Brandon Hamber
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Is there a point to the web?

Brandon Hamber

"Look South" Column published on Polity, 4 May 2007

Every time I make my way into cyberspace to trawl for interesting news, the words of recently deceased Kurt Vonnegut, American novelist and social critic, come to mind. Vonnegut nobly stated: “We are here on earth to fart around.” His words ring true when it comes to the Internet. The Internet is, of course, a source of vast information, but it is also a time waster and source of junk par excellence. Needless to say, I find it irresistible.

The most recent Internet toy I came across is Google Zeitgeist. This tool highlights the so-called “the spirit of time” by retrieving information about what people are searching for on the Internet. It is meant to provide a snapshot of a past week, month, or year. Google Zeitgeist excludes generic searches such as ‘ebay’, ‘dictionary’, ‘yellow pages’, ‘games’, ‘maps’ and X-rated keywords, drawing out trends and topics that are obsessing net users.

In 2006, for example, it noted that Bebo, My Space, and World Cup were the top three Zeitgeist movers. This highlights how, particularly among the young and restless largely in the Western world, social networking on sites, such as Bebo and My Space, made a major impact on the Internet that year. The soccer World Cup also sucked up hours of Internet (not to mention TV) time.

More recently, Google Zeitgeist introduced a facility to track trends in different countries. A quick review of top queries for March 2007 is revealing.

The five top queries gaining the most growth in South Africa were medicine, a porn site that slipped through the Net that I won’t mention, Martin Luther King, Christianity and Starbucks. In the UK, they were PSP games, Johnny Depp, PC World, Audi A3 and British Telecom. In Ireland, the top four searches were tourism and health service-related. Number five was slownik angielsko polski, which I think is an online Polish-English dictionary or, alternatively, I just inadvertently advertised a Polish porn site.

Does this tell us anything? To some degree it highlights where different societies are at. The Internet in the UK is largely a tool for shopping, gaming and celebrity gossip, and is clearly used a lot by young people. This is made possible because over 60% of people have access to the Internet at home, and broadband speeds are high. In Ireland, Google Zeitgeist provides evidence of a growing Polish population.

In South Africa, the picture is less clear. Seemingly, the Internet, which is only used by 10% of South Africans regularly, is a growing source of medical advice, but also a place of contradiction. It currently appears to be oscillating between porn seekers, Christians, or those in search of non-violent political action or a cup of coffee.

Worse still, South Africans could be searching for the five categories simultaneously. Could this mean the average Internet user in South Africa, at least in March 2007, is an ailing perverted activist Christian who needs coffee to keep himself or herself awake to engage in wicked habits?

But before you write to complain about my provocative analysis, the South African trends could also suggest that South African activists, inspired by Martin Luther King, are considering a mass protest against Starbucks. Or Christians are trying to head pornographers off at the proverbial moral pass. Conversely, coffee is the source of all evil.

Then again, in Vonnegut’s words, it could just be evidence that indeed we are here to fart around and cumulatively it all means squat. So what does that tell us?

Well, if you have read this far, it is yet more evidence that baiting a reader with useless information is easy, no matter how inane. It is no wonder the Internet is filled with garbage. We love it. So why did the chicken cross the information superhighway? Sadly, the evidence suggests it was simply to get to the other site.

Brandon Hamber writes the column "Look South": an analysis of trends in global political, social and cultural life and its relevance to South Africa on Polity, see http://www.polity.co.za/pol/opinion/brandon/.

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