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The Great Unknown

By Annalee Newitz

I'M PLAGUED by questions about the Internet that I cannot answer, or that people cannot stop asking. And so I've compiled for you some of the greatest unsolved mysteries about our fine digital communications infrastructure in the hope that you can solve them for me—or at least stop whining about them.

Why do people still care that you can see pictures of severed heads and distended anuses online?

This is a real stumper. Ogrish.com, StileProject.com and Goatse.cx aren't grossing teenagers out anymore—they're the stuff of dissertations and think pieces in The New York Times Magazine. In fact, Goatse has ascended to the realm of legend since the original page was suspended—see, for example, the tidy little "Goatse tribute page" at (http://sam.zoy.org/fun/goatse), full of reminiscences about how shocking that picture of the guy's anus used to be back in the day. Whatever. The vomit videos on Stile Project were cool once, too. But now we have better things to watch—like HomeStarRunner.com!

Why are the people who want to stop spam even creepier than the spammers themselves?

No issue online attracts more freaky weirdos who go on bizarre, nerdorific power trips than "stopping spam." Anti-spammers want to purify their mailboxes by inventing crazy filtering and authentication mechanisms to sort all mail into "bad" and "good." Then they wind up blocking all email from China or setting up a rule that any email with the word "offer" in it should be junked. What the hell are these people going to read if they destroy all spam? Nobody else is writing to them.

Why can't Bank of America use decent security for its online banking site?

It's been almost three years now that Bank of America has had the same security hole in its login for online banking. What the hell does it take for these guys to clean up their act? Must I steal a million dollars? Erm, I mean, must somebody that I don't know steal a million dollars?

Why doesn't somebody save Salon.com?

Salon.com is, hands-down, the smartest news and culture online magazine ever. It's also one of the longest-running independent news sources on the Internet. Its only competition is the lackluster Microsoft-owned Slate.com, which runs occasionally snarky articles that feel like crappy versions of what you can read in the The New York Times or New Republic. Rumors of Salon.com's death have circulated for years, but the thing keeps going. How? And why isn't some allegedly cool company like Apple or Google buying it so that the staff can worry about writing instead of their next paychecks?

Why do the Suicide Girls look exactly like regular old porn chicks?

Everybody online who is "alternative"—and there are a whole dreary lot of them—thinks that the porn site SuicideGirls.com is the greatest thing ever because the girls on it are "so real." What that means is that some of them have tattoos and piercings and look a little like Avril Lavigne. Otherwise, they are exactly like the porno chicks on every other damn XXX site. If you want to go jack off to a bunch of hot babes, that's great. But don't give me all that "real girls," shit, OK? Just because she has black nail polish doesn't mean she's any different from the girlies on Cum.com.

What is wrong with Bram Cohen?

As a matter of fact, there is absolutely nothing wrong with Bram Cohen, the terse, gothy creator of wildly popular peer-to-peer program BitTorrent. Sometimes the guy is in a grumpy mood, but what do you expect from somebody who probably gets a zillion emails everyday from weenies asking him how to download Shrek 2? Why don't you just shut up and donate some money to the BitTorrent project so I can download more episodes of Roswell?

Why is LiveJournal so evil?

This is a truly great, Zen mystery of the Internet. Blog communities are not evil. Online journals are not evil. Brad Fitzpatrick, the guy who invented LiveJournal, is one of the nicest guys on earth. And yet: LiveJournal is the locus of evil in the modern world. Somehow, when you put a bunch of people together into a community devoted to online journaling and allow them to comment on each other's entries, you create the darkest form of social dysfunction ever known. When I think about going somewhere on LiveJournal, I always imagine Kirk and Spock staring into a whirling mass of muck on the view screen.

"What. Is. It. Spock?" Kirk asks.

"It is the purest distillation of human misery, gossip and cliquishness, Captain," says Spock. "We must destroy it if we can."

Annalee Newitz ([email protected]) is a surly media nerd who is also utterly mystified by people who believe in the 'semantic web.' When is your precious metadata ever going to matter?

Send a letter to the editor about this story to letters@metronews.com.

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From the November 3-9, 2004 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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