Internet: The Good, The Bad and The Ugly

The Internet is a black hole of grassroots creativity and intellectual spark as well as insipid repetition and idiocy. Fertile bastions of out-of-the-box thinking can give way to the banal in a click. You can blow a fortune or blow your mind without ever leaving your keyboard or keypad.

The most innovative, original, constructive concepts floating around in cyberspace are being embraced and monetized by the smartest, most savvy companies and individuals. Just as the Internet has fostered new behaviors, it is also challenging and transforming old ways of thinking and doing things. It is the town crier, gossip and storyteller.

But, more times than not in these nascent phases of its development, the Internet is a window to endless streams of sameness: the same headlines, information, hard data and photos repackaged, rebranded and served up by Web sites claiming it as their own. This is especially true in the news businesses. In the few minutes that anything is truly exclusive or first-reported, it is consumed and regurgitated over again by other Web sites and blogs that rarely add enough of their own new details or insights to be additive in a meaningful way. (The stylistic differentiation newspapers and television newscasts struggle to achieve with page design and news anchors is challenging in a viral environment that breeds shorter attention spans and quicker responses.)



Flashes of news, dumps of data, and inane ramblings are elevated to new heights by blogs, chat rooms and social networks picking up on essentially the same bits and pieces, made more entertaining than informative by flip "comments" posted by users.

This viral boomerang of content and information gives new meaning to the adage "what goes around, comes around." This massive recycling is an annoying, incessant counter to the free rein of unique ideas, novel expression and enlightening drill-down that thrives in abundance on the Internet. Like any free market enterprise, the good is accompanied by the bad and the best floats to the top.

It becomes disconcerting when you consider the numbers, and how so-called "good" and "bad" information explodes exponentially. As evidenced by all kinds of research, measurement and surveys, huge numbers of users link and share their information with friends, who in turn rehash and revise it. Companies often masterfully contribute their subliminal marketing to the mix. The process, repeated in mind-boggling numbers, can render distorted truth and overly simplistic thinking. This vicious cycle may not seem like an issue in a sea of endless digital choice. But it can be.

Content has replaced communication as users' primary Web objective, according to Nielsen's Internet Activity Index. Consumers spend half their time with content (news, information, entertainment) and only 33% with communication (the personal exchange of messages, thoughts and information). A Deloitte study concludes that half of all Internet users (and nearly three-quarters of users ages 13 to 24) are consuming personal content created by others. More than half of the 13-24 age users regularly read blogs, watch streaming video on portals like YouTube and create their own entertainment. The same is true for more than 40% of Generation X users age 25 to 41.

That means we all are steadily feeding on each others' ingenious or derelict ideas, stale news or enlightened analysis, enterprise or madness. Consider, then, how rapidly user expectations and standards are altered by what they do, read and see on the Web, and how tolerant--even resigned--many appear to be to insipid repetition, points of view and pandering.

Internet-connected minds are ripe for movements and messages, fads and trends. But they still long for verifiable intelligence on which they can stake their lives. Surveys conducted for the Pew Internet & American Life Project reveal that about half of users rely on the Internet for reliable information to deal with life's major moments: serious illness, job loss, relocation, college education and financial decisions.

The notion of personalizing our information, entertainment and communications on a vast digital track makes the Internet the most amazing marketing tool ever, as well as an unparalleled force for both good and evil. A lot of that depends on the quality of information and content we get, and how we get it.

The intermediaries on whom a growing number of users rely to navigate the Internet--from The New York Times and CNN to YouTube to The Drudge Report and the Huffington Post to Yahoo News or Google News-- can direct users to diverse, credible sources. But third-party relationships can jade the task (for instance, Google News favors the simply stated, fact-based wire service versions of news).

Wikipedia-like collaborative reporting and shaping of news and information on sites like Digg, while increasingly popular, can be problematic in separating fact from fiction. In that same regard, time will tell whether mainstream media defers too much to the trend in citizen journalism rather than pushing itself into more of an enterprise reporting mode. By the same token, consumers are opting for 15-second highlights of movies, sports games and political debates as a substitute for the full-length version, because it's all they have time for in this fast-paced wireless world in which our interactive devices have made us more efficient. If that takes too long, widgets provide the ultimate byte-sized content for users who think they have heard, seen or read it all.

As the Internet and its users continue to evolve, so too will the sophistication and depth of content, its use and manipulation, and the services that surround it. That process must lend itself to pondering how we want to make the most of the interactivity that still dazzles us, and whether something significant is lacking if we resort too often to intellectual snacking over substance.

Next story loading loading..