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Salt Lake City Weekly www.the.net.sucks

It's touted as the Information Superhighway. In reality, the Net's a tangled web of nothingness, a trivia playland for the Cliff Clavens of the world.

By Mel Parkinson

AUGUST 18, 1997:  Dial up. Busy. Redial. Connecting. Logging on. Finger tapping. Browser loading. Search screen ready. Enter topic.

Keyword: "Phen-fen." Some 367 hits. First 20: a mix of pharmaceutical companies and personal testimonials. "Phen-fen saved my life!" "Amazing results in minimum time!"

Site 26: Claims to discuss the pros and cons of the miracle drug. Click.

Fatal error. Box with jargon only Bill Gates could understand. Unable to continue. Logging off. Hanging up. Worthless.

When the Internet became all the rage, it was touted as the Information Superhighway — a quick way to disburse knowledge and correspond with academics around the globe. But the system, heralded as an expressway to enlightenment, is now little more than an intellectual parking-garage.

The Net's in a sorry state. Aside from bitches about children being able to access pornography with a mere mouse click, or the paranoid fear that cults are brainwashing the masses with encrypted Satanic messages, cyberspace has some serious problems. It's no longer a forum for the thoughtful exchange of ideas. Anyone with a modem can log on, spout off and block traffic.

Simply put, the Net sucks.

Lost In The Shuffle

It's what the Internet was designed to do — seek information on a topic and retrieve it quickly. Easy access to the most up-to-date, accurate information available. Simple enough.

Yeah, right.

Looking for accurate information online is like searching library stacks without a card catalog. The Net has become such a barrage of useless information that unless you've got a pretty solid idea of where you want to go, you might as well stick to using your library card. Major search engines spit out thousands of replies to every request, often with no relation to the topic requested.

Searching for airline rates for a trip to Ireland proves the futility of online transactions. An initial search through Alta Vista, one of several commercial search engines available, yields an avalanche of nothing. Using the keywords "airline," "fares" and "Ireland," Alta Vista provides 47,930 sites from which to choose. The first 20 hits displayed are a scrambled mess of discount airline ticket brokers whose fares are either outdated or inaccessible. One site is listed five times within the first 20 hits — and the information is still unhelpful.

The amount of fruitless data has many would-be Netheads giving up. Though a recent study by FIND/SVP, a New York-based research and consulting firm, indicated that over 20 million Americans now view the Internet as "indispensable," it also found that another 9.3 million have tried the Net and abandoned it in frustration.

Last year the number of computers purchased finally topped the number of televisions sold. But despite the boost, only 40 percent of American homes have personal computers, while 98 percent have televisions. Is it any wonder? If television programs swapped stations every time they were turned on, you'd ditch your Magnavox, too.

World Wide Wait

The Internet has become a victim of its own popularity. It's grown so explosively that when mega-events such as the Super Bowl and Academy Awards occur, the info autobahn is more congested than I-15 during the construction decade.

When the Heaven's Gate fiasco went down in March and news of the group's bizarre Website hit, so many users logged on that the Minneapolis host system almost crashed from overload. Amid the cyberfrenzy, more than 8,000 Web users trying to access the cult's site accidentally added an extra character to the address — heavensgates.com versus heavensgate.com and found themselves at a totally irrelevant site — one that crashed from the inundation.

Then there's the myth that the Internet is a time-saver. In his book Dave Barry in Cyberspace, the syndicated columnist for the Miami Herald writes: "Entire new continents can emerge from the ocean in the time it takes for a Web page to show up on your screen. Contrary to what you may have heard, the Internet does not move at the speed of light; it operates at the speed of the Department of Motor Vehicles."

Users spend an average of 16 minutes online per call — four times longer than the average residential phone call and eight times longer than the average business phone call. The airfare search for a round trip to Ireland proves the Net's time-sucking nature. Total time lapsed: 38 minutes. The same request was handled in 15 minutes with one phone call placed to a travel agency.

Ma Bell:1, Internet: 0.

Not only are there difficulties in making a connection, but once access is gained, the complex graphics, photographs and even basic information download at a snail's pace. Though innovations now allow users to view scenes of movies and other cyber tidbits, the network infrastructure required to get the info quickly is lacking. With a standard 28.8K modem, it takes 16 minutes to download a postage stamp-sized 54-second video clip.

The lag time between anticipation and satisfaction was compounded for some users when America Online, the world's largest Internet service, switched from by-the-hour fees to a flat-rate system. So many people signed up with the service — and began staying on for so long — that massive numbers of would-be users still get a consistent busy signal.

According to information released by the Gardner Group, a technology research firm in Stanford, Conn., AOL connection rates often dropped to 25 percent. Translation: Three out of four attempts to log on failed. The Web measurement firm Inverse found that AOL had "by far the highest call failure rate" of the 14 Internet providers tested.

While faster modems, high-speed phone lines, cable connections and other techno-gadgets are being developed to address the problem of Internet clogs, users can still expect hefty delays.

Or think of it this way: If the 94 percent of Americans with phones in their homes got a busy signal three out of every four times they dialed, the skies would be filled with carrier pigeons.

Virtual Know-It-Alls

Though some claim that the ability of any ordinary schmo to put information on the Internet is a sign of free speech, the flow can be a great disservice. Every Tom, Dick and Harry in cyberspace seems to think he's a guru on some subject, and once they've got their own home pages, they have the illusion of credibility to back it up. Just ask Pierre Salinger.

In no area has this trend taken more of a toll than medicine. While the Net can lead you to the New England Journal of Medicine and the National Institute of Health, it can also lead to dubious sources of medical information — including quacks and hustlers looking to make a fast buck on quick cures.

The Internet is a massive dumping ground of information, a landfill that some cybergeeks adroitly navigate around. But imagine the damage done to laymen searching for medical information on serious ailments — or even not such serious ones. The Net proves its shortcomings again with another search.

Entering the keywords "renal," "cancer," and "treatment," an overwhelming number of hits are returned. Topping the list is a site that offers links to other medically-related sites — pay dirt.

But the fifth site on the link list is a page maintained by a woman who discusses her own father's battle with cancer and his miraculous recovery. On her site she suggests a book titled The Cure for All Diseases by Dr. Hulda Regehr Clark, Ph.D., N.D. If a subject search for Clark is done, the path leads to a site that markets a device called the Zapper — an electrical instrument sure to kill the "parasite that causes cancer." All for the bargain price of $76.

Also suspect are online chat groups offering support or medical advice. Unlike visiting a physician, with virtual consultations there's no proof that the person on the other end of the modem is qualified to be making a diagnosis or offering treatment advice. The so-called pro may be a 10-year-old with a medical dictionary and over-indulgent parents.

Even the well-meaning virtual guru can wreak havoc. Often patients receiving experimental drugs or being used to test new treatments will go online and share their experiences with others. The result is a chaotic mess of partially-informed miracle cure seekers ready to rush to any fad. Doctors have documented cases where they've received a high influx of prescription requests from cyberfreaks who've gotten inaccurate information online.

Of course, anyone willing to accept advice from faceless entities recommending shark's cartilage or powdered bat wings to cure cancer would benefit from a visit to www.seekpsychhelp. com.

Return to Sender

There's no escape.

Do you have a Web Site, product or service that you are trying to promote on the Internet? If so, please read this message carefully. You can now send your advertisement to hundreds of thousands or even millions of targeted customers via direct e-mail. Selective Marketing has over 15 million targeted customers who are proven opportunity-seekers. They also have over 9 million addresses of people who have purchased all kinds of products on the Internet.

It's a typical unwanted e-mail. Just as notices from Publisher's Clearinghouse Sweepstakes arrive every January and a steady flow of promotional drivel is shoved into mailboxes each week, electronic mailboxes are not immune to the plague of junk mail.

It's the newest medium being exploited by pushy marketers. With the click of a button, thousands of messages can be sent instantly for a fraction of the cost of standard mailings. Each day, e-mail inboxes are flooded with sales pitches and get-rich-quick schemes, invading our desktops as aptly as they've conquered our P.O. Boxes. There is no sacred territory, no frontier they won't invade.

Fantastic business opportunities are no further away than the keyboard and the opportunity to make millions is within your reach — or so they'd have you believe. The following mailing reeks of an online pyramid scheme, though the author prefers to call it multi-level marketing:

You are about to make at least $50,000 — in less than 90 days. Read the enclosed program ... THEN READ IT AGAIN!...

Even if the offers are legit, their mere presence is annoying — and senders know it. Consider the next paragraph of Selective Marketing's sales pitch:

"If you wish, Selective Marketing will send your advertisement for you, thus eliminating the possibility of you getting harassed by your ISP (Internet Service Provider) or other people."

These virtual peddlers know their practice is bothersome and don't care. Though most offer you a way to refuse delivery once you've perused their pitch, you've got to listen to the spiel first.

The e-mail promising a $50,000 pay-off continues for four pages before offering recipients a way to block further mailings. Finally, those not wishing to receive future mailings are told to type "remove" in the subject bar and send the e-mail back.

Worse, some peddlers don't even give victims a way to block their messages. A full-page pitch from Vision Quest IMG describes the fabulous wealth that awaits those who act now and start selling the "TRANSDERMAL WEIGHT LOSS PATCH." The message goes on to boast incentives and potential rewards. Though there are instructions on how to sign up for this money-making opportunity, there are no directions on how to block further transmissions. So, expect to be hearing more from Vision Quest IMG.

Lucky you.

Get a Life

Personal home pages are the status symbols of the '90s. Boasting a business card with home, office and fax number along with e-mail address and Website URL is the ultimate way to stress the importance of your position in life.

But Johnny Q. Public needs his own Web page like Mike Tyson needs another chew toy. Imagine the valuable information you can spew on your own home page. Expound the virtues of your favorite sporting team, discuss in depth your family pet's pooping habits and share with the world photographs of your summer vacation.

One family chose to use the Net to announce the birth of their daughter. Harmless enough, but not only did the couple include post-birth photos, but pre-birth ultrasounds and a play-by-play of the actual event, including a recount of exactly when the mother's water broke. Thanks for sharing. There are far too many Websites dedicated to what Bob did over summer vacation and how many loads of wash Betty does in on an average Sunday.

There's Allen and Aimee's Place — a collection of photos and writings depicting the relationship between Allen and Aimee. Or visit the Parker Quintuplets — five fabulous online quints. Don't forget the Jana and John Anderson home page featuring Gracie (their Labrador), dirt bikes, softball, wedding stuff and "anything else we want to post."

The plethora of personal home- pages is yet another clot in the already constricting arteries of the Internet. The personal Website collection of Yahoo — one of the Net's most popular search engines — boasts over 2,400 family home-page sites. It's like being force-fed the entire planet's scrap books.

Not only are personal sites largely useless, but their creation is amateurish and inadequate. It's one thing to peruse through the personal lives of total strangers, but doing so at a crawl is torturous. Often the coding of personal home pages is so inept that links freeze systems or send visitors into cyber-limbo.

Basically, personal home pages are the ideal outlets for the likes of Cliff Clavens, the trivia-filled barfly from the "Cheers" TV show. Where else can puerile know-it-alls spout useless drivel and have a 24-hour worldwide ear to bend? But remember: Nobody ever took their hard drive to a prom.

Logging Off

The lack of organization, the increase of juvenile attention-getters hogging airtime and the creeping suspicion that the system is buckling under the pressure has original Net advocates jumping ship. Though the Net is growing at the speed of light, it's not disbursing information at the same rate.

Without some massive revamping, there's serious doubt as to whether the Net will become, as one cyberspace study predicts, "the most efficient distribution vehicle in the history of the planet." While service providers will have to initiate much of the change — returning to time-based fee plans rather than flat-rates — Netheads need to get a clue too:

  • Don't spend hours clogging up lines with meaningless chit-chat. How many chat rooms do we honestly need in which prepubescent dweebs can discuss their bootie calls? That's what junior high's for.

  • Keep a few secrets. There are valid reasons for individuals to have home pages, but chronicling your back hair through personal photos is not one of them. Hey, if those closest to you don't want the info, what makes you think millions of strangers do?

  • Though mass-marketers are the most obvious abusers of the e-mail system, bored users have to take some of the blame. Stop sending mass e-mails of the latest joke. Don't elevate chain letters to the electronic age. Use e-mail to communicate with people you know about things that can't wait. For all other purposes, use a stamp.

  • Finally, for those who do boast their own sites: Stop registering them with search-engine services if they're nothing more than trivia landfills. There's a reason the library doesn't house your personal photo albums.

The Internet still has the potential to become a powerful, useful tool. But until it's rid of sites like Cook Family pictures, the Simpsons, VW and Winnie the Pooh links, keep your library card handy.

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