everyone had an opinion. Actually, everyone already had an opinion. The web simply offered a way to broadcast that opinion to the entire world.

New homepages dedicated to in-depth conjecture sprung up every day. Some were quite elaborate too, even more polished than major media websites, but they were filled with psuedo-expertise and pixelated images and of course, wild and unsubstantiated speculation. People took to message boards to volley new theories back and forth, dissecting ad infinitium each and every moment of the trial, on the hunt for something deeper, something more, always more.

One such amateur web hub that collected articles, photos and coverage into one centralized web page.

The O.J. trial existed in a culturally fragile moment. But it also made people take sides. And when that happened, the web simply amplified existing opinions and became nothing more than a way for people to dig in the trenches. In the worst cases, users would log on to message boards or comment sections and spew the kind of hate and vitriol that likely feels common place these days. Attacks became, unfortunately, personal in nature and rarely grounded in civility. It was the original vision of the web flipped on its head. Instead of a place of reasonable discourse and knowledge transference, it became the staging ground for hostile opinions and sometimes even abusive attacks.

As the trial winded down, so did the online discussion. The news, and the country, moved on to other things. But it left behind a lesson. At its best, the web is a powerful place of learning and innovation and imagination and sharing. It has enabled revolutions, given voices to the voiceless and democratized entire industries. But it has an equal and opposite potential. Especially during a major and divisive spectacle, the web can feed into our short attention spans and, in some cases, mistrust. When we build the web, this darker side should always be a consideration.