Top 10 worst things about the web

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Top 10 worst things about the web

For every way that the web has improved in life, it has also made things more complicated, frustrating and dangerous.

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One can't uninvent technological breakthroughs, nor should one. Fire has been tremendously useful to humanity over the millennia, but tell that to the victims of an arsonist.

Cars have freed us from the tyranny of distance but still kill hundreds of thousands each year.

Let's now take a look at some of the worst things from the web.

10. Overcommercialisation

Shaun Nichols: At times, navigating the web can be a lot like walking through a giant bazaar of overenthusiastic street vendors and desperate used car salesmen.

While life in big cities such as London and San Francisco isn't exactly short of ad placements, it pales in comparison to the barrage of banner ads and pop-ups that accompany some sites.

Imagine walking down the street, and every time you pass a store front, someone jumps out and waves a flyer in your face or waves around an airline ticket or just leaps in your face and screams "you may have colon cancer and not even know it!"

In the book "Spook Country," William Gibson wrote about a character who was so tired of advertisements that the mere sight of a company logo or trademark made her physically ill. I know the feeling. Sometimes my trusty AdBlock tool is about the only thing keeping my lunch down.

Part of this is just economics - when you're giving content away for free, you have to make revenue other ways, usually through ads. While I have no problem with site hosts and content providers trying to make a living off of their work, the whole process becomes very, very tiring sometimes.

Iain Thomson: Marc Andreessen once told me that Tim Berners-Lee called him up when he was developing the browser and gave him an earful for including the ability to include pictures on the internet. After my daily bombardment of adverts I can begin to see his point.

Few things on the web are as annoying as adverts, and we've all got our pet hates. Personally it's the adverts that play video at deafening volume as soon as they load, which in the past has led to a mouthful of tea going over a keyboard in surprise.

While there are now thankfully plug-ins to extract most advertisements from browsers the ad boys and girls are constantly on the look-out for new ways to bypass them. Their argument is that they are just obeying clients orders and opening up opportunities that readers may not have known about. Personally I call this the Yuppie Nuremberg defence - “I vas only paying zee mortgage.”

Shaun quotes Gibson so I shall return the favour and point to Neil Stephenson. A quick trawl through 'Snow Crash' and 'The Diamond Age' will show you very plausible examples of where this is going. As technology improves and we carry more and more technology that can identify us advertising is going to become more intrusive, with increasingly sophisticated personalisation of adverts.

He also raises a very good point however. Advertising pays the bills for most online content and as people are still unwilling to pay for it themselves the adverts are keeping the whole web running semi-profitably. It would be a poorer, smaller web if it wasn't for the adverts. I just wish advertising executives would learn the value of the rapier over the cudgel.

9. Overexposure

Shaun Nichols: Twitter, Facebook, Yelp, MySpace, LinkedIn, YouTube… we have become a society that is rapidly losing any sort of comprehension of the term "too much information."

The obsession with social networking and sharing has created a class of people whose sole desire is to become broadcast all over the web, a group some online gossip sites have deemed "fameballs." When Jim Carey made "The Truman Show" ten years ago, the idea of broadcasting a person's entire life was scary and surreal, these days it has its own term - lifecasting.

It's ironic that people get so paranoid about the government tracking people through RFID and CCTV devices. Heck, half the population is already pretty much begging others to track them online.

Iain Thomson: In some ways the services Shaun mentions are an irritant, but they can serve a useful purpose. Last Christmas I was due to attend a party and found it had been cancelled. My partner tweeted the news and we all got together anyway in another venue.

But this is a rare case. It's a sad but inescapable fact that most people's lives are just too dull to be worth all of the broadcasting going on. Do I care that a friend of a friend has just had a great cup of tea? Not in a million years, and I wish he'd just shut up about it.

But I think we're going to be facing something of a backlash against this sort of thing. Social networking sites in particular seem to come in and out of fashion on a two or three year cycle. MySpace is losing ground now but who remembers its predecessor Friendster? Facebook is proving more popular but I think these things have their half life.

8. Conspiracy theories

Shaun Nichols: While the internet did a great service by allowing everyone to engage in intelligent discussion and debate, it also created a giant annoyance by giving a platform to every raving lunatic capable of typing the phrase "wake up, sheeple."

Conspiracy theories were around long before the web, but only in recent years have they gone from amusing to annoying. Probably because, on the internet, the person with the most time on their hands will often get the most exposure, and conspiracy theorists tend to have a lot of time on their hands.

The anonymity afforded by the internet doesn't help things either. In real life, the whack-jobs are usually easy to spot, particularly when they're standing behind tables full of leaflets and wearing big crazy hats and buttons. On the web, it's far easier for the conspiracy theorists to sneak into comment threads or blogs and spew their bizarre theories on an unsuspecting public.

Worst of all, these crazy conspiracy theories about the moon landing or a flat earth take away from the really important stuff, like the widespread conspiracy to get Steve Wozniak removed from 'Dancing with the Stars.'

Iain Thomson: Misery may love company but insanity does as well, and the web is full of whack-jobs who really shouldn't be allowed out of a comfortable rubber room with no sharp implements.

Sure, conspiracy theorists have always been around but the web has given them a communications tool far beyond handing out leaflets in public places before returning to their long-suffering families. Sadly, being in communication with those of a similar persuasion only re-enforces their fears and makes them more sure of what is right and how 99.9 per cent of the population is wrong.

Conspiracy theorists can be actively harmful. A case in point is the September 11th atrocity. I'm with Bill Maher on this one, conspiracy theorists have latched onto some wild and wacky theories that can be used to divert attention from the serious mistakes made in the run up to the Twin Towers falling.

Oh, and Shaun, face it, Woz is going to get chucked off 'Dancing with the Stars' with a convenient leg injury because the television companies know he'll win no matter what because we geeks love him. However they need to maintain the illusion that this is a show about dancing, not a crude popularity contest.

Besides, Woz knows too much about how Steve Jobs is in fact the hereditary leader of the Illuminati of Bavaria and will use Safari's capability for subliminal advertising to imprint our minds with...

7. Memes

Shaun Nichols: Okay, so every generation has its irritating memes. Smiley-face stickers, "Frankie Says Relax" shirts and the phrase "Don't have a cow, man" all come to mind. But there's just something far more prevalent, annoying, and just flat out stupid about internet memes.

One only needs to frequent a social networking site, discussion board, or online game for a few days before sooner or later a stupid meme will crawl into your consciousness and poke at your sanity to the point where you find yourself captioning kitten photos with the words "I can haz frontul lobotomy?"

With the wisdom of collective groups comes the utter stupidity of large groups of people as well. Fortunately, memes come and go fast enough that they usually avoid leaving any sort of real lasting damage, right? k thx bye.

Iain Thomson: Damn you Shaun, you stole my punchline!

The inventor of the term meme Richard Dawkins points out that they serve a very useful evolutionary purpose. They do, if not in the way that he suggested. Instead, they make me want to castrate some of their originators.

Memes have always existed, but they were usually confined to the pub bore who would bang on about something they'd got a bee in their bonnet about. For a period after 'Waynes World' came out for example there was always some git who used the word 'Not' to show how clever they were. The web has made the power of them much more effective.

While some memes are useful the majority are not, except in the case of identifying those you should be careful to avoid.

6. Stalking

Iain Thomson: One of the downsides of the web is that we all leave little electronic fingerprints on it during day-to-day use. This has made personal data a lot more accessible to people who want it.

On the positive side this has enabled old friends who may have lost contact to get back in touch. A lot of old school mates, university chums and former colleagues can now find you with a simple search.

The downside of this is that a lot of people from school who you never wanted to see again (unless the meeting involved a tall tower, a high-powered sniper rifle and a bad Monday), fellow alumni who you were happy to see the back of and ex-staff who made your working day a trial can also get back in contact.

Even worse are the pinnacle of the problem, stalkers. These people use the web to troll for information about their victims, use email to bombard them with messages and generally make their lives a living hell. As more information gets online then their twisted job gets easier and easier.

The legal process is catching up with these people however. It's now common to ban convicted stalkers with electronic contact with victims. Best of all, the stalkers themselves leave digital footprints and these can be used to protect those who suffer from their ministrations.

In the long term privacy rules will curtail the reach of these sick people, but in the meantime it is going to be a rocky road for their victims.

Shaun Nichols: When out at the club or walking through the park, one doesn't usually greet a stranger by rattling off the names of their children, pets, year of graduation and neighbourhood of residence.

That sort of information, however, is fairly easy to find on the web through such things as social networking profiles. For every tool that makes it easier to track down old co-workers and classmates, the ability for dangerous individuals to track their victims also becomes easier.

The most disturbing trend seems to be with teenagers. As just about everyone seems to believe in their own invincibility between the ages of 15 and 24, the idea of handing over very personal information to strangers or casual online friends is given little thought by many kids. This is already leading to some very tragic and frightening stories.

There are some basic protections people can put in place to protect themselves, however. Simple things such as restricting access to a Facebook page or keeping a secondary e-mail address are simple ways to put another barrier of protection between yourself and a potential stalker.

It's still a case of trying to put the genie back into the lamp, however, and the fact remains that it is far easier to stalk someone today than it was twenty years ago.

Read on to page two for the top five!

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