The Internet: A Wonderful Resource with Some Irritating Characteristics

Stephen H. Unger
June 7, 2012

The internet is a marvelous resource. It can serve as an oracle, providing answers (many of which are correct!) to questions on a vast array of topics. It serves as a forum for discussions of all kinds of issues, and can be a valuable tool for organizations of all types. It can be used to develop skills such as reading and sending Morse code messages. Traveling via airlines, trains, or automobiles is another task facilitated by internet tools. And more.

But, valuable as the internet is, many websites are flawed in irritating ways. Here, I will mention a few problems, and some possible solutions.

Author-Caused Problems

The dates when internet items are posted or revised are often important. E.g., was an opinion piece that refers to the cost of living published three years ago, or six years ago? Unfortunately, a substantial proportion of internet articles are not dated by the posters or authors. When using Firefox as the browser, the date when the posting was last modified can be found via the menu item, tools>>Page Info. There are doubtless other methods for finding dates, but I haven't been able to find any that I can use.

An analogous form of author negligence often manifested on websites is the use of obscure, undefined acronyms. Fortunately, while irritating, readers can solve this one by simply googling the acronym.


Many websites, including some belonging to important organizations, make no provision for feedback from readers. So, for example, if you notice some error on such a website, there is no convenient way to report it. Perhaps more important, there may be no way for readers to express their views on issues and policy, or to make suggestions.

In the case of organizational websites, particularly for membership organizations, one might expect that there would be a mechanism for submitting comments for publication. Surprisingly, such a facility is absent in many cases. In other cases, including websites that publish articles on controversial subjects and which invite reader responses, the procedures for submitting comments is often obscure, sometimes to the point where I have given up trying to get thru the process.

When comments are invited, or, even more so, when the primary purpose of a website is to serve as a forum for discussing some class of issues, a different set of problems can become dominant. This is the situation where a subset of the commenters behaves in a disorderly manner. Some are highly abusive, hurling insults at other posters. Others wander off, posting items totally irrelevant to the subject matter of the forum.

In some cases, these are obviously immature people (perhaps even children) not capable of engaging in civilized arguments. Others seem to be deliberately trying to disrupt the discussions. Their negative effect is amplified when their targets are lured into responding in kind. Clearly, the best response to such behavior is to ignore it. An alternative is to screen comments to filter out those violating civilized norms (some obvious, simple rules might be posted). This can be effective, tho it can be labor intensive, and must be done carefully to avoid censoring legitimate, tho strongly expressed, views counter to those of the website organizers.


Since reader inputs are a common feature of a great many websites, it would make sense to standardize the process, so as to eliminate the need to learn a different procedure in each case. It might be useful to allow some variations within the standard to accommodate some differing features, such as requiring an email address.

Procedures for other operations involved in website navigation would also be good candidates for standardization. For example, it should always be obvious how to do a search, or how to undo the last operation.

Internet Commercials

The proliferation of intrusive advertising on many websites is an annoyance that I would love to see go away. What are the alternatives for supporting websites? Some sort of overall service fee, of the order of $100 annually, might somehow be collected from users and distributed among providers. But, since website costs are not great, and since usage is very widespread among the population, and because collection costs would be substantial, it might be more efficient simply to treat internet sites like public streets and charge the costs to the general education budget. The problem, similar to that of financing radio and TV broadcasting, merits careful study.

Right now there exists open source software that will filter out the most annoying ads [Running].

Wasted Time?

Computer (sometimes called video) games are a computer application particularly popular with children and young people. Many of these games involve simulation of violent aggression, and some claim that they play a significant role in promoting violent behavior. I have no personal experience with such games. But, my gut feeling, reinforced by a brief examination of the literature, is that the causal link between the playing of such games and real-world violence is very weak [Wikipedia-game].

There are also concerns that many people are spending too much time interacting with computers at the expense of direct contacts with other people. Similar worries were expressed not long ago about television watching. I believe the latter concern is much more serious, as television watching has no social component at all, and is an almost complete waste of time, especially for children. Time in front of a computer often involves interactions with other people, and usually entails some sort of intellectual activity, as opposed to passive staring at a screen. I do not feel that computer use is reducing my face-to-face contacts with people.

What Am I Leaving Out?

A major internet use is for pornography. More than one in ten websites (over 4 million) are pornographic, and about 40% of internet users view such sites [Family]. Not being one of the 40%, I am going to duck this thorny issue.

Virtually all forms of gambling can take place via the internet, e.g., poker, blackjack, bingo, roulette, and sports betting—not to mention stock trading[Wikipedia-gambling]. Annual worldwide internet gambling revenue is in the range of tens of billions of dollars. Internet gambling is just one facet of the general issue of gambling. I will reserve discussion for a future essay on the more general issue.


Family Safe, "Pornography Statistics", Family Safe Media, 2006

Running, Jordan, "How to Block Ads on the Web", TUCOWS, Apr 24, 2007

Wikipedia-gambling, "Online gambling", Wikipedia

Wikipedia-game, "Video game controversies", Wikipedia

Comments can be sent to me at unger(at)cs(dot)columbia(dot)edu

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