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Internet Annoyances

Internet Crime - Bad Design & Programming - Commercial Outgrowths - Web 2.0 Outgrowths

 

Considering that I am almost constantly online since 1996, I am overall very pleased with the development of the internet to a universal platform to acquire information, to work on common projects, to exchange opinions, to do some shopping and banking and to have fun. Some trends, however, have become increasingly annoying, for me as a webmaster of a big site as well as a "normal" user.

Disclaimer While I'm doing my best to stick to the facts in this commentary, please note that some of the observations may be outdated and that my perception may be very personal.

 

Internet Crime

Spam Sure. Who doesn't hate it? But most of all I am astonished that the overall spam volume is still rising after so many years, although there can be close to no return from it. Currently the vast majority of all e-mail messages has to be considered spam. If it hasn't already been filtered out automatically, every human being who is not a complete moron can recognize spam in milliseconds. This used to be different in the mid-90s when I actually read some of the then infrequent spam mails, especially the amusing ones pretending to come from former African dictators.

I reckon that when some dick sends out 10 million spam messages today, only some 500,000 will arrive and get noticed at all for a split second. Out of these 500,000 human spam recipients, maybe 1000 will read more than a few words. Of these 1000, only 50 will click a link to penis enlargement because, if there is any information provided, it is quickly recognizable as fraudulent or at least untrustworthy (for instance, because of bad spelling). Statistically, I believe that at most 1 of these 50 people will buy anything. And this is only possible under the assumption that the site is working and sells anything at all and is not just another dead link or a redirect to something totally different - many spam-advertised sites appear to be dead ends!

So even if it is possible to earn a few cents per 10 million spam messages simply because someone pays for the page clicks, there can never be sufficient return to justify the (admittedly small) effort of sending out all these mails. Common sense tells me that whole system should be increasingly unlikely to work, even if it were legal. And if sending a single e-mail cost only 0.1 cent, the spam business should have collapsed long ago. So why is it still thriving? Unless the spammers themselves are complete idiots (which is what most spam messages look like), spam must be a miraculous way to find the needle in the haystack, the one out of ten million who is still gullible enough.

On a side note, regarding the customary "I need your bank account to transfer my money" fraud (the Nigeria scam), I read about an investigation that came to the startling result that intellectual people are much more likely to fall for it than users with average education!

Phishing Of all fraudulent internet manipulations phishing is the probably most insidious one. Because you can never be careful enough. I sometimes spend a few minutes until I can rule out the authenticity of a message from a bank, from PayPal or from eBay. The spoofed messages very often look quite genuine.

Here is what I do when I suspect that I have received a phishing mail (in about this order):

 

Bad Design & Programming

Website miniaturization The screen resolutions and monitor dimensions are always growing. The last time I worked on a 640*480 pixel monitor was in 1996. But many websites, and particularly those of some big companies, have a fixed width of 800 or even 640 pixels, and are using the smallest possible font size that is barely readable. Moreover, on many news sites that squeeze the text into a narrow column between the navigation bar and the ads, I get only a small portion of an article at a time and I have to press "next" several times to carry on reading. While I can increase the font size for better accessibility (which inevitably ruins the layout especially if the text columns are narrow), there is no real way how I can tell the website to occupy a larger portion of my big screen (which is big for a reason after all). Some sites should really list a magnification glass among their viewing requirements.

I think that, rather than paying attention to antiquated monitors, the web designers simply don't know better but to nail down absolute dimensions for everything, especially since everything can be formatted so easily with CSS. I am fond of CSS as a great way to customize everything, but it encourages and sometimes forces web designers to abandon the art of adaptive layouts.

Update The font sizes are growing again, and there is an increasing trend to occupy the whole screen instead of a narrow column. I think the new trend was ironically fostered by the need to support mobile devices with their lower resolutions. Since the programmers needed to create a special CSS for the smaller screen sizes, they had to think of new concepts of adapting the page widths, which work just as well in the opposite direction and now allow full-screen layouts.

JavaScript links and mutilated windows Why is it necessary to have images or even sub-pages open in new browser windows (with or without a redundant "close this window" button, and too often without a menu bar and location bar)? I talked to a few site designers several years ago, and I was told more than once that the average user would likely always stay in the same window and always click on links, never on the "back" button. What a crap! Because if the users were really that dull, there would be nothing more confusing to them than a maze of windows, especially if it's not clear how they are being controlled (like when you click on another image link on the page of origin, and you don't know whether the image opens another pop-up or refreshes the current one).

Update With the advent of Firefox that offers to open links in a new tab and to organize, lock and even restore tabs I was hoping that the bad programming habits of some web designers to open overlapping non-maximized windows would be overridden. But especially the irritating pop-ups have found ways to defy Firefox. JavaScript pseudo-links are still commonly used, although it should be commonly known by now that search engine crawlers don't recognize them correctly.

Empty spaces as links One web design habit has recently become so irksome that it deserves a point of its own in this shit list. I'm talking of empty spaces on a web page that are misused as links. The annoyance can be found with increasing frequency in portals with ads (see below) where not just the banner but the whole space to the left and the right serves as the link. When I try to mark portions of the page or only accidentally click the area, I am in for an unpleasant surprise. Sometimes the whole screen with the exception of the customarily tiny useful area of a commercial site becomes a link to the sponsor.

The phenomenon, however, is not only symptomatic of overly aggressive advertising. It can also be found in apparently well-meant designs, because some people think if there's a link somewhere in a table, the whole table cell has to become a single big link, without being marked as such (which, just like the hidden part of ads, prevents me from marking the text, at least on the first try that takes mw who knows where).

Infinite scrolling I don't know if users have ever complained about the necessity to click the "Next page" link in big search result listings or in image galleries. Anyway, the website programmers of search engines, social media and blogging software address this alleged issue by offering infinite scrolling, often without an "old-style" alternative. The intention is that visitors simply scroll to the bottom, and new content loads automatically, without the need to do anything. Alternatively they show a link such as "Load more images", which does the same - load megabytes of new data on the same page.

This technique sounds like a good idea because it seems to allow smooth browsing. However, it comes with severe disadvantages. Firstly, it is a dynamic technique, and whenever it doesn't work perfectly (for example, if the server doesn't respond or the connection deteriorates), it causes the page to hang or to load incompletely. In such a case the visitor has to hit "Reload" and start all over from the very top of the page. It usually takes several minutes to load everything again and find the point where the transfer was interrupted. Infinite scrolling is not just a problem for users with slow connections but also for those with less powerful hardware. At some point their CPU will burn and/or they will run out of memory. The immense amount of content packed on a single page, accompanied by various scripts that are running all the time, is too much for older processors and for memories of less than 2 gigabytes. And finally, even for those with fast enough hardware it is often a pain of the ass to scroll back and find anything in an extremely long list, especially when they are seriously working. In the age of pagination it was still possible to open the list in a second browser tab and look there for the second result, which is not possible any longer, at least not without starting over all again in the new tab.

The programmers of web pages have obviously forgotten that there were reasons why mankind abandoned scrolls many centuries ago and switched to books.

CAPTCHAs I hate them. CAPTCHAs first showed up around 2007 and it took them just one or two years to become one of the worst online plagues. I want to comment on a blog or write into a guestbook, I want to log in somewhere or download something. I'm in a good temper, but suddenly a page comes up with a cryptical image of disfigured numbers and letters. I look at it for a few seconds and try to figure out what it shows. But as careful as I am, I fail to pass CAPTCHAs half of the time. Am I just too stupid? No, that honor belongs to the people who conceived the CAPTCHAs. They rarely work the way they should for one or more of the following reasons:

As a website owner I know too well how nasty spambots can be. But "enhancing" the CAPTCHAs by making them always more enigmatic riddles doesn't help. It only annoys the hell out of the human visitors. The much better option is to ask a simple question that a human being can easily answer. Since I switched to such a procedure, asking a simple question that every casual Trek fan can easily answer, there have never been any automated spam entries in my guestbook.

Streaming I understand the desire to avert unwarranted distribution of copyrighted media, or at least to make any duplication as hard as possible. But the need to stream videos instead of downloading them may be a nuisance for the user (and it still doesn't prevent computer buffs from ripping streams). Most importantly, streams are a huge and continually increasing waste of bandwidth. This may be ultimately at the expense of HTML, e-mail or download traffic, all of which I rate as much more valuable than a transitory video.

Streaming effectively excludes everyone with not quite as fast a connection from accessing online media in the first place. It almost seems like video portals are cooperating with providers of DSL or mobile internet, in order to allow them to sell always broader bandwidths. Case in point: UMTS is usually not sufficient for streaming, so it fuels the development of LTE. But even with fast internet, streaming never worked well enough for me, and perhaps never will. Even if it happens "only" once every two minutes, it annoys the hell out of me when the stream and briefly later the playback hangs, making it inferior to analog radio or TV broadcasts that have been working smoothly for almost a century. But the providers of online media, among them TV stations whose conventional broadcasts are doing fine, apparently expect me to put up with such a disrupted "viewing experience" when watching a whole movie or episode as a stream. No thanks. And when I try to load a video stream in the background while doing something useful in the meantime, it happens quite often that the video is gone when I return and I have to load everything again (speaking of wasted bandwidth).

Well, after I had given up on listening to web radio in 2001 when I already had Mbit/s internet access at the university, I finally have a decent quality of audio streams in more recent years. But I have no hope for the streams of video portals or TV stations to meet my expectations of adequate online videos any time soon - which would be a quality and reliability at least on par with old-fashioned analog TV.

Flash Player I concede that streaming may be an acceptable way to show small (and accordingly fast loading) clips embedded in websites, if only there were a reliable software to play them. But most streams force me to have Flash Player installed. I don't know if I'm the only one, but messages like these keep haunting me for over ten years: "Get Flash Player now" (when I have Flash Player but it was not installed for all browsers for some reason), "Please upgrade to the latest version" (when I already have the latest version) or "You need Flash Player 9 to play this video" (when I have version 10 installed).

The whole concept of Flash is flawed from the start, because it is overblown at the expense of usability. Well, Windows Media Player is overblown too, but at least there are lightweight alternatives that don't exist for the Flash Player plug-in. As already mentioned, if there were a lean video player to play streams (like with conventional TV that fundamentally needs no player software at all), the idea of online broadcasts wouldn't be all that bad. But Flash is much more than a simple player, and it does much more than becomes apparent to a normal user, such as circumventing the security and privacy settings of my browser or its plug-ins. Still, it doesn't offer any useful configuration options. And the use of Flash on websites is not restricted to playing videos or presenting truly interactive content (for which it can be beneficial in spite of everything). Many web designers just can't resist creating complete navigation structures with Flash, or they pack text into Flash images, which makes it totally inaccessible. And don't get me started on the dreadful Flash ads! Speaking of reduced usability, it is extremely frustrating how Flash disables the right-button menu and CTRL-LMB to open a new tab, throwing me back into the browser stone age (and forcing me to reload the same browser window all over again when going forth and back, speaking of wasted bandwidth).

But worst of all, nasty Flash applications frequently usurp 100% of my CPU power and make my PC or laptop hang, so the only remedy is to end Firefox by force. This may not be Adobe's fault in the first place, but of all applications that run on my computers, either stand-alone or as browser plug-ins, it is usually Flash that makes the system freeze, so there must be something genuinely wrong about it.

Update I am used to trouble with Flash Player installations, but version 10.1 beats everything. When I go to the Adobe website as demanded, I first have to get the Adobe Download Manager (DLM) and, if I don't notice the little checkbox, McAfee Security Scan too. Great. Yet more parasitic programs sitting on my system. When I proceed with DLM and want to install Flash Player, I have to close Firefox, but nothing happens. After three or four times downloading the whole stuff in vain, I went to a website with a different prompt to install Flash directly through Firefox, and this time I was allowed to get Flash without the crappy DLM, and without even closing Firefox. Adobe once again remains truthful to their unofficial motto: "Why make it simple, when you can have it complicated?"

 

Commercial Outgrowths

Overcrowded and ad-polluted portal websites The portals of fully or partially online-based companies such as e-mail providers, other internet services, media companies, newspapers or TV stations are being visited by millions of people every day. While this should be an incentive for them to come up with a particularly decent looking, fast-loading and easy-to-use web design, their portals are very often exactly the contrary. There is usually no consistent site design, and sometimes no visible concept at all. Half of a page's real estate is often reserved for off-site ads. Many websites even give away their page background to ads, which then appears in colors such as pink or yellow (and is sometimes turned into a single big link, see above)! Much of the rest is spent for unrequested videos and Flash animations that waste valuable bandwidth and CPU power. The overall volume of a single page, including all media, is several megabytes, making a visit without DSL impossible (It is a fairy-tale that you just have to wait longer with a 56k modem or with GPRS. In reality your slow connection usually times out after two or three minutes, before a long page has loaded completely). Anyway, while pop-ups are fortunately not so common any longer and can be suppressed most of the time, busy Flash ads or ad windows hovering above and/or moving across the page have become commonplace, and it is a pain of the ass to click them away - and to do so without accidentally clicking a link on the page below. There are no real menus, and important functions such as "sitemap", "search", "login", "help", "FAQ" or most obviously "contact" are obscured, making it blindingly obvious that they are not supposed to be found easily. Sometimes direct navigation to content pages is not possible, but only via an intermediate page (with more ads, of course). Most portals look like porn sites these days, only without tits.

The rationale for the degradation of websites of online companies is evident, however. The sites were initially set up as a service to their customers, many of them as soon as in the mid-1990s. But now that the internet has become a mass market it is just too tempting to squeeze profit out of a site by filling it with ads and by offering paid "premium" services that very often have nothing to do with the original purpose of the website or even with the scope of the company itself. When I go to the site of a TV station, I would expect to find extensive information about their programs, such as transcripts, annotations, background information, production information or additional links. But it is a huge disappointment every time I look for such content. I am apparently asking too much, and I am rather expected to play browser games or buy apps on a TV website. And pertaining to the ads, it is peculiar how the companies (at least if they are not direct competitors) mutually pollute their websites!

The pleasant exception among the web-based companies shouldn't remain unmentioned: Google - a commercial site that does not only have a very simple and fast interface but also decent ways to integrate ads into the search results (well, Google's all-dominating AdSense service for other sites is another story). The same praise goes to eBay, although to lesser degree because it is not quite as clean any more.

Scraper sites I frankly concede that the performance of Google (and of other search engines likewise) has improved a lot in the past few years despite the ever rising data volume to be handled by their servers. It has always become harder to cheat and to get fraudulent content listed. However, there are still too many fake sites that slip the net and that receive average to good ranking from Google. The typical fake is an automatically generated so-called scraper site with a short and distinct static URL (insinuating rich content) and a common Google search term as its title. But looking closer, the "content" consists of nothing but a list of old search results, random news and ads that are keyword-driven and that may or may not be remotely related to the page title. Something like this is utterly useless and frustrating each time a user is looking for real information. I stumbled across pages where I could "Learn everything about Ex-Astris-Scientia.org" or even "Find the Lowest Prices for Ex-Astris-Scientia.org", as if my site were for sale!

Google usually deletes auto-generated pages from the index when they are discovered or reported. Many of them are parts of a link farm that has been set up to rank another page higher and are therefore banned from Google. I appreciate that. On the other hand, until 2012 Google even offered to build such sites with their AdSense for Domains program! In other words, Google helped to cheat unsuspecting visitors and helped to undermine its own index. I appreciate that they finally reconsidered their involvement in this immoral business. It is a pathetic pretext that "parked domains" will eventually be filled with content. If a parked domain is really meant to serve a certain company, the least they must do is announce the upcoming launch of the website instead of filling it with pointless ads that will deter visitors forever. For the same reason, a half-way respectable company would never register a domain that has been contaminated with a spam portal in its recent history and may even be much more expensive than a fresh one. Ad-polluted parked domains (many of which have been taken away from defaulting webmasters and its reputation ruined to embarrass them) are dead domains, and it is good that Google doesn't actively support this business any longer.

Another annoyance are ripped sites, especially those duplicating Wikipedia. While it may be a good idea to have more than one universal encyclopedia just to read a second opinion or to see a different approach, there are many wiki-based encyclopedias that exactly copy a portion of Wikipedia and are never updated. I can understand well if something like news is exchanged among different sites, but encyclopedic content should be off limits. I am not sure about the legal ramifications (Wikipedia may allow to copy their articles). In any case it is a total waste.

Update It is my impression that the number of scraper sites has decreased, or that Google has taken better measures to exclude them from the search index. In any case, it is not really an annoyance any more.

Babylonian sites - Parlez-you deutsch? For ten years I have been accustomed to speaking English whenever I am online, unless I am moving through a purely German realm like with eBay, other online shopping, my bank account etc. However, all sorts of sites force me to speak German even when I don't want to. They are "intelligent", analyze my IP and switch to a customized German version. Likewise, I was frequently presented a French version, because my former company's network hub is located in France.

Google is among the sites that insist on me speaking German or French - when I type "www.google.com" I wind up at "www.google.de", or "www.google.fr", respectively. This wouldn't bother me very much, if the search results were not customized as well, with German or French language results always coming first. But not only the ordering of the results is different. Google has separate databases on their different language-specific sub-sites. I may not even find some English-speaking results with the German or French Google. The only way to switch to the English default version is to click a small link at the bottom of the page, which then takes me to and keeps me at "google.com". Well, I can stay logged in, so Google will respect my language preference, but I don't really want them to know everything that I search for.

It's similar with many blogs and communities. On some blogs I am greeted with "Willkommen". This is fine as long as the German version is correct. But when I visit a blog of some American guy, and it shows the content in English, but the standard links, navigation and even his bio in German, it becomes bizarre. Especially since "Education: High School" is routinely translated to "Schulbildung: Gymnasium". But a German Gymnasium is only remotely comparable to a US high school (the better analogy would be "Gesamtschule"), and it must not be confused with a gym! Again, I could try to find the little link that may allow me to change my standard location, but I don't want to do that every time I visit any website, much less would I want to register at any place I visit, just to set my language and location preferences. 

IMDb too recently exhibits a peculiar behavior. Depending on my IP, sometimes every bit of text, including the menus, is still in English, but the movie titles are in German. I can't find "Star Trek: First Contact" any longer, it is automatically converted to "Star Trek: Der erste Kontakt" for me! With a different IP I am welcomed to imdb.com in German, as it is customary elsewhere too, and I still find the English titles.

I am only glad that most sites don't attempt to automatically translate essential content with Google Translate to create total confusion... But this will be only a matter of time. On a funny note, eBay auto-translates some of the item description from foreign eBay sites as a "translation service without warranty". This includes translations of ebay.at items, from Austrian to German as it seems! :-)

It is obvious that above all the ads are increasingly "customized" for me. But I have the impression that the same applies to more and more of the content. And this is the worst part of the paternalism - it effectively re-establishes national and language borders as they should not exist in the internet in my opinion. If people in different countries are seeing different content at seemingly the same URL, it doesn't only lead to unnecessary confusion, it may even give rise to conflicts. And considering that I repeatedly had to explain to people that I couldn't watch certain videos at YouTube because they are blocked in Germany, who knows what content that I point visitors to may not be available in the USA.

Modern paternalism - We know better than you what you want! In a similar fashion as automatically switching to the language that I am believed to speak, several websites claim to be more intelligent than I am. They anticipate what I am allegedly looking for. The first example has not yet become a commonly accepted technique, and I hope it will never happen. On some websites hosting blogs or articles it happens that words inside a paragraph are being underlined. But what appears to be a wiki-like keyword-sensitive linking to an encyclopedia entry or further information turns out to be a particularly insidious way to incorporate ads. Phew! Sites or hosts doing something disgusting like this should be boycotted.

A perhaps even worse example of websites that know better what I want than I do myself is the automatic correction of alleged misspellings in search results, including hits for search terms that have nothing to do with what I am looking for. Example: In order to stay informed about where EAS is being cited, I can do a simple web search, combining "ex astris" with various keywords. Google, however, gives me many search results with the term "Astrid" instead of "astris", without telling me that the search was extended. Google obviously assumes that I am looking for a girl named Astrid but I am too stupid to spell her name correctly. I don't know what the criteria are, because "astris" is not even an extremely rare word that might justify being "auto-corrected". Typing other unusual search terms (even things that have to be typos by all means) Google does its job the way I would expect and only suggests "Did you mean...?" when it suspects a misspelling, which is a lot more transparent and less patronizing. There is absolutely no need for auto-correction.

Finally, why is it that many websites refer me to "most popular topics"? This may be helpful on news sites, but it has become a common practice everywhere. At EAS, I'm trying to direct people to the best features in my humble opinion, especially when I think they deserve more attention than they usually receive. But EAS is not really made for people with "average interests" anyway. ;-)

Speaking of "most popular", eBay has jumped on the bandwagon and now lists the "best matches" on top of the list, meaning the most frequently requested items or items of the top-rated commercial sellers. This is extremely unfair because sellers of less popular items or private sellers are getting even less exposure at eBay than before by being demoted in the search result order. And there are investigations that 80% of all users don't change the default search order. It is also extremely annoying for me as a "more demanding" user because each time, when the results are already being displayed, I have to reload the search with a useful order (such as by date or by price).

Deferred off-site links I don't know if this annoys other people just as much as me, but I absolutely hate it when I click an off-site link, and instead of being taken directly to the destination I get an intermediate page with a friendly message "You are leaving..." and an advertisement. This habit was a temporary nuisance already around the year 2000, but it has resurfaced vehemently in more recent years.

Even some sites with a so far very good reputation such as Memory Alpha resort to showing an ad page after an off-site link has been clicked. This clearly has economic reasons and is imposed on the site by the mother company Wikia, rather than by the fans who maintain MA. Anyway, it can only be labeled as bad style. It slows down the performance perhaps even more than a pop-up banner would do. The companies that buy and sell ads on the internet don't ask whether their practices annoy the hell out of the visitors. They just try putting ads in every place where it is technically possible. But it remains to be seen whether the intermediate page acts as a subconscious barrier and makes people stay at MA, or whether it rather damages the site's reputation.

An almost cynical variant of the intermediate page showed up for some time (until about mid-2010) when someone clicked an off-site from Facebook. It read: "Be careful. For the safety and privacy of your Facebook account, remember to never enter your password unless you're on the real Facebook web site. Also be sure to only download software from sites you trust." Oh yes. The internet is so dangerous, you better stay in the cozy realm that is Facebook. -- Give me a break!!! Facebook is infamous for its own lack of data security, and they warn people when they try to leave the place?!

Another aspect to be taken into account is that because of the intermediate pages the mere existence of off-site links is concealed, and that they may become invisible to search engines. It depends on how it is done exactly, but a page whose outbound links are "protected" with intermediate pages may not contribute their due share of Google PageRank to the link target, while the page still gains PageRank from any incoming links. If this is true, the consequence is that pages of MA and Facebook climb up the list at Google at the expense of the linked pages. I can't verify if this is really the case though.

 

Web 2.0 Outgrowths

Mindless bookmarking and blog posts I have put up with the features of the Web 2.0, many of which are very casual compared to what I see as the profundity of traditional websites. I am old-fashioned and I miss the days when website visitors actually recognized what was new and exciting and when they used to read and reflect on what someone was writing. Case in point: In early 2008 the EAS counter went up because of several blog, social networking and online bookmarking posts. The subject: "Starship Interiors", a page that had already been in existence at EAS for several years at that time. First off, I am glad that people still seem to care about my site, and now is as good a time as any, even if an old page is in the focus. But the latter is also a part of the problem of Web 2.0. Once it has entered the blogosphere, the old news gets reposted effortlessly, and it becomes something "new" (at until it has been shifted down to the 14th archive page, where it will be lost until it is old enough to be re-reposted).

And while I think that many of the people who clicked the "Starship Interiors" link did have a closer look at the content, many of those who felt compelled to comment did not mind the actual topic. It seems that they took for granted that that I created those cross-section views of the ship interiors myself, although the actual source is credited beneath every single thumbnail. Also, several people complained "So many images, but none from the Enterprise-D?" They didn't even bother going one page level up to look for the TNG page. It appears they don't know or don't care any longer how a website such as EAS works - a real website with a navigation structure, not a blog with overall randomly selected half-baked stuff.

A more recent example of the "old news still is news if we desperately need news" trend of the internet is Gene Roddenberry's original pitch for Star Trek that "resurfaced" in February 2011, at least if we believe the blogger who posted the PDF file. The very same file has been available at EAS all the time since 2006. (The pitch was originally posted at trek5.com from where I rescued it when the site went down. A newer Flash version can be found at Star Trek History.) I don't claim ownership of a file that I simply re-composed and I don't mind people taking it for their blog from EAS, even if they neglect to give me proper credit. But the old news got reposted, and not once with a simple check where it actually came from and whether it was really news, in hundreds(!) of blogs and on all the major Trek news sites. In light of the fact that something found in an obscure blog is hyped in the blogosphere as well as in fan circles, rather than the same content that has been on a major Trek site for years (and linked from Memory Alpha and Wikipedia, by the way), I feel let down by the Web 2.0.

Trekkie-bashing People around the world enjoy Star Trek, and most of them are not ardent fans that talk about Trek-related topics every day. But many casual viewers feel a need to clarify that there is a great difference between them, the "cool" people who only watch it, and the "trekkies" who care way too much for it. In their eyes, "trekkies" are losers that run around in silly costumes or autists that tend to totally unimportant things all day. Especially in the wake of the reboot with its mainstream appeal the trend of nerd-bashing has become worse. Even within the Trek community there is now a certain flavor of fans who have sided with the "cool kids", with the ones who permit no doubt about the new Abrams style being superior to the old nerdy Trek and who accuse nitpickers of ruining the fun of watching Star Trek.

A symptomatic situation on a movie or science fiction message board, in a bookmarking community or a social network is that someone mentions that starship scales in a Trek movie are inconsistent. Several other members, who are often surprisingly (and suspiciously) knowledgeable for self-confessed non-nerds, give their two cents on the particular scene or on scaling issues in general. So far the geeky stuff is still considered cool enough to be discussed. But then someone posts a link to EAS (or to another fan site) where the very problem is analyzed in detail. I really don't expect people to be grateful for my work. Actually, I don't mind if they find misinterpretations or errors in my research and criticize me for it, because EAS lives from continuous improvement. And even if they ignore the link to my site and carry on regardless, it is okay with me. But it happens frequently that someone starts a slur campaign against me (or against other avid fans) and several others chime in. A campaign in which the posters spread misinformation and lies about my site and my person. A campaign in which the posters insinuate I suffer from mental disorders and in which "measly basement dweller" or "sperg" (which I learned is short for "Asperger") are still among the rather harmless comments. In some communities it seems to be a common practice that, after a few pages of decent discussion, the participants feel an urge to bully fans who are arguably still nerdier.

People such as those forumites are clearly only anxious to dissociate themselves from "nerds" and particularly from the worst category of nerds, the "trekkies". And as much as they put down the diligent and dedicated work by true fans, they themselves create nothing but hot air. I have no problem with people hanging around in discussion forums or social networks just for fun, but only as long as they don't do it at the expense of other people. And while non-fans who ridicule "trekkies" are bad enough, there couldn't possibly be anything more hypocritical than Star Trek fans making fun of other fans. I know that I do have many interests besides Star Trek, a high salary and a great life anyway. I don't know if the same can be said about those forumites who waste their time on antisocial rants in online communities, and apparently need to reassure each other that they are cool. It could be they are the same ones who already bullied the four-eyes on the schoolyard. In any case they really need to grow up and get a life.

Wikipedia - hive of conceit? I like Wikipedia very much. It is one of the few sites that I visit almost every day, a site where I can spend hours and always discover something new. I consult Wikipedia very often for my research in various fields. I have learned a lot on subjects that I barely knew anything about before Wikipedia. I appreciate very much that people dedicate much of their spare time to extend the site, to keep it accurate and up-to-date. But I find it worrying that at least in one of the fields where I am an expert Wikipedia turns out to be inaccurate, inconsequential and self-important.

It may not be just a problem of the Star Trek fandom, but it is dissatisfying that well-written articles about major Trek websites such as TrekBBS were deleted from Wikipedia and even Memory Alpha has been tagged for deletion for some time. All because of lacking "notability" under the debatable terms of Wikipedia that might permit the inclusion a local school magazine and perhaps a garage business but not of a fan website with tens of thousands of worldwide users every day. On the other hand, the Star Fleet Universe, a gaming subculture that very few fans care for, was conceded a whole article series (which has been cut down in the meantime though). I'm not even complaining that an article about my own website, Ex Astris Scientia, was first rewritten to one about the Starfleet Academy motto of the same name and then merged with the one about the Starfleet Academy. The only sentence left about EAS was totally off-topic and was eventually removed too. EAS may not be "notable", but the deletion policy should remain consistent, which is not the case as long as some unofficial fan works still have their place at Wikipedia, not to mention many other fan sites outside Star Trek.

Something that offends me personally is that dozens of links from Wikipedia articles to EAS were deleted although they were perfectly fitting in the context, the best off-site links Wikipedia could possibly get, with much more detailed information on the very topic of the Wikipedia page. The cited reasons in these cases: "A personal website is not notable/reputable", "original research" or even "link spam". In fact, Wikipedia withholds important information and denies its users the opportunity to obtain a second opinion by not linking to EAS, the definite #1 website for canon starships, technology and continuity issues. On the other hand, Wikipedia absolutely loves to cite the ramblings about Star Trek by "reputable" online critics or newspaper columnists, although these usually have neither special ties to nor sufficient knowledge of the franchise or the fandom.

Wikipedia gets the basic facts about Star Trek right, but does everything to keep the franchise and even more so the fandom small. Overall it is not a good Trek resource. On many pages Wikipedia gives mentions in novels or games the same weight as canon facts. Some Wikipedia pages about Trek even have note fields calling for citations in "reliable third-party publications" as if these were needed to confirm and perhaps even overrule canon dialogue from episodes!

Wikipedia is definitely the wrong place to look for reliable Star Trek facts. That honor belongs to Memory Alpha, although especially in the wake of the latest movie it too has developed a bit of a "better than thou" attitude towards "biased" fans and their "insufficient research". Overall, the way that Wikipedia and, to lesser extent, Memory Alpha deals with the fandom is another aspect of the general trend that the operation of fan websites is increasingly obstructed and their mere existence is ignored. It is obvious that no profit can be made in any form of alliance with sites such as EAS, which makes them irrelevant in today's business-driven internet. But I can't help the impression that this stance rubs off on an increasing number of private internet users and on Wikipedia as a non-commercial platform, who may have come to think that a place that doesn't sell anything and has no ads can be no good. Fan sites like EAS that are not organized in a seemingly "democratic" fashion but are maintained by single individuals are additionally under suspicion of being inappropriately biased and intrinsically incorrect, as if online collaboration could eliminate personal opinions and flawed concepts a priori.

There is another, albeit minor source of sorrow pertaining Wikipedia. Minor, however, only because EAS is non-commercial and I don't need people who click my link for a living. Wikipedia has enforced the automatic addition of <rel="nofollow"> to any outbound link, which is a questionable SEO technique, with the same effect as the other techniques of deferred linking mentioned above. That way Wikipedia does not leak Google PageRank, while it gains PageRank from any incoming links (such as from EAS) that are usually not protected. The consequence is that Wikipedia pages climb up the list at Google. Indeed many Wikipedia articles have much higher PageRanks than the index pages of whole major websites dedicated to the very same topic and with the same keyword in the title. Those Wikipedia pages appear first in Google's search results, although they are just sub-pages. There are many factors that contribute to Google rankings, but Wikipedia's link policy certainly helps to stay on the top. Maybe I should be even glad that there is no article on EAS at Wikipedia any longer..

Twitter litter I am not a big fan of the so-called Web 2.0 because I was quite content with the conventional internet as a platform for companies, institutions and individuals to present their products, services, research or opinions. I certainly appreciate the new possibilities of online shopping and banking, of online collaboration and photo/video sharing. There are a couple of blogs I like, although it is my firm opinion that hand-made sites are superior. But I never asked for something like social networking, link sharing and microblogging, because it appears to me as a poor surrogate for traditional websites and discussion forums and ultimately as a poor imitation of life itself. I just don't want to boast a list of online "friends" or "followers", even though there is a chance that a few of them may become true friends.

I am willing to give the "social web" a chance though. I am creating RSS feeds with EAS site updates on a regular basis since 2007. As I am running a hand-made HTML-based website, I have to write the source code of the feed in a text editor. While the feeds of blogs, forums and other Web 2.0 sites are created automatically, no one ever bothered to provide a software or script that could enable people like me to convert HTML to feeds or back on the fly. Still, every website with a certain reputation is expected to have a feed. I take the effort of creating a feed because I know that some regular visitors like to have all news sources in a feed reader.

In 2009 I signed up with Twitter because some other notable Trek sites were on Twitter too. I didn't expect much, but what I found there was arguably the most underwhelming internet innovation of all times.

The most evident drawback of Twitter is the posting limit of 140 characters. What can I say with just 140 characters? Sorry, that is not sufficient for me. Not by a long shot. I understand that the posting limit allows the tweet to be sent as an SMS from and to a mobile phone. But it is the 21st century, we have got smartphones and the mobile internet is becoming affordable, with the possibility to switch to e-mail instead of SMS. And while I would not even remotely consider sending out an SMS to an online community, I don't see the need to receive an SMS from Twitter either. Nothing broadcast via Twitter could possibly be so important that I would want to be informed via SMS on my way home. Home to my ultrafast DSL flatrate where I have the whole world on my fingertips, a world that I don't need to and I don't want to be dumbed down to 140-character posts. Overall, the social networks have totally lost perspective of the amount of information that is useful for a purpose and in a given medium. On one occasion they bombard me with dozens of Flash videos on a single page without asking, another time the "news" that people urge me to read at Twitter consists of a few inane words.

To most people it may be a minor nuisance, but the necessity to shorten links in a tweet is another thing that puts me off. For me as an internet literate it is important to see in advance where a link will lead me: to a news site, to a personal website, to yet another social network? Or to shameless spam, to a porn site, to Nazi propaganda, to malware? Provided that the redirect works at all (which is not always the case), clicking the obfuscated link can become a very unpleasant surprise.

The thing about Twitter that bugs me most is the total absence of a logical structure and the totally missing coherence of the tweets. Twitter may be the easiest way to spread the word about serious issues such as protests against dictators, but even this usually vanishes in the white noise of the mindless omnidirectional chatter. In conventional message boards there are topics, and off-topic posts are commonly scorned for very good reasons. In Twitter everything is off-topic by default. I can still try to trace who replied to what, but it requires me to follow link after link, and trying to find the original tweet is a bottomless pit in most cases. It feels like I'm thrown back into the internet stone age. So I often can't tell what two or more people are talking about (and perhaps they don't know themselves?). I was following the tweets of two Trek actors for some time, but I could not make any sense of most of what they were writing, what were the matters on which they replied to other users and to which users they would reply at all. Twitter is a totally chaotic chatter that defies any attempts to order your own trains of thought and your conversations, much less to create something of substance or to really get to know other people.

Following the example of other big Trek websites, I tried to post at least my site updates on Twitter. I expected that could be done automatically, because I already had the hand-made RSS feed as some sort of admission ticket to the Web 2.0. But in order to get third-party tools such as Twitterfeed, dlvr.it or Feedburner to work, I need to include additional fields (compliant with RSS 2.0), which means even more hand-editing for me. As one of the very last dinosaurs who are running a static website there will be a point in the no-so-far future when I have to concede that I can't keep up the visibility of the site in the world of social networking any longer.

I'm sorry if my rather low opinion on Twitter offends the people who are obviously having fun there. Twitter may be a good platform for casual discussions that wouldn't be possible elsewhere. It may be great for actors and other celebrities or for people who just imagine they are famous to gather followers who hang on their lips and click every ad they are posting. But its basic principle of 140 characters per post is in strong contrast to my idea of electronic communication, and since I have to take considerable efforts just to re-re-post my own site updates, it is rather a duty than a pleasure for me to be on Twitter.

Visit us on Big Bro Facebook! My rant about social media wouldn't be complete without mentioning Facebook. Yes, I'm on Facebook too. But just like with Twitter I'm not there in the first place because it is so much fun to repost my site updates there. It is primarily because people expect EAS, as a high-profile site that caters to the Trek community, to be on Facebook. To put it drastically, if you're not on Facebook, you don't exist.

I personally see Facebook as a sometimes more and sometimes less useful supplement to the main site. Not as a place for me to hang around. It is something between a better guestbook and a platform for announcements, discussions and fun posts that are too small for an EAS article and too big for the index page of EAS. And while it means additional work it sometimes really pays to have the support and the feedback from the great people that are on Facebook.

However, unlike EAS, an ever increasing number of celebrities, other individuals, big companies and small businesses alike, as well as TV stations are overdoing their Facebook activities. They urge, almost coerce their fans, customers or viewers to visit their Facebook pages, rather than their genuine websites or blogs. "Visit us on Facebook" - this phrase is all-pervading on TV, in print media and, of course, in the internet itself. It sounds as if Facebook itself were the only thing that mattered, the only way to get in touch with a company, at least the only officially endorsed way. Many companies offer feedback and other services exclusively to Facebook members. Some have even stopped updating their website or have abandoned it altogether in favor of Facebook. Websites that often used to be well-maintained, with a wealth of well-ordered content and with a distinct design. In other words, with everything that Facebook doesn't offer. Well, posting at Facebook is a lot more convenient and less time-consuming than maintaining a fully-fledged website or only a blog. You don't have to care about the design and the structure, much less about the coding and server maintenance. However, it is a shame how individuality is increasingly abandoned in the age of social media, and how it makes way for a conformist world where everything looks and works alike and everyone has to become a member to participate.

While there are a few options to enhance Facebook pages by adding apps (that include content from other social media, for instance), Facebook doesn't offer any kind of directory of apps that they approve of. The so-called "App Center" of Facebook lists only the following types of apps: games, games, games, games, games, and more games. I actually have to go to Google to find useful apps for my Facebook page! (But speaking of Google, Google+ seems to allow no apps at all to make it more versatile or more accessible.)

I personally visit Facebook only to check my EAS fan page. And lately I take care to log out after each visit, because I neither want Facebook to know where else I am going, nor do I have a desire to see "Like it" buttons and other plug-ins everywhere that urge me to vote for or comment on something and to make that visible for everyone in the world. And since I respect the privacy of my visitors just as well, I promise that I will never install any Facebook (or Google+ or Twitter) plug-ins at EAS.

APIs and the demise of RSS Posting content across multiple platforms is a big topic in the Web 2.0. So far RSS (Rich Site Summary or Really Simple Syndication) has been very helpful in sharing the content of a website or blog, but also of Facebook, Twitter, YouTube or other social media. Importing an RSS feed to a reader is very easy, and although it is not possible to parse it without additional tools such as a server-side PHP script or the online service Feedburner, it is also the method of choice of bringing news from around the Web 2.0 to websites such as EAS. The Trek Feeds page at EAS is composed of RSS feeds from several other websites.

But RSS (or the alternative format Atom) is on a decline:

RSS is dead and buried as far as the big social networks are concerned, for obvious reasons. It's not fast enough, it can't be tracked, it can't be customized with ads. And it is only a matter of time until other sites and blogging platforms will follow and will share information only via social network APIs and no longer with each other. Former users of feeds are forced to work with the various APIs (Application Programming Interface) of the social platforms if they still want to include off-site content in some fashion. APIs, however, are incredibly more complex than feeds and can only be handled by experienced programmers. Even worse, APIs are not a standard such RSS. They are frequently "upgraded" by the providers and hence require permanent maintenance also on the client side. Whereas big companies have whole departments of programmers to upgrade their own APIs and to work with the APIs of other platforms, there is no chance to keep up for webmasters who are doing their own thing. At some point sites like EAS will effectively be excluded from social media content in the future.

Well, I could still use the ready-made badges or widgets by Twitter, Facebook and Google+ to incorporate their content at EAS. But I will never do that, because I refuse to post code that I can't control and that sniffs out my visitors' browsing behavior. Moreover, it is impossible to customize such widgets in a way that they blend in.

The API of YouTube to embed videos poses similar problems. Although it is a simple code to be included on a web page, the syntax changes every few months, at least for the interesting embed codes for playlists or for all uploaded videos of a user. Moreover, the change in the API is never announced, except perhaps in obscure developer blogs.

I spend several hours per month already now, only to test and implement limited social media integration at EAS, and for the maintenance of the various services that are involved. At some time I may have to stop posting any off-site content.

 

More about the Topics

EAS on the Downturn - my thoughts on why EAS has lost half of its visitors and how to preserve what's left

Where Have All the Trek Sites Gone? - essay about the shrinking number of Trek websites

 


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Last modified: 13.09.14  
http://www.ex-astris-scientia.org/misc/internet_annoyances.htm