Monday, December 21, 2009

Charge Aught!!!: The Best and Worst of Web 2.0

i-m-in-ur-internet-cloging-ur-tubesThe Internet has changed a lot since 2000. Then, everyone’s favorite series of tubes was an interconnected tangle of Comic Sans-blighted Geocities pages mixed with official company Web presences and online stores. Any user could reach out and create their own Web content, but there was no order, no consistency, no organization.

The great sea change came in the form of what people call “Web 2.0,” the point at which the Web became increasingly driven by user-generated content. Consider Wikipedia, which is written, reviewed and edited by individuals from all over the world. Ditto Youtube, and sites like I Can Has Cheezburger – the creators provide the template and the server space, and readers like you provide the updates.

Other new sites slipped in the door with the concept of user-generated content – social networking sites like Facebook and Myspace came in, as did other Flash video sites like Hulu. Some of these Web innovations were welcome, some… well, considerably less so.

In this Charge Aught!!! feature, our considerable writing talent covers the best and worst of the Internet of the new millennium.

squirtthedaisies_01 Rob: I've spent a lot of time on SomethingAwful.com, a Web site whose tagline reads "The Internet Makes You Stupid." It lives up to its name.

SA is a compendium of Web 2.0's worst aspects. I mean, really, take your pick: want to read about the inhabitants of Second Life, Linden Lab's shabby and supremely weird MMO? Read the "Second Life Safari" articles, in which SA staffers (they call themselves "goons") pretty much assume the role of Internet terrorists, hacking the game to send legions of dildos marching across the landscape.

Their "Weekend Web" feature trolls the periphery of the internet for what can charitably be called niche forums. Ever wonder what it's like to have sex with an animal? Wonder no longer. Is racism alive and well in America? Indeed it is!

"Weekend Web" is liable to make you hate yourself, humanity and Al Gore (for inventing the interwebs, of course), but the documented series of ICQ pranks is likely to lift your spirits, as are the Dynamars articles (just click).

I sometimes think of Something Awful as the antithesis to Wikipedia. While the world's largest user-generated encyclopedia is something of a world wonder, Something Awful is proof that we are, as a species, no better than our dog-fucking, racial slur-spewing lowest common denominator.

Shit, I just got all Thomas Hobbes. I'm going to get drunk alone and read about a Neo-Nazi light show.

20080525_evil_laughing_baby Craig: Two words: laughing babies.  They are simultaneously the best and worst thing to come out of Web 2.0.  I could watch this "small daring boy" for hours on end.  In fact, I have.  I'm also a big fan of Ethan and his performance art piece on the death of print journalism.  There's something so primal about these infants' joy.  In our complex digital age, it's refreshing to watch a child amused by next to nothing.

On the flipside, these videos are a menace.  They can claim an entire afternoon, reducing office productivity to dangerous lows unseen since the emergence of Minesweeper.  They also share an undercurrent of exploitation.  I don't believe that the man behind David After Dentist never intended for it to circulate the way it did (they've got a Web site now, did you know that?).  The Internet's more permanent then people realize, and people should consider this before sharing their home movies with the world.  If they don't, I'll be watching their children bite one another over and over and over again.

dinocomics Andrew: I firmly believe that the Sunday funnies died in the mid '90s with Gary Larson's bizarre The Far Side and Bill Watterson's transcendent Calvin and Hobbes. These were the last to treat their comic strips as art rather than routine - Watterson's drawing work is a testament to this, as is both comics' sharp writing. After they ended (and it's just as amazing that they ended, with Beetle Bailey and Marmaduke continuing their long, brain-dead, glassy-eyed march into infinity) there was nothing left with any edge - no satire, no black humor, nothing. Just plain vanilla Garfield, aspiring to nothing more than an occasional chuckle and a T-shirt sale.

In come Web comics, the double-edged sword of Web 2.0. The best of them are sharply written (Ryan North's Dinosaur Comics, Randall Munroe's XKCD), or beautifully drawn (Penny Arcade, Tom Siddell's Gunnerkrigg Court) or just plain dark and weird (Anthony Clark's Nedroid, John Campbell's Pictures For Sad Children, Nick Gurewitch's sadly-defunct Perry Bible Fellowship) in ways that regular comics never have been - there's something for all tastes here.

The other edge of the sword is the fact that for every well-drawn opus, there's an awful, cobbled-together pile of crap scribbled in ten minutes by someone who thinks he's funny. Those can be safely avoided, but any newcomers to Web comics might have to wade through a lot of crap before they find the half-dozen or so that consistently brighten their day. 

tpm Chris: I'm a political news junkie. Newspapers, magazines, network news, cable news, radio talk shows - I inhale them all. In this respect, Web 2.0 has allowed me to keep track of a lot of things that might have previously slipped through the cracks. Not only are there blogs and policy analyst sites devoted to very specific topics, there are other blogs that merely chronicle the best news of the Web on any given day. Not all of them are worth reading, but some of the more professional, like Talking Points Memo or fivethirtyeight.com have started to penetrate mainstream media. And, for you conservatives out there, there's the Drudge Report, the granddaddy of all political blogs.

At the same time, mainstream news outlets have tried to capitalize on Web 2.0 with somewhat embarrassing results. CNN's "iReport" is one of the more egregious offenders. Nominally, iReport allows any citizen with a cell phone camera to take a video of an event and submit it for the world to see. In actuality, iReport is a bunch of vloggers with poorly expressed opinions who seem to think that any thought that crosses their mind is of the utmost importance. And no mention of Web 2.0 news would be complete without bringing up the utterly asinine "YouTube Presidential Debates". CNN advertised these debates as something that was going to change journalism forever; in reality, we got a bunch of poorly worded and misinformed questions.

fml34 Pankin: I like features on the Internet that allow people to anonymously share embarrassing/hilarious things that happen to them, such as FMyLife and txts frm lst nght. They are more focused than an open-ended service like Twitter, which tends to get unwieldy and bogged down with mess. When talking about the Internet, most people champion it as a way to share information and ideas, but too rarely do we hear about how it can act as a forum to share positive feelings.

On the flip side, I can't get behind websites that shower negativity on certain people, such as People of WalMart or This is why you're fat. Granted, these sites are often hilarious. And granted, one could argue that they serve as a critique of our culture in general rather than personal attacks on individuals. But too often self-deprecation can prompt inaction, complacency, and diffusion of responsibility rather than action, feeling, and thought. In short: bringing people together over a common cause is something at which the Internet excels, but it's not always a worthwhile practice.

couch-potato-cat Steph:
For as long as I can remember, there has been this pervading fear that someday humans will become so fat, lazy, and stupid that they will be reduced to a dark isolation where interaction with the outside world takes place only virtually. The 2000s have oscillated between fueling this fire and attempting to quench it, but I think the fear-mongering cellulite-terrorists are winning.
The speed and ubiquity of Web 2.0 is both acutely convenient and extremely terrifying. The Internet is necessary for everything. In the business world, work is conducted through email and web conferencing. You can fill out a job application without even getting dressed in the morning. You can pay your bills from home, shop from home, and access a huge database of information while you sit on your couch watching TV and eating a sandwich.

There is undeniable value in this technological development. So much time, fuel, and patience is saved when a person can run errands without driving halfway across the city and back, wasting a day immersed in throngs of shoppers and traffic. Business efficiency has spiked because of such resources. Yet the pitfalls of such casual availability demand responsibility. It only took one greedy person, realizing through the advances of modern psychology (that he probably read about on Wikipedia) that clicking a button to make a purchase or sign up for a credit card with a 35% interest rate required less thought than the physical prerequisites associated with these commitments. Consequences are too easy to overlook when the input is so effortless. As we move into an age that will likely become mostly paperless, take notice. Take responsibility. Make sure you deserve the advantages offered to you by this Web innovation.

indy-tv-trope Gene: 
For my hours and hours worth, TvTropes.org is about the best waste of time currently available.  It combines the joy of overthinking TV and movies with the allure of obtuse nerd jargon.  As with any good wiki, it is initially and consistently overwhelming, to the point where I'm not even sure that on the fly, I could correctly identify tropes I've spent hours reading about.  But that's not really the point.  TvTropes maps out those tacit connections between media that you already make and gives you an Aha moment with every new page you view.  Where it shines brightest perhaps are in the ongoing lists of examples for each trope where the contentious community members formulate a compendium that probably does more to confound than consoldiate a definition of a trope.

I have a strong aversion to Twitter as it is, but this story strikes me as one of the worst things about Web 2.0.  Certainly, ShitMyDadSays is hilarious and popular and about the most appropriate use of Twitter ever.  That CBS wants to turn it into a TV show suggests a few things: a) CBS is desperate, b) CBS does not understand why ShitMyDadSays is funny, c) there is not a very fine line separating new media and communication sites from perhaps short-lived gimmickry.  I'm sure people will still be using Twitter in several years, but it's application seems to be inevitably limited.  Having a TV contract no longer legitimizes your cultural phenomenon.  Justin Halpern is about to become Twitter's Tila Tequila.

hulu-logo Jordan:
  Old-ass YouTube was wonderful because it wasn't ubiquitous yet.  Sure, the quality was shitty, but it had everything.  Missed the Walkmen on Conan?  YouTube dat bizness, and then watch "Kittens inspired by kittens" for the eighth time.

The visual fidelity of YouTube videos has increased substantially now that corporations are hip to the jive.  Companies can upload their own material in much higher quality, but their vigilance has led to a less comprehensive library of copyrighted material.  A regulated stream of information will always yield less than an unregulated one.  That yield may, however, be of a much higher quality.
This is where Hulu comes in.  Networks (and an increasing number of movie studios) have realized that if people are already DVRing many of their favorite shows, why shouldn't they be able to watch those same shows on their computer?  Plus, Hulusers can't fast-forward through the ads.  A small price to pay, I say, for high-quality TV and movies whenever I want them.  The library, granted, isn't comprehensive, but it's more than enough to distract me from whatever I'm writing.  Speaking of which...

fail_whale Boivin:
The rise of social networking sites cannot be emphasized enough when talking about the first decade of the once new millennium (excuse me, Willennium). If you were to ask any American between the ages of say 15 and 40 what has changed the most in their lives since 2000, it would have to be having their own Facebook/MySpace/Livejournal/whatever. Back in the early days of the Internet Age, the Information Superhighway was dominated by people who knew html and web design: basically the Internet was ruled by nerds (my 13-year-old self included). To have your own personal Web page meant you knew something about code and stuff and that you had a lot of free time to build/maintain it.

Enter the new social media; now, everyone and their mother has a website. I consistently find that now whenever we do something, anything, we think of it in terms of how it will look on our Facebook page or whether it's worth tweeting. This newfangled technology has rendered us all hyper-aware of how others perceive us and has given us a modicum of control over how we present ourselves to the world. The coming years will continue to be dominated by how "plugged in" we are to the online community, and businesses, government, and other organizations will thrive or perish based on their abilities to cater to that sense of interactivity.