There’s a lot to love about the Internet – pictures of cats, stories about cats, cat videos, cat-shaped baked goods, cat message boards – and that’s just the stuff for dog people! There’s literally an entire world’s worth of information out there on the Web, and it’s a great place to collaborate, research, or just goof off. But the Information Superhighway is an imperfect masterpiece, a deeply flawed machine that has forever altered society and global culture in many ways that are not at all positive. In fact, there are a number of very good reasons that the Internet is sucky, awful, and just plain scary…
10. You’re never safe.
A friend of mine decided to Google himself the other day, since his inbox alerts about his own name had dried up. On the first page, he found some social network profiles, links to pages listing his awards and accolades, and his personal information, including his email, address and phone number on a website he didn’t recognize.
If you’re not familiar with a whois site, it’s basically a way to look up the official ownership of a given webpage. Many domain name services offer a blocker for this, so my friend thought that his information was kept private. But when he renewed his domain name, he didn’t know that the whois blocker was now a separate cost. Lucky guy that he is, he was unable to find contact info for the owner of the whois site, so if you Google his name today, one of the first things you’ll find is his personal information. He’s paid for the blocker services now, but there’s no way of knowing how long that the data will be out there.
While one could make the argument that it’s no different than being listed in a phone book, consider how many people have access to the information in a phone book (those in that region/city) and how many use it (barely anyone). Meanwhile, the Internet is global and has publicly traded information readily available. And in this case, it comes up immediately as a result for his specific name on the first page of results on the most popular search engine anywhere.
9. You’re never secure.
Having to create and remember a multitude of different passwords for different websites can be exhausting, leading to a complex system of spreadsheets and notebooks and vaults and more passwords. So, most people stick to the same one for everything. Which is dumb.
What’s even dumber is that most passwords aren’t made very well. This post about password hacking from 2007 is just as effective now as it was then, since many people don’t consider things like online banking, shopping or bill pay are worth the extra security of a phrase besides “IloveMuffins.” Which is also their username. Regardless of network security levels, no one’s helping anyone by making their password “password.”
But even if you have a secure password, you can still have your account hacked, as PlayStation Network customers found out not too long ago. This led to the suggestion that we should move from passwords to more advanced methods, like eyeball and fingerprint scans. The argument becomes worse when one remembers that the body scans still require data to be transmitted, and since data is what the hackers would get anyway, this now means that they have another layer of identity theft to perpetuate. Right now, there’s no way to make sure that anything you have online is safe from hackers, which gets worse once you think about cloud computing, where all of your data is shared through a digital network; one weak security link in that chain, and all of the content is exposed.
8. Everyone is lying.
During middle school and a couple of years of high school, I played in an online text-based RPG where we played as Dragonball Z characters (don’t judge me). One of the rules was that each person could only play as one character. At one point, my alliance in the game needed additional manpower, so we decided that I would have a “brother” who wanted to play as well. No one even questioned it.
During my Freshman year of college, hundreds of my classmates joined a new site called “Facebook” and received friend requests from an attractive woman whom none of them had met before. It turned out that “she” was a couple of frat guys who had figured out how to make a fake account.
The Internet was established as an anonymous safe haven (remember screen names?) where people could come and go as they pleased without the web interfering in their personal lives. The advent of social networking has pushed “real life” interactions on the Web to a more prominent level, but it is still easy to create fake data to mess with people, steal information, or make a decent documentary/thriller. There’s no accountability.
Of the bloggers I’ve met in person through our online interactions, at least 50% of them are different in personality and demeanor than their writing and communications might suggest. In some cases, they alter their personalities; in others, they act as their ideal selves to hide any flaws. To a degree, we all do this on the Internet. Since we don’t have any incentive to “keep it real,” there’s no ethical violation when someone isn’t authentic, unless they’re caught.
7. Your relationships don’t end.
I recently purchased a cell phone that synced up with my social networking data to give me a live feed of everyone’s status updates. This had the unintended consequence of also syncing all of the phone numbers that people listed on their Facebook pages to my phone’s directory. My contacts list tripled, and I noticed that most of the new numbers were for people with whom I have not spoken in several years. What’s worse, the software forbade me from removing them from my contacts page unless I deleted them from my social networking profiles, so I ended up un-syncing my accounts, wiping my phone directory, and manually re-entering everyone’s info.
I went through this whole process, of course, because I collect friends online. Even though I could care less about the lives of at least 1/5 of my social networking buddies, I check their status updates and wish them a happy birthday because they’re part of a number that I know within my heart does nothing to improve my social proof. I’ve kept on people who I could barely tolerate in high school, exes, random people I don’t even know, and acquaintances I met once on vacation. And you probably do this too.
Instead of focusing on those who really matter to us, the opportunity to “know” and be known by more people is a more tantalizing prospect. The larger the number of people we know of overall, the more the value of our actual friendships diminishes. It creates an imbalance among the three rings of socialization.
6. There’s too much content.
Did you know that two days’ worth of videos are uploaded to YouTube every minute? Because that’s a stone-cold fact. That’s one year of content in just over three hours. Even discounting duplicates of stuff that’s already on there, there’s at least one day’s worth of new lipdubs, cat videos and horrible “parody” songs in less time than it takes to download an album off of iTunes.
Similarly, take a look at the number of returned results the next time you search for something online. Chances are, the number will be well over 1,000 different entries and pages (and over 30,000 for more common items) for a rudimentary search. The amount of data and web space dedicated to even the most trivial things, like Owen Wilson’s nose (12,200+) and what’s in a hot dog (140,000+) is astounding.
You can find almost anything on the Internet, but it only works well if you have a clear idea of what you’re looking for. Otherwise, you’ll be bogged down by an endless stream of tangentially related sites as you fervently click through each link to find the one bit of information that you need. And since nothing is ever really deleted from the Web and the Internet itself is without content moderation, that means that the problem will only get worse.
5. It’s necessary, but in a ‘drug addict’ way.
Travel agencies are long since gone. Most of the Borders bookstores have closed down. Tower Records and Circuit City are a thing of the past. And the reason that many brick-and-mortar stores are going the way of the dodo is due to the Internet.
A bit of business 101: when the consumer can get the same thing for less money, they don’t care if they have to wait a bit longer for it. That’s why warehouse sales sites like Amazon and direct company-to-consumer sites like those of most airlines have flourished. There’s less overhead (physical store and the bills associated with it), fewer employees to pay (no stores = no workers in those stores) and the same profit margin, if not greater (items can be sold at cost or in bulk with no contract to negotiate a lower cost like in retail stores), so manufacturers have every incentive to push their products online more than in stores, which means that over time, there will be many more goods and services that can only be purchased over the Internet.
Then, there’s media items. Netflix takes up more bandwidth in the US than any other site, service or activity. People are getting more used to paying for digital music. Thanks to the Kindle, Nook and iPad, Ebooks are selling like hotcakes. Heck, even the video game industry is planning on pushing download-only games on their next generation of consoles. That means that the majority of home entertainment will be purely digital (unless converted by the consumer into physical media) and available for download online. After all, it’s much cheaper to have one copy that can be downloaded indefinitely than creating thousands or millions of copies that need to be re-issued when sales are booming.
However, media companies are charging the same for a digital copy as they are for a physical one. Their profit margins are sufficiently higher, and with a decrease in options for consumers, this means that you’ll need to use the Web for entertainment, or be stuck with older content. And don’t think that the Internet providers aren’t aware of this – they’ve figured out how to net themselves a tidy profit from all of us hungry entertainment addicts…
4. It moves faster than we do.
Do you remember Ted Williams, “The Man With the Golden Voice”? He was the homeless radio announcer who became a viral sensation (as The Today Show called it), received gainful employment from a large number of companies, was revealed to have been an addict with an arrest record, and went into rehab thank to the advice of Dr. Phil…ALL IN ONE WEEK. Which is insane. Think about the last time you had a week that productive and ridiculous. And think about the last time you heard anything about Ted Williams.
Thanks in no small part to the content overload of the Web, we’ve created micro-celebrities with shorter shelf-lives than ever before. Williams is just the most extreme example: a man whose discovery, rise and fall occurred in 1/52nd of a year.
Conversely, Rebecca Black has endured a somewhat lasting popularity (and greater traffic consistency than Mr. Williams) despite having a singing voice that could charitably be described as “exponentially improved by autotune.” Within several days of achieving monster viral status, the song had already spawned over a dozen parody videos so by the time that Stephen Colbert and Jimmy Fallon, the Glee cast and Katy Perry got their hands on it, it was old news. Heck, even the King of Song Parody, Weird Al, is having trouble keeping pace with all the new stuff.
An overabundance of information and choices often leads to distraction. And with the sheer volume of new stuff being added to the Internet every minute (as discussed in #6), it’s far too easy to want to move on to the next new thing as quickly as possible. Once again, there’s no incentive to keep your attention focused on one thing, when you could be looking at ten others in that same span of time. A desire for additional experiences and content drives many Web users into an ADD-like frenzy of content consumption, a game we can’t possibly hope to win. The only outcome is that we pare down our celebrities even further from Ted Williams’ one-week journey until we are living in a world where Andy Warhol’s prophecy about 15 minutes of fame becomes literal.
3. Everyone has a different idea of what the Internet actually is.
If you ask me what the Internet is, I would probably call it a lifesaver. My last three jobs have all been online-only, providing content created for and viewed on the Web. I don’t make anything tangible, unless you print it out.
If you ask my mom the same question, she’ll say it’s a great way to keep in touch with friends and family, even though she won’t add me as a friend on Facebook. My dad would say it’s the thing that costs him about $30 a month. My best friend would call it the thing that lets him blow off steam after work by fragging some guys in a TF2 tournament. Former United States Senator Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) would say that it’s a series of tubes.
Even after making its public debut almost two decades ago, the Internet is still a mystery to many people – is it a communications tool, a new form of commerce, an entertainment engine, or a complete waste of time? It’s such a multi-faceted animal now that it’s almost impossible to find two people who have the exact same understanding of what the Internet actually is and how it works.
That’s why your grandma might think that the Web is best for sending you chain emails and cat pictures. Your boss might not understand why you’re using Wikipedia to look up details for a new project. Your siblings might think you’re an idiot for looking at ragecomics. Because of this, legislators and companies are having a heck of a time figuring out how to regulate and profit off of it. The majority of the government doesn’t understand how the Internet works, so how can they effectively combat piracy and enforce some sort of regulations on it? Heck, they’re letting telecom companies charge you more for using your data because you’re using it. Until we create a definition for the purpose and function of the Internet that is easily understood by the masses, wrangling the many-headed beast known as the Web will be an impossible task.
2. Website translations are rough.
Like I mentioned earlier, I recently purchased a smartphone, and it’s pretty fantastic. All of the apps and features let me do tons of new things, like getting un-lost while driving, checking my email at dinner, and playing Angry Birds while standing in line at the movie theater. Unfortunately, one of the downsides is that a lot of websites look pretty cruddy on its screen.
There are ways around this, of course. Those of you who are reading this blog on your phones now are probably aware that I have a mobile blog-adapting widget thingy that makes it look all purty to those without computer screens. But many websites haven’t made the investment in mobile versions of their pages, leading to the pages rendering oddly, or not at all without voodoo, technical know-how and animal sacrifice.
What’s more, there are plenty of websites that don’t render properly on a normal computer screen, since not all webpages have cross-browser functionality. Everything from your operating system to your browser to your screen resolution and the updates on your system can change if and how you see a website. It’s nearly impossible to tell with absolute certainty that everyone’s seeing the same thing. The size of the text, the alignment of images, the pacing of animations and every other part of how a site looks and works is uncertain. There’s no way to know for sure that everyone is experiencing the same Internet that you are.
1. The Internet is shrinking.
We’re living in the Golden Age of the Internet; net neutrality, the ability to see every part of the Internet with any Web provider, is alive and well. Thousands of people are watching HD movies and TV shows streaming live from their web connections this very instant. Millions of games, programs, apps, widgets, patches and updates are being downloaded while you read this sentence. Unfortunately, this all might go away very soon.
Broadband companies have slowly started placing data caps on their customers’ internet use, something that pretty much every mobile carrier is doing already. Though the current infrastructure already supports unlimited Internet (as we use it now, anyway), the various companies have found it more profitable to limit speeds and bandwidth so they can charge overage fees. Although the caps are high right now (to compete with cap-less competitors), the limits to what one can surf for and enjoy on the Web will slowly become more and more limited. With expanding data use thanks to more high-definition videos, higher-quality songs, more advanced web pages and fancier games, we may soon face an age of Internet retreat, where websites devolve to their earlier forms. If you think this is a good thing, please take a minute to look at the Space Jam website and let me know if you prefer it to most modern pages.
It’s not just limited to the web developers – hardware companies are getting in on the reduction action too. Almost every mobile smartphone company is involved in some sort of lawsuit with their competitors. Although the Apple juggernaut can weather most any legal storm, weaker companies like RIM (Blackberry) and the WebOS folks (Palm, luckily absorbed by HP) might not make it out alive. With a decrease in purchasing options, consumers will have to settle for a limited selection that might move at a glacially slow development pace, more inescapable bloatware, and higher costs for new devices. While it’s understandable that these different companies want to protect their patents and technology, their customers are the ones who will ultimately feel the sting.
Unfortunately, net neutrality might be going away, too. Recently, more and more members of the Federal Communications Commission (who are supposed to provide oversight on all of this Internet stuff) are moving to the private sector after approving corporate maneuvers and mergers, getting cushy positions at the companies they approved. Congress isn’t too impressed with the FCC either, overturning a ruling that the regulatory body made regarding the preservation of net neutrality for reasons that amount to, “nuh uh, that’s our job.” Then again, public opinion might take care of things; some cable news pundits who don’t understand the issue are unwittingly suggesting that their viewers support a closed-off Internet as well.
So when you get right down to it, the World-Wide Web is a reckless, lawless, poorly defined, dangerous place full of liars and cheaters that we’re all addicted to, despite varying levels of visual comprehension and increasing encroachment by corporate interests. It would behoove all of us to take a step back and reduce the power that this medium has over our lives so we can deal with some of its major flaws. If we can spare enough time away from adorable cat pictures, that is.