My Regular Internet Checkup

file0002054526820Almost twenty years ago, I received a phone call from a polite young man studying at the USC Center for the Digital Future at the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. He asked for my help with a project.

Yeah, I know. It always starts out that way. Then you end up on YouTube with a Kardashian.

But eager to lend a hand to educate the youth of America, and as a former advertising major sympathetic to those whose semester grades hinge on cold-calling people about their favorite brand of mayonnaise (I had to do this once), I fielded his questions.

This is the essence of what we discussed all those years ago: Yes, I have access to the Internet. No, we have just the one computer, the one phone line with a dial-up modem, and the many arguments about who is doing what on it when. Do I “know” anyone online that I’ve never met in person? One or two people, and it’s sort of intriguing, like a blind date that never happens.

Then the school sent me a check for ten bucks and asked if they could continue to keep tabs on me—I agreed. The concept of the study intrigued me, and I like getting an extra ten bucks from time to time. The questions have changed slightly over the two decades I’ve been playing guinea pig. I now fill out an online survey instead of answering a call, and the money goes right into my PayPal account, but the intent is the same: to measure the impact the Internet is having on people’s lives.

Here’s how it’s changed mine. In the past twenty years, Art Husband and I have accumulated more devices that can access the Internet. A cable modem and two Macs reduced the arguments. Gone are the daily newspapers and most of the print magazines; we listen to radio stations through our computers. We watch TV and read books on our tablets. Both of us working from home means many Internet hours logged.

I also have friends. Lots and lots of friends. Where previously I could have rattled off the names of my Web buds for the USC undergrads, the quantity of my online colleagues, friends, and acquaintances has grown from “a few” to “a couple dozen,” to “are you kidding me?”

It’s a pretty amazing thing, though. I love your support and knowledge and jokes and friendship; I love that any time of the day or night I can go online and “reach out and touch someone” anywhere on the planet. I’ve taken it a step further by getting away from my computer and meeting a few of those online friends face to face.

My regular Internet checkup makes me think about how my life is changing, good and bad, from staring into this little box that gives me a window on the world. Each year, there’s usually one question on the survey that gives me pause. This time it was about the validity of the information on the Internet. Which sources do I trust? Blogs, government, newspapers? How much of what I see would I consider reliable? Not as much as I used to think, apparently. And that’s kind of sad. The good news is that if you’re interested in parsing out the sources, you can get a decent enough cross section to arrive at something resembling accuracy. That takes work. And time. Which not everybody has or wants to commit to these days.

It will be interesting to see how I feel about this issue when the next survey rolls around.

What do you think? How much of what you read “out there” do you trust? Has the Internet changed your life for the better?

Grammar and Technology

file0002054526820One of the things I love about the English language is its fluidity—how it evolves over time. But as an editor and writer, that characteristic is also one of the most frustrating things about my mother tongue. For instance, how do we keep up with the rapidly changing terms we use to describe what has sprung forth from the computer revolution? Do we consult style manuals, major newspapers? Take a consensus from our peers? See what’s being used on the Internet? And should you even capitalize “Internet” anymore? Is it a registered trademark? Is Al Gore collecting royalties, or are they being swapped for carbon credits? Continue reading

An Experiment of One…Hundred Thousand

I am a social media experiment. No, Mark Zuckerberg hasn’t plastered electrodes to my head to test my brainwaves while I look at adorable, spelling-deficient baby animals on Facebook, although his calls are getting more insistent and frankly, a little disturbing. I think somewhere in the depths of his underground California lair, he’s training newborn badgers to sing Justin Bieber tunes. But I could be wrong. Since I read it on Wikipedia. Continue reading

Will Technology Drive Readers to Demand More?

It rarely happens, but this year, I had the opportunity to go somewhere nice on vacation. Not only was it somewhere nice, but it was on a river cruise, a “cozy” setting where I had a week to get up close and personal with 140 people, pretty much all of whom had disposable income, at least one variety of electronic reading device, and no shyness about whipping out their TBR lists.

Really, authors. Stop salivating. It’s unbecoming. And you’ll short out your electronic reading devices.

Okay, I sold a few books. But during the week, I had a lot of chances to talk to readers. Not like at the usual events, where I’m reading and signing, answering questions, having the briefest of exchanges. But really talk to them about what they read, why, and how technology is changing their experiences.

“I’m disappointed in e-books,” one gentleman told me at dinner. Continue reading

More Reasons Why I Hate Your Website

A while back, I wrote a post about irritating website features. I’ve just done another round of heavy Internet research, and ran into more disturbing trends–not as much in the data, but in the execution. Maybe these features sounded like a good idea when you planned your website, but consider their effect on the user. Or at least on this user. Here are six more reasons why I hate your website:

1. Slideshows. Oh, how I hate slideshows. When I’m doing research, I’m on the clock. I want my information and I want it quickly. If I’m writing an article on cooking with insects, I don’t want to manually scroll through 45 separate windows containing a paragraph each on different ways to serve Madagascar hissing cockroaches. This makes me not only want to leave your site and never return, but write you a nasty letter demanding a refund for all the time I wasted going through all those slides. Yes, they can be fun and entertaining. But please, either limit your slideshows to ten panes or offer the information in a quick list form.

2. Save your surveys. Imagine that I’ve just arrived at your home page. I’m quickly scanning the information, looking for what I need. I find the right link, and just before I’m about to click on it–Bam! The entire window fills with an invitation to take your survey. I am not happy. I don’t know you, you’ve done nothing for me, but you’re asking me how I like your business. If I approached a brick-and-mortar establishment, and a salesperson stopped me as I was opening the door to ask what they could have done to improve my shopping experience, I’d wonder what she’d been imbibing during lunch break. If you have given me information, for instance, if I’ve downloaded something or signed up for your newsletter, if I’d spent a lot of time on the site or was a returning customer, then I’d consider your survey invitation more seriously. Otherwise, keep it to yourself. New Balance’s website, shopnewbalance.com, has this down to a science. They wait until you’ve bought a product to ask for your comments.

3. Readability, people! I was recently sent an HTML e-mail chock full of links. It was for something that I really wanted: a fun-filled day at ComicCon as a reward for attending a trade show last year. Unfortunately, these links were dark blue on a black background. I couldn’t even read them to figure out what I wanted to click on. Prevent this from happening by sending a preview of your HTML e-mails to someone over 40 before you blast them to your entire database.

4. The geek factor. Now, I love geeks. I am 70% geek, by my estimation. Even if your website was designed by your IT department, don’t make it look that way. Dead giveaways? Type that runs all the way to the edge of the windows. Lots of charts. Too many fonts and no apparent thought as to their alignment. More attention given to navigation than design. For the best combination of user appeal and user friendliness, your site should be designed by an artist who has been trained to create websites, rather than a technologist who has been trained to create art.

5. No means no.  Unless I’ve experienced a power failure, leaving your website requires a decision and a physical action. When, upon deciding to leave, various windows keep opening imploring that I reconsider my decision to go elsewhere, it smacks of desperation. I’ve made my mind up. Leave me alone. Okay, maybe I’ll tolerate one reminder in case I’ve accidentally closed the window. After all, my software says, “Are you sure?” to my decisions throughout the day, so I’m accustomed to one bit of nagging. But that’s all. I mean it. Don’t make me come down there.

6. Proofread. Just because you can make changes to your website any time you wish does not excuse you from throwing it up there full of grammatical errors and spelling mistakes. We’re all human (gasp, even me!) and we all make mistakes. But when the errors are excessive or unfortunate—for example, “pubic” when you meant to write “public” (yes, I’ve seen this, in an e-book)—it makes your pages unreadable and seriously undermines your credibility. If proofreading isn’t your thing, hire a professional. Otherwise, I’ll be navigating somewhere else.

What are you seeing lately on the web that ticks you off? Anything going on that you especially like? Let’s talk!