4 Things I Hate about the Internet

You know what I hate? Captchas, Challenge questions, spam-nine, and squinchband. Open rant tag here…

A Chill Falls over the ‘Net

It’s not as much fun out there as it used to be. I know this probably isn’t news to a lot of you old-timers and power users, but it’s really sinking in for me. The Internet, and specifically the Web, seems a lot more unfriendly, a lot harder to use, a lot less accessible to the happy home websurfer and occasional content producer. I can think of four awful things that are all contributing to my dub dub dub depression.

1. Captchas

Yes, there are a million zombie bots out there trying to fill out web forms for everything from Gmail accounts to your mom’s site’s guestbook so they can get out the good word about Levitra. Sites must find some technology to determine that you, the user, are human. But CAPTCHAs, those “what does this obscured graphic read?” questions one gets asked on forms — they are NOT the answer.

First of all, do you know what it’s like to encounter these if you’re visually impaired? Not so much fun. Some sites have a pronunciation audio option, but far too few. I guess these sites are defining sight as a necessary qualification for the status of human.

Second, if you are sighted, haven’t you found at least one of these bastards impossible to read? As time goes by, the characters in the captchas get smaller and the obfuscation gets stronger, and my nearly middle-aged eyes begin to water.

The overall effect of trying to get past these things? Frustration, sure, but also the slightest feeling of “I am not welcome here.” A lot of sites deploy these things and then stop trying to help actual humans deal with them (e.g. the paucity of aid for the visually-impaired). Here is a (hilarious) case in point.

My wife is a university professor. She often has to use the university’s staggeringly vast and disorganized web sites to make requests and get information and documents, because there is no one to phone about these things. Here is a little screenshot of the captcha she faced on one form.

a bewildering captcha

Granted, I’ve shrunk the screenshot down, but this is NOT easy to read. A good number of people are going to get this wrong, as I did when I came over to help her read it. So what happened when we entered the wrong code at the end of the form?

You entered wrong code!

Yes, that actually reads “You entered wrong code!” There’s nothing like being denied human status AND getting treated to some illiteracy in header-one markup. And this from the site for the “Center for Teaching Excellence” too.

2. Challenge Questions

These fall mostly into the category of time-wasters, since a) they take forever to set up when you’re trying to sign up for some account, and b) they often require a frustrating amount of effort to answer later, even though you wrote the damn answers yourself.

Once upon a time, when you signed up for a username and password at some company’s website, you might have to provide a question and answer for later use in the event you forgot your password. For instance, you might choose the question “What was your childhood pet’s name?” and you would type “Rex” in for the answer, and that would be that. Well, now the “challenge questions” have to be used as step 2 through 10 whenever you want to log into the site for anything.

It’s not enough to remember your password anymore. Even though you have fifty different accounts with different passwords in your head (because you MUSTN’T use the same password twice, and you MUSTN’T write them down somewhere) and even though the passwords aren’t something you could easily remember because they have to be hard to guess, it’s no big deal that you remembered your credit card’s online account’s password is “mIl33tb0neZ”. That’s just the beginning. Now let’s see whether you can remember the five challenge questions you set up last spring. The city of your birth? Did you include the state when you set that up? Or the street you grew up on? But we moved three times…. And what DID I decide my porn name was, anyway?

It’s an invitation to philosophical inquiry every time. Have fun trying to outsmart yourself!

I especially like the passmark concept. When you sign up, you pick an image from a list. This image is now supposed to appear on the login page when you sign in. It’s the site’s way of telling you that IT is legit. Um, OK. So now I have to remember the site’s freaking password too? Great.

And what if the wrong image DOES appear? I clicked once on a link below a passmark. The link read “What if this isn’t my passmark?” The page explains that if the passmark isn’t correct, then I may have been lured to a fake site, and everything on the site is fake and probably malicious. Well, presumably if that passmark was wrong, then I AM on a fake site, and everything on this site IS fake and malicious. So the information warning me about fake sites is itself fake and probably malicious. It’s a bit like claiming you are a liar, and then stating that you are lying. It really is a philosophy major’s dream.

3. Spam-nine (or gray spam goo)

Ice-nine was… oh just read the wikipedia article if you don’t know. Why should I take the time to crib it? The salient feature of ice nine was that it turned ordinary water into more ice-nine, and since ice-nine freezes at (let me check wikipedia again) 114.4° F, that means the ordinary water, once converted, would freeze. The process goes out of control, and bam, all the water on your planet freezes. PWND!

I kind of feel the same way about spam. Spam used to be kind of funny, and then it became annoying, and then, then it began to turn EVERYTHING into crap. I like to get emails from my friends, and I really like to get emails about new business. Starting up Thunderbird and seeing I have 100 messages should make me feel immensely happy. But not when 99 are emails purporting to deliver important information about my privates or some penny stock. That makes me feel like a lonely loser no one really cares about. Only the zombie spam bots love me.

Or, take my blog, this little modest thing I spend lots of time on and which no one reads. I’ve had all of two links to it, both from small sites, and yet I have 7,291 comments awaiting moderation. Want to see what those comments look like?

must... buy... celexa... sympahty flowers... sympathy flowers

Again, the effect is to parody and nullify all the potential for connection and sharing represented by this self-publishing enterprise. Imagine if I had amassed 7000 comments from actual readers? Wouldn’t that make me feel great? Well, now imagine that none of these are from people, they’re all zombies, bearing celexa, whatever the hell that is.

Of course, the problem is that I don’t have one of those handy captchas on my site…

4. Squinch-band

Forget the flying cars. The overdue technology I’ve been waiting for is really broad band Internet service. Enough fiber to every home to buy the latest episode of Battlestar Galactica from iTunes and just start watching the sucker instead of finding something else to do for 25 minutes while the first half downloads. But no, that’s too much to ask for the $45 a month I pay for “broadband.”

Never mind that some dude in South Korea is already watching my episode of BSG on the 45Mbps connection he pays 9 dollars for. No, not for us here in the US. We get expensive slow broad band. Squinchband, I like to call it, since squinch sounds narrow, but it also sounds like “pinch” and “squeeze” — words that come to mind when I get my cable modem service bill.

What’s the psychological impact here? It feels like using a dial-up connection. It feels like I’m back in my undergrad dorm room, staring at a green on black screen, using a modem whose speed is measured in baud. In other words, it feels like I’m a loser.

Thanks a lot, Internet. It isn’t bad enough that no one reads my blog and some 16-year-old decided the page I posted to wikipedia was “nn” and deleted it. No, now I have to feel like an outsider who can’t enjoy the information superhighway all over again.

Bob Cringely is writing a series of blistering columns about this over at PBS. This just makes me sad. We’re so proud of all the bad-ass competition and innovation we have here in the USA, but our telecom monopolies (oh, sorry, I mean healthily-competing duopolies) are so entrenched that we get yesteryear’s connection speeds.

Oh, but wait, I know what will help! Let’s let the telecoms charge us even more money for slightly better service (if we can pay for it). Surely this will “bring the benefits of competition to consumers” and protect our vital right to choose (products) from the evils of net neutrality.

Yes, that’s just what the telecoms want, more competition to benefit the consumer. Just like the energy companies wanted Clear Skies and the logging industry wanted Healthy Forests. Thanks a lot, Senator Smarmysmile!

So here’s some more bad feeling, then. Despite all the guys with beards and glasses who want information to be free, and who are fighting to help me realize my transhuman potential on the Internet, it turns out the suits downtown and in DC — the jocks and student body vice-presidents from back in high school — are actually the ones who decide where we go from here. We all should have voted for Pedro.

Summing Up

So that’s my rant. Thanks for reading this far. And don’t feel bad for me. Even if no one reads my blog (No, you don’t. No, you do not.) and even if I take telecommunications legislation personally, I have an awesome wife and two unusually smart and affectionate dogs, and I like what I do for a living most of the time. I only complain because things were supposed to be better. And maybe someday we will make them better.

One other thing

I was going to whinge about how sites are still designed so that they only work well in Internet Explorer and how this disadvantages me as a Firefox user. (Represent!) But then I realized that whenever I come to such a benighted site, the short time I spend leaning back and away from my keyboard, with that appalled look on my face, is a moment to reflect on whether I really need to be using this site. Do I really need to be signing up for an account at justtoscratchmynose.com? There are probably going to be multiple captchas and twenty challenge questions anyway. And on my PC anyway, those damn dancing mortgage aliens are still and silent on Firefox. Sometimes being unpopular really is cool.