Web beyond curiosity, affects all of our lives


Plugged In


It's never easy to pigeonhole an entire year, but if I had to summarize 2006 as a tech writer, I'd call it The Year the Web Arrived.

The Internet's do-it-yourself publishing arm is a geeky novelty no more. Writing about it doesn't require the explaining I had to do in 1994 - the first time I mentioned the Web - in a column headlined, "Internet Can Connect You with a World of Information."

That headline still rings true, of course, but that world is orders of magnitude larger. The Web is part of our lives now - an everyday, interactive medium that hundreds of millions take for granted, along with (or instead of) TV, radio, newspapers and other traditional, one-way media.

Here are some examples of how the Web has affected our lives, in no particular order.

Once hesitant to part with credit-card info on the Web, online shoppers spent an estimated $700 million on CyberMonday alone (that's the first Monday after Thanksgiving). This year's hottest trend is "hybrid" shopping: Big-box stores are pushing customers to place orders on the Web for in-store pickup. Easy for everyone.

Still, shopping isn't this year's big Web news generator. Myspace.com gets that nod. In fact, it's hard to remember a day in 2006 when TV, radio, newspapers and wire services weren't yakking about this social networking site - which claims an incredible 100 million users.

Even if half the members it claims to have never show up, an astonishing number of humans - young and old alike - are getting together on MySpace and similar sites to talk, argue, show off, make friends, meet kindred souls, preen and flirt, see and be seen.

On some days, the MySpace headlines were scary - stories of sexual predators using MySpace and other sites to troll for and contact their young victims. Some days the headlines were silly - corporations and PR firms setting up phony MySpace user IDs to create a phony buzz about movies, TV shows or products.

But there was always something going on. Think of MySpace as a virtual country with a population the size of the United Kingdom's - and then consider that MySpace is still just a tiny corner of the Web. You'll begin to appreciate the Internet's reach.

Ditto for the Web's other smash hit this year - YouTube.com. This concept, executed by a couple of smart 20-somethings, was even simpler than MySpace: Give users a place to post their favorite videos.

Millions responded, thanks to another advance in technology - cheap, ubiquitous video recorders built into digital cameras and cell phones. The result - Google snapped up the site for a cool $1.6 billion (yes, that's a "b").

Although YouTube has its share of losing candidates for America's Funniest Home Videos, I'll mention three entries that show how much more is really going on here.

Consider Lonelygirl15 - a heartbreakingly vulnerable teenager named Bree who captured the imagination of 300,000 viewers every time she posted a new episode in her autobiographical diary of adolescent angst.

The buzz lasted for months - until the word got out: Bree was actually a 19-year-old professional actress reading scripts dreamed up by a couple of young producers who were trying make money peddling ads on Lonelygirl15's originating site. They made some dough, and proved to millions that on the Web you can't necessarily believe what you see or hear.

Proving just the opposite was Sen. George Allen, the Virginia Republican who used the racially charged term "macaca" to mock a campaign worker for his opponent. The young man was shadowing Allen, videotaping every moment of the Republican's campaign swing just in case Allen did something stupid. And Allen obliged.

Copies of that video were posted on YouTube and countless other Web sites. It was viewed millions of times - unfiltered and unedited, so there was no argument about context. It gave a lot of voters the willies. In turn, they made Allen an ex-senator and helped the Democrats capture control of Congress.

From this time forth, every candidate for office higher than dogcatcher will video his opponent day and night - and be videoed in turn. And every gaffe will be out there on the Web forever.

The third video was one I didn't see. I missed the original news accounts of last weekend's basketball brawl between the Denver Nuggets and New York Knicks, so I'd figured I'd catch up on YouTube.

The links to the video clips were indeed there. But every time I clicked on one, I got a message telling me the video had been removed because of objections by the National Basketball Association. The NBA, of course, owns the rights to broadcast basketball games, and that doesn't change just because a game turns into a boxing match. The posters were violating the NBA's copyright.

This happens all the time on YouTube - and the entertainment industry is in a quandary over what to do about it. A user who posts a clip from a Desperate Housewives episode generates buzz and viewership. A viewer who posts the whole episode may rob the producer of DVD revenue down the road.

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