Renaissance Online Magazine Column

MAY 26, 2003

KEVIN RIDOLFI

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Internet bad habits are destroying the way we communicate.

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KEVIN RIDOLFI, a graphic designer and Web programmer from Pawtucket, Rhode Island, is the creator and editor of Renaissance Online Magazine.

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War of the Words
Revisiting the Internet's ongoing attack on our ability to communicate

by Kevin Ridolfi

Three years ago this month I wrote a column, "Global Village of the Damned", in which I contended that Internet bad habits are destroying the way we communicate. That was my last column before placing this magazine on what has become a very extended hiatus. But while the active publication has ceased, the Internet continues to live and breathe around it, and I still receive regular feedback on past articles.

Recently, I was asked in an e-mail from a teacher at the University of South Australia if, over the passage of three years, my views towards the Internet have changed. This question has given me a springboard to revisit what I feel is an enormously defining societal issue.

Yes, I still believe that, as a society, we are still misusing the Internet and harming our level of communication in the process. In my use of the Internet both professionally and personally, I haven't found there to be many positive changes in the use of the Internet as a communication device in the last three years. In fact, due to the ever-increasing amount of unsolicited e-mail and the rapidly expanding base of irrelevant and unsubstantiated Web pages, I think we are taking ever-larger steps backwards. The idea and goal behind the Internet remains a good one but certainly isn't being realized for a number of reasons.

Choking on Spam
Spam is an obvious problem and the problem is getting worse. America Online, the world's biggest Internet provider, reported that the amount of spam travelling through its servers has risen from 50% in January 2003 to over 80% (or 2.5 billion pieces per day) in May. Every day, we are flooded with unwanted e-mail advertisements, quite often for ridiculous or offensive products. This marketing by mass intrusion is the equivalent of lighting your house on fire to kill an ant. Yes, you will kill that bug, but you will destroy everything else in the process. Spam marketers use simple ratios as the premise of their unethical techniques: send 100,000 e-mails and if only a tenth of a percent buy, that is still 100 people who more than make up the cost of sending the e-mail.

Roughly 40 percent of all e-mail traffic in the United States is now spam, up from 8 percent in late 2001 and nearly doubling in the past six months, according to Brightmail Inc., a major vendor of anti-spam software. As reported last month in the Washington Post, "By the end of this year, industry experts predict, fully half of all e-mail will be unsolicited. (About 40 percent of U.S. Postal Service mail is business marketing.)"

The problem, aside from the annoyance of receiving these messages, is that so little of the cost falls upon the spammers themselves. San Francisco-based market research company, Ferris Research estimates that unwanted commercial e-mail cost U.S. companies $8.9 billion in 2002. Spam costs us billions per year because of server strain and upgrades, improvements in transport technology, and the loss of worker productivity created by the need to weed through all of these distracting e-mails. According to Internet research company Jupiter Media Metrix, each piece of spam costs $1 in lost productivity. We are all paying for spam. Paying to be inconvenienced and harassed.

Those numbers don't provide us with a very optimistic view for the future of one the Internet's largest component, e-mail. If the hassles of e-mail continue to outgrow the benefits, users will slowly cut back on their usage, killing off what had been the Internet's biggest plus.

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