Like the silicon valley booster who reluctantly acknowledges that traffic “may have gotten out of hand,” even the most sanguine observer of the Net has to admit: there is just too much stuff out there.
This overload is taking a toll in the amount of time users spend online, and affecting their loyalty to the Net in the first place. Web surfing has turned to web surfeit.
“Internet time” has a new meaning: whereas conventional advertising took at least a decade to wreck the promise of TV in its Golden Age, it has taken only five years, from the invention of the browser, to reduce the Internet to blather.
The commercialization of the Web is a process gone out of control. In the early 1990s, the National Science Foundation permitted commercial research facilities to hook up to the publicly-funded Internet, on grounds that cross-fertilization with academic research units would advance the national scientific initiative. For the most part, companies permitted to access the Net as “.com’s” honored this privilege and refrained from promotions.
How things have changed. And not for the better.
Ironically e-merchants’ efforts to make their websites stand out are largely responsible for the glut of information on the Web that serves no one and harms us all.
There was a time not very long ago, for example, when a user could enter a phrase in Alta Vista, Excite, or Lycos and be rewarded with three distinctive lists of online resources. Today, lists from the traditional search engines and newer entrants like Hotbot are virtually identical.
This is because thousands of businesses, large and small, employ software tricksters to confound the search engines. These hired confusionaries play with website metatags and other devices to elevate their client’s URLs within search-engine listings. With almost every business engaged in this practice, the result is referral lists composed exclusively of commercial URLs.
Uninteresting in its own right, this clutter has squeezed out noncommercial, volunteer-produced directories, link pages, and weblogs that performed the essential task of covering specific topics and fields of interest.
Most users have reduced their use of search engines. And search engines that do not apply human filters or limit their listings are being abandoning en masse.
Even long-time Net users who remain skeptical regarding the value of abridged information are turning to Yahoo!, LookSmart, and Ask Jeeves! to satisfy their research requirements. These information resources may be partial and seriously incomplete, but at least their results are actionable. The same cannot be said for the traditional search engines.
Bookmarks have also become a quaint but useless artifact of simpler times. Before the Great Gross Out, a user could get his or her arms around a field of interest by collecting key bookmarks freely offered by colleagues. Today, the user needs special applications just to manage his or her own plethora of bookmarks.
Organizing bookmarks has become a full-time occupation. Nearly forgotten is bookmarks’ original purpose: to map an individual’s personal experience of the Net. HotLinks.com is a startup that wants to make bookmark and link sharing the basis of online communities, but it faces an uphill fight as its website too is buried beneath a pile of nothingness.
The billboarding of the Internet is only one aspect of online glut. A bewildering supply of e-newsletters and viral promotions, pitched as an antidote to spam, is emailed daily to online captive audiences.
This deluge is based on supposedly long-standing relationships between the user and the companies he or she keeps. Too often, however, these relationships consist of nothing more than an opt-out check mark inadvertently left off a personalization form.
The Web, like all human phenomena, is chaotic. Any attempt to induce or compel order, for example by creating new business entities and services to homestead the Wild, Wild Web – and then advertising them profusely – only makes the chaos worse. The existence of eight large online sellers of dog and cat food makes the point.
Now the “click-and-mortar” generation is getting ready to wade in; this will only make digiglut worse.
The Net’s original purpose, to facilitate communication among human beings, along with its quirky, individualistic character, are being rendered irrelevant or lost altogether.
Millions of Web sites selling real estate, toothbrushes, and CD-ROMs tell banal stories, without passion or purpose. Banner ads and “great deals” are all that remains. Is online communitas dead already?
Who’s going to use all this informational bric-a-brac? As a new millennium dawns, this is The Question That May Not be Asked, Let Alone Answered. The Net, the Web, and their users are sinking in virtual quicksand; and no one can hear us scream.