Miscellaneous Ramblings

The World Wide Web at 20: A Medium of Increasingly Trivial Pursuits?

Charles Moore - 2009.03.19 - Tip Jar

This month marks the 20th anniversary of the World Wide Web, conceived in March 1989 by English computer scientist and currently MIT professor and director of the World Wide Web Consortium Tim Berners-Lee, who is credited with inventing the Web when he was working with Geneva, Switzerland-based CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research.

Berners-Lee says he can't recall the precise date.

Actually, it wasn't until Christmas 1990 that Berners-Lee's idea evolved into what would be the blueprint of the World Wide Web, with the first servers and browsers running at CERN, and the network began to propagate in earnest through 1991, at first mainly to other particle physics labs around the World.

Early Internet Experience

It's slightly astonishing at this stage of the game to cognate how short a time it's been. In 1989, I was two years away from getting my first computer of any sort, and I was relatively late logging onto the Internet - a date I do remember precisely - October 31, 1997 - which was the first day that public Web service penetrated this neck of the woods. I had dabbled a bit with bulletin boards, but at long distance telephone rates at the time I couldn't afford to dabble overmuch.

Unfortunately for me, being able to hook up to the Web via dialup over slow, rural copper phone lines has remained the state of the art in my community, although we have been promised wireless broadband access by the end of this year. That's another movie.

What's Become of the Web?

Anyway, I wonder how Mr. Berners-Lee feels about what's become of his brainchild. He has many reasons to be proud of it, but I find it a bit disheartening that such a large proportion of traffic on the World Wide Web is devoted to trivial pursuits like cruising auction sites, gaming and social networking, or downright prurient ones like porn and con games.

According to mobile media research firm M:metrics, top domains by time spent browsing per month with smartphones in the US are in descending order: Craigslist, eBay, MySpace, Facebook, and Disney's go.com, with time spent tallied at an average of 22 minutes on Craigslist, 29 minutes on eBay, 16 minutes on MySpace, 14 minutes on Facebook, and 18 minutes on Go.com on days they visited these sites.

Social Networking

Facebook, which celebrated its fifth anniversary last month, has roughly 175 million users who spend a cumulative total of three billion minutes on the site every day, which must constitute one of the most prodigal and colossal wastes of time in human history. No wonder a lot of people say they are giving up Facebook for Lent this year. In Italy, several Catholic bishops have urged their flocks to take a Lenten break from Facebook, et al.

Facebook is one of the most frequented websites today.

A Nielsen Online survey released March 10 found that 67% of web users frequent social networks and blogs, which now account for 10% of all time spent on the Internet, with one in every 11 minutes online spent on a social-network or blog sites and that while general Internet usage measured in minutes increased by 18%, traffic on "member communities" ballooned by 63% over a single year.

Increasingly Trivial Pursuits

It brings to mind a comment by the late Malcolm Muggeridge (in a different context) about being like building an elaborate exhibition hall for a tiddlywinks tournament. It may even be hazardous to health, and not just conventional concerns about sedentary activities, although that alone is a serious matter. A study by the British Broadcaster Audience Research Board found teenagers now typically spend seven-and-a-half hours a day in front of screens.

However, Oxford University neuroscientist Baroness Susan Greenfield, author of Tomorrow's People: How 21st Century Technology is Changing the Way we Think and Feel, recently briefed the British Parliament on her theory that due to our tech obsession, "the mid-21st-century mind might be almost infantilized . . . into the state of small children who are attracted by buzzing noises and bright lights, who have a small attention span and who live for the moment." Particularly by the psychological effects of social networking, with developing minds being conditioned to process rapid-action instant images, and potentially harming their ability to cope with slower-paced real world social behaviors and interactions off-screen. Lady Greenfield maintains that member communities like Facebook, Twitter, and Bebo shorten attention spans, encourage instant gratification, and make young people more self-centred.

Psychologist Aric Sigman wrote in Biologist magazine that spending long hours online, combined with with watching TV and videos and listening to iPods, is leading to loneliness and alienation that has been linked to diseases such as diabetes, cancer, and dementia.

Wild West or Worldwide Banality?

So I suppose there's a bit of backhanded comfort to be drawn from a weekend commentary by CTV.ca News' Josh Visser, who suggests that Facebook addicts may be getting jaded. In a piece titled "Death by boredom - the slow demise of Facebook", Visser suggests that Facebook's arc of trajectory could be similar to that of the gold rush town of Deadwood, South Dakota, which in the 1870s became a magnet for gunfighters, gamblers (Wild Bill Hickok was killed there at a poker game), and women of ill repute, but subsequently devolved into being "just a tourist trap in boring ole' South Dakota."

Visser notes that Facebook started out much like the old Wild West - "open, kind of barren, but people were free to do as they pleased without much worry of repercussion," with their "ridiculous status updates, embarrassing photos, nasty late-night wall postings," as well as the creation of a news feed in September 2006 that allows users to kibitz what other users are doing - "like picking up a newspaper in the morning and every article was a gossip story about someone you knew."

Whatever floats your boat, I suppose.


However, Visser laments that Facebook has slowly (? - it's only five years old!) evolved into something else that manages to both take up much more of his time and yet bores him in a way it never did before. He summarizes: "You know when you put off logging in to Facebook, the same way you put off taking out the trash, that's not a good sign for something that's supposed to be entertainment."

Ah well, as George Bernard Shaw observed, "Life would be tolerable but for its amusements," or as George MacDonald put it: "You can't live on amusement. It is the froth on water - an inch deep and then the mud." Sorry to sound curmudgeonly. I've never had much interest in Facebook per se (being stuck on dialup makes the process painful - never mind the content), but I do comprehend what Visser is getting at - sort of.

Domesticating the World Wide Web

The early years of the Internet were indeed a bit like the frontier before lawmen tamed it - a free space with few rules and little civilization. Some people found this untamedness exciting and invigorating - others frightening and unsettling. As the late Steve McQueen put it in the revisionist movie western, Tom Horn, the Old West was a "raggedy-assed" place.

The Internet, in its early stages of evolution, is pretty raggedy-assed too. Some like it that way, while others want to hang all the cyber-bandits, domesticate the cyber-Indians, and make the Internet a congenial, orderly, law-abiding place for cyber-bankers, cyber-lawyers, cyber-merchants, and cyber-entertainlers - not to mention cyber-politicians and cyber-tax collectors.

Which is why there's a little tiny bit of me that smiles whenever the hacker fraternity mischievously pricks the balloon. I'm not talking about malicious destruction here, just the welcome deflation of establishmentarian gatekeeping. I'm not philosophically or temperamentally an anarchist, but I do believe that he who governs best governs least.

Can a balance be struck between the soul-deadening oppression of Big Brotherdom and chaotic anarchy? I would like to think so.

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Charles Moore has been a freelance journalist since 1987 and began writing for Mac websites in May 1998. His The Road Warrior column was a regular feature on MacOpinion, he is news editor at Applelinks.com and a columnist at MacPrices.net. If you find his articles helpful, please consider making a donation to his tip jar.

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