Wednesday, 4 February 2004

Bring Back the Fun!

What happened to fun on the Internet? On most pages I visit nowadays, even for the most mundane things, I am confronted with masses of pop-ups, banners and buttons for “partner” schemes which the webmaster in question has engaged in.

I remember days, not so long ago, when websites used to be fun. People used to put up their homepages, not for any commercial gain, but simply to post things which interested them, made them laugh, inspired them, or simply to tell the world “Hello! Here I Am!”.
It was back in these times that Joe Schmo, your average internet user, was not concerned about the appearance of his webpage, and often took great pride including animated gifs, some background midi music and the deplorable colour-schemes which, for me at least, made the pages fun to browse!

Around nine years ago, when I created my first website, I was damn proud! It was a small website about planes (an interest of mine) and featured everything from animated clouds and planes, my opinions and photos, and links to sites which I found interesting (and which I earned no revenue from linking to). The payback for me was the rare occasion I got an email from someone saying, “hey Vikas, nice site!” or “Hi! Just a quick note to say good job”. For me, that was enough – the fact that someone appreciated my site to the level where they wrote a note to me, simply fantastic.

I fear those days are gone.

At all levels, internet users are pushed to look for “revenue streams” or “traffic streams”, however small, and however pointless. The ubiquity of “free” content feeds, partner schemes, link share programmes and other such widgets mean that the temptation, for the webmaster, is a very clear one. Taking into account the level of traffic and sales volume needed to generate any real return across any of the above programmes, the winners in this are the scheme proponents, not the end users.

To put this in perspective, webmasters may typically be offered 3% commission on all sales generated from their website (from sales of books, cd’s and the like). Given the average price of one of these items (£10-£40, for arguments sake) and the sales volume needed to generate the “minimum sales to pay out”, we can clearly see that even if the user generates £500.00 a month in sales (which, realistically, is an astonishingly high figure for a personal or small website) – they only accumulate £15 in commission. The majority of schemes wont even pay out till your commission reaches over £100, and many – even then – don’t roll over commissions, making it very difficult to reach your target level. Similarly, for link “share” and “free” content, the webmaster ends up carrying more advertisements for the syndicators partners, than actual content which, in my opinion, does little to add to a site.

Magazines like this don’t help the situation either. While they do a good job of providing an interesting for the user about a variety of net related issues and the latest software, books and hardware to spend their money on, very few encourage people to do whatever-the-hell they want, throwing two-fingers in the face of usability and design, putting something fun online!

Rather than featuring “experts” and “designers”, allowing them to engage in some mutual backslapping and self-promotion, why not interview the average webmaster on their experiences with the net, what works for them, their websites and stories. I recognise there has to be some commercial focus to tempt advertisers and partners to keep the magazines in business, but some socially oriented content (not exposing hackers or scams) wouldn’t go amiss, much like the early days of net journalism, when Google was simply an idea and yahoo was fun – and not some capitalist monster, dead set on branding everything with its chirpy logo.

(Note: Yes, I do realise that by the very fact I am writing this, I am one of the “experts” engaged in shameless self-promotion. I make no qualm about this – I’m simply stating my opinions! Nuff said!)

So where do we go from here? My suggestion is to encourage people to build websites about anything and everything, put them online, and forget about the “potential thousands” they could “potentially” earn. Lets encourage the user of clipart, animated gifs, midi music, and quirky java applets, while foregoing the free content, partner schemes and link shares which plague the modern day internet. Lets make the Internet fun again, a place where we can relax, be ourselves, and show the world who we really are.

(I’d also advise that everyone read Cyberia, a book which is now available for free at: - if this doesn’t inspire you to understand the real internet, nothing will…)

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