Information Superhighway has no roadmap

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Though I write regularly about the Internet and the various devices with which we access it for work, pleasure, staying in touch with family and friends and communicating in ways never dreamed of by Alexander Graham Bell or Samuel Morse before him, I must admit to being an Internet illiterate.

I can browse endlessly through the use of Google and hyperlinks in content I am reading, can locate and retrieve most any bit of information I’m looking for, but there are huge popular sites that I don’t even understand the purpose of, much less use on a daily basis.

I get it

First, the sites I visit daily and which I “get.” First stop is usually Slate, the news and opinion site owned by The Washington Post, after it was purchased from Microsoft several years ago. It was a reliable and informative guide to the day’s biggest headlines, as well as hosting a wide range of opinion pieces by the likes of the late, lamented Christopher Hitchens.

Under the helm of new Post owner Jeff Bezos, founder and head of Amazon, who purchased the paper from the Graham clan after generations of that family’s ownership, Slate has been completely free from its beginning until just a couple of weeks ago, when suddenly I found stories in it spawned pop-ups saying this article is now part of Slate Plus, a subscription service which commodifies the popular news site.

Slate (Screenshot)
Slate (Screenshot)

Since I follow a personal policy of not paying for news content on the net, that site is now of much less use to me.

Then I swing over to Reddit, often described as the front page of the Internet, but which describes itself as “an entertainment, social networking and news website.” It was founded by University of Virginia roommates Steve Huffman and Alexis Ohanian, who sold it to Conde Nast Publications in 2006. It contains a large number of “subreddits” curated by the regular readers itself, who vote on submissions and comments to increase or decrease their visibility and submit links and comments.

It is this self-policing which gives it such a high degree of reliability, and is often the first Internet stop of the day for journalists and other news professionals to see which stories are trending for the day.

There’s no place like home

I also check this very site, the Baltimore and Los Angeles Post-Examiner, which contains a wide variety of hard news, opinion, reviews, even poetry and blogs, and which remains completely free, unlike other newspapers which have an online presence but still charge you for anything other than a quick look at the headlines and teaser copy.

I also check the technology websites, such as Gizmo and C-Net, for information relevant to this column and because I am a hopeless geek who can easily get lost in stories about new tech because I am simply interested in it.

I also use streaming Netflix for movie watching. and YouTube for music, tech reviews, and the occasional full length documentary.

These are my daily go-to sites, along with occasional views of my Facebook page, to check in with family and friends. And to post links to my stories and others appearing in this paper to drive traffic to this site, though no one appears to read my posts. At least I can keep up with my kids. I still don’t get the reason for Facebook, many of its capabilities, or why people post cute cat videos (what is this general fascination with cats on the web?) or why they feel the need to post every stray thought they have or their reactions and reportage on the daily events of their lives.

What is a tweet?

And I suppose this is where my ignorance begins to show. I know that Twitter is the second most widely used social site on the web, but I’ve never been on the site, can’t grasp why anyone would be interested in the very short remarks permitted, and it seems that it is mostly used by young people, celebrities, and sports figures behaving badly. I know it’s me, not the service, but I can’t get interested and don’t really know what a hash tag or tweet is.

Mobile phones and tweeting: It's taken over real conversation. (Public Domain)
Mobile phones and tweeting: It’s taken over real conversation. (Public Domain)

I’ve never been to Instagram, which appears to be a social site geared toward sharing photos, Tumblr, which seems to be the same thing but with pornography thrown in, and dozens of other popular sites like the Daily Beast or Gawker. I’m like the resident of a very huge and vibrant city, who chooses never to leave his neighborhood and partake of the wonders, or wastes of time, available to the average citizen.

I do spare a glance at sites of my favorite musicians and writers, some of whom can be found on Boing Boing, a fascinating site run by science fiction writer Cory Doctorow, which contains many interesting stories. Doctorow, along with fellow science fiction writer Charles Stross, have an interesting business model. Though they are very popular writers, whose books sell very well in print, they always make them available on their sites for free in electronic format, which they feel gets people reading their books, which are then spread by word of mouth, spurring sales in printed editions.

However counterintuitive this might seem, both writers are very successful and their books sell well.

And though I browse through many sites, mostly following hyperlinks from my ” home pages,” I still don’t get the major services which are so wildly popular.

I do use Wikipedia often, which now has more entries than the Encyclopedia Britannica, but which I know is often biased as those with a stake in the topic covered can edit and even write their own articles. No wonder visionary science fiction writer Vernor Vinge, who predicted the World Wide Web in 1976, calls it “the web of a million lies.”

Ignorance is not bliss

This is going to be a short article, for it is difficult to write stories about topics of which I am largely ignorant. In short, I know there is a greater world out there, but I sit safely ensconced in my little corner of it. It gives me what I need for work, self-education, research, and the rest is just all so much foreign, glimpsed from afar but never explored, territory.

I have the feeling I am not alone, at least among my age cohort, if not my journalism colleagues. It is young people who grew up with the mature World Wide Web who seem to understand and use those services and tools I don’t understand.

And some of these can be quite useful and astonishing. Just recently my young teenage daughter and I were text-messaging each other, and she mentioned she had been playing with the neighbor’s outdoor cat. I then received an MMS from her which was a series of pictures cycling through moments of their play. I was astonished. I didn’t know the service could perform such tricks. Or maybe it was an online tool used to produce it, or even a feature found in iPhones.

I wanted to ask her about it, but we were texting, not conversing, and I’ve learned that one does not formally greet or take their leave from a texting session with such niceties, and by the time I questioned her about it, she was gone.

To quote Dorothy Gale, from the Wizard of Oz, “My, people come and go so quickly here.”

I repeat, I am no computer illiterate, I’ve been online since Compuserve was formed back in the Eighties, but the Web has grown and variegated so rapidly that I have fallen way behind in exploring and using new social and file sharing services. I’m more interested in the technology we use to jack in than using it to join online communities. I suspect I am not alone, at least among my age cohort. My communication needs are taken care of nicely, thank you, by email and texting programs.

I know I am making use of just a fraction of the huge resources available on the Web, but can muster neither the time nor the inclination to learn about or participate in many of the most popular Internet services.

Qualifications? We don’t need no stinking qualifications

Does this reflect badly on my qualifications to write authoritatively about technology? I suppose to a certain extent it does, since the devices we use to do so are capable of handling these types of communication and presentations of digital expression.

In writing this column, especially this piece, I’ve realized that to do the subject justice I must join the ranks of the millions of tweeters and posters who use these sites on a daily basis. Twitter comes first, as comments on it are so often newsmaking events, such as those posted by newsmakers, politicians and other public figures. Now, if I can just sign up successfully, I’ll have another, apparently fairly potent, tool at my disposal to follow fast breaking news events and to promote this newspaper.

Maybe I will join. (Public Domain)
Maybe I will join. (Public Domain)

Maybe I’ll even learn to “tweet” myself.

I don’t know how steep the learning curve is for Twitter and Instagram and other such sites, but I’m convinced I must be privy to the content and flow of information on them to become a fully participating “netizen.”

And because there are never enough photos of lightly clad attractive young women on the Web, unless I’m missing out on another important content-rich area of the Web. I’ll do the research, and report back with another article, another time.

Jaime, you’ve inspired me. Keep up the good work.

(If any readers have personal knowledge of sites I should visit, or become a member of, please leave me a message by clicking the “Contact the author” link below. I can use all the help I can get.)

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