Top 10 best things about the web

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Top 10 best things about the web

Today we look back on the best that the web has brought. Beyond just one site or service, this list ranks the best ways in which people have been able to use the internet.

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10. Video

Shaun Nichols: Prior to the web, video was hardly a democratic medium. If you wanted to reach a large audience, you had to own a studio of some sort and have a large enough budget to distribute your creations. For the individual user, videos were more or less an archival tool to collect family memories.

The web changed that by simplifying the means of distribution. Webcam technology and services such as YouTube allowed users to become their own broadcasting station, and video morphed into a communication tool. Video is no longer divided between home movies and studio creations, and there is a solid middle ground which has become occupied by the internet.

This has also changed the way in which studios operate. Independent filmmaking has blossomed over the web, and indie studios are in some cases eschewing theatrical and television deals to work entirely with web video.

Iain Thomson: You can point to many things web video has done, but the most important is the democratisation of online content. Twenty years ago the idea of groundbreaking video was limited to what the networks would show. The footage of Rodney King getting beaten sparked the worst riots America had seen for a generation, but these days such footage is commonplace.

The convergence of cheap digital media and web access have led to shared experiences that shape generations.

This goes twice for events of historical significance. Zapruder's footage of the Kennedy assassination took years to come out in its full detail, but the next one will be around the world in seconds.

9. Humour

Shaun Nichols: One of the most appreciated characteristics of the web is its ability to bring a good laugh. Whether it's a funny video or a nicely written piece of satire, the amount of comedy available on the web is nearly limitless.

Perhaps it's another nice side-effect of the democratisation which the internet affords, as that funny joke or witty observation you heard in the office can be posted online and exchanged with others.

The web has also allowed humour publications such as The Onion and Cracked, which were previously limited to what and where they could distribute as print copy, to expand their readership and greatly advance their content offerings.

Iain Thomson: It is said that humour is the world emotion. I'd agree; life would be poorer without XKCD, LOLCats or the Fail Blog. This has, of course, led to some discord.

Not everyone feels that the same things are funny, and you only have to look at the furore caused by cartoons of Mohammed to see that not everyone enjoys a giggle at the same things.

But humour is an indisputable part of human life, and the web helps export that to all. Laughter is always better than anger.

8. Gaming

Iain Thomson: In the days before the web, computer games enthusiasts were a small cadre of lonely boys and men who spent days alone in their rooms hunched over a keyboard obsessively playing and replaying game scenarios.

With the advent of the web and online games there are now millions of people who still spend hours a day crouched over their computers but they are no longer so lonely, as they can talk and interact with other players online. I know of at least one marriage that has come about between two gaming clan members who would never have talked to each other if it hadn't been for a computer game.

The social nature has also broadened the spread of gamers, so that the gender imbalance is a lot less of a problem than it was. While you could argue that it's better that people who spend 12 hours a day playing World of Warcraft don't breed you'd be wrong; we all need someone to love, and maybe frag occasionally too.

Sociability aside, the ability to play other humans without them being in the same location has also improved gameplay. Even the best computer software can't match the inventiveness, unpredictability and downright devious nature of the human brain.

Shaun Nichols: The immediate benefit from web gaming that comes to mind is the ability for the socially awkward to better connect and enjoy the hobby that has largely isolated them in the first place. The average gaming geek probably has a much larger circle of friends thanks to the web.

But what it has also done is open a new hobby to those who otherwise would have been turned off by the isolation and loneliness. One of the main reasons why online RPGs have sold and thrived better than their local PC and console-based predecessors, is that playing them is no longer a solitary activity.

If you were to tell many of the players out there today that they had to complete quests by themselves or with computer-controlled characters, you would see the gamer ranks thin out substantially.

For other genres, such as first-person shooters, the web also added a completely new challenge and dimension to gameplay. Artificial intelligence for most shooters involves simply tweaking the accuracy reaction times for computer-controlled characters. Playing against a skilled human player is far more challenging and engrossing than simply fragging a bot.

7. History

Shaun Nichols: Historical preservation is one of the more underappreciated aspects of the web. But never before has there been such a powerful vehicle for people to share their collective history not only with new audiences, but more thoroughly with future generations.

Name an important event in history, chances are there is an extensive amount of information on the event the likes of which rivals the mind of any local specialist. Granted, there's also a greater volume of false and misunderstood interpretations on events, but a good researcher will find libraries worth of good information on pretty much any event through the web.

One of my favourite examples is the Denver Public Library, which over the past decade or so has been working to digitise its entire photo archive, containing hundreds of thousands of photos telling the story of the state's history. Galleries which had previously been available only to professional historians are now open online to everyone in the world. Now, even the Brits can learn about local hero Buffalo Bill Cody.

Iain Thomson: As part of my history exams at 18 I spent hours going through census records and historical diaries trying to understand generations that had gone before.

Rather than sitting in front of a microfiche reader, everyone can now examine the records of times past from the comfort of their own home. It's a blessing to future generations.

It will also help future generations understand their forebears. Too much data is stored on paper, microfiche or on discs that are incompatible for reading. The web storage of such data is vital for keeping our history live.

6. Culture

Iain Thomson: One of the most profound consequences of the web has been the plethora of cultures it has spawned and will continue to spawn in the future.

Before the web took off there were already subcultures developing online. Bulletin boards catering to particular interests used their own languages and conventions to spot people who didn't belong, the lack of physicality made for a more egalitarian outlook and users began to experiment with different organisational structures.

Social networking has taken this phenomenon mainstream, and is continuing to affect how people organise themselves today. Take a look at something like Facebook, for example. People now routinely let their friends know about breakups and divorces by clicking a box rather than calling them up or writing a letter.

This has, of course, led to some teething problems. How long into a relationship do you change your status from 'single' to 'in a relationship'? Does putting 'It's complicated' indicate you're just in it for the sex? All these questions are being worked out online.

Moving beyond this, some online networks are already using the idea of received status as a way of ordering within a group. This involves people who do things for the group being publicly recognised by its members, either in the form of an icon with sites like Popbitch, or with awards as the new Quake Live site is trying. It's an interesting take on the old phrase 'By your actions you will be judged', and often a more effective guide to character.

Shaun Nichols: Aside from nurturing and legitimising many subcultures, the web has also led to the creation of entirely new structures and groups.

People now become involved in tight-knit communities developed over a shared interest in an online game, or simply from posting on the same web forum at the same time. Groups are no longer based on a shared proximity. People will routinely tell you that relationships developed online are often more substantial than those shared with co-workers or associates.

This has also changed the way some people view the nature of love and commitment. Some people become smitten with their in-game companions, and the end of a web relationship can devastate some people as deeply as losing a physical friend or partner.

While in extreme cases this can be very bad, it's also hard to argue against anything that can give you a sense of camaraderie with someone on the other side of the planet you would have otherwise never met.

Read on to page two for the top five!

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