When Did The Web Get So Obnoxious?

It is a sign of incipient aging, so I am told, to rail about how the world has changed for the worse during one's lifetime. If this is truly the case, I am about to show my advancing years in all their glory. Oddly, however, my impending diatribe concerns the evolving World-wide Web, which has only been in existence for a minor fraction of the years I've been alive. How then can I yearn for "good old days of yore" when the WWW isn't old enough to have any yore?! Bear with me, dear reader, and you shall see.

I wrote a review a while back for a new, illustrated translation of an old Japanese fable (The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter, in case you're interested). The artwork was done in a style I'd never before encountered, called kiri-e, by which beautiful images are executed using cut-out pieces of variously colored paper. Intrigued, I called up a search engine from my bookmark file - Google, as it happened - and started looking. Only six pages were returned, two or three of which had some worthwhile content. All of the pages bore some sort of advertisement having nothing to do with the subject of the page, ranging from a relatively unobtrusive plug for "Yahoo", to a thoroughly in-your-face pop-up banner for "Fortune City", set off by garish "Fortune City" wallpaper on the web page itself that made the text virtually illegible. To add "injury to insult", if I may corrupt a cliché, the site crashed my browser, forcing me to reboot.

Of course, this wasn't the first time I'd noticed the proliferation of advertising on the web. Between e-mail boxes choked with enough spam to feed the lion population of the Serengeti for a year, and web sites that look like Richard Petty's stock car or Tiger Woods' wardrobe, it's very hard not to notice. Even so, I thought this particular instance was a little extreme, so I decided to conduct a little experiment. I picked some topics that Jenn and I have chosen to write about, more or less at random, and went searching for them through Google. I followed the links of the first ten search results in each case (ignoring same-site results and sites that didn't respond), noting whether or not it had advertisements, or was a commercial site. I've included a table at the end of this essay that lays it all out. The results were dramatic, and can be summarized with two bullet points:

Startling as those revelations are, there's more. Overall, sites without ads were outnumbered 2 to 1 by sites having at least one ad, or that were selling something directly. Unsurprisingly, the more popular the topic, the more likely it was to be thoroughly branded (the refreshing exception being the Harry Potter books, where the split was closer to 50-50).

By now many of you are probably wondering why I'm bothered by this stuff at all, especially if you're a Gen-X'er (if you are under 20 years old, you probably can't read anyway). To you guys, brand names adorning every visible surface are a fact of life. Clothing that prominently displays the logo of the manufacturer is not only tolerated - you'll lay out extra cash for it! To me, it feels as if the "Borg" have taken over Madison Avenue, and are aggressively "assimilating" everyone into a world-wide Orwellian consumer collective. I actually remember a time, if you can believe it, when I could go shopping around Christmas without a flak-jacket, and not worry about getting caught in the crossfire over the last "Tickle-me Elmo". You see?! I told you I could work in some nostalgia for the "good old days".

Don't misunderstand me - I have no problem with commerce on the web. From time to time I like shopping around for a book or movie or some piece of artwork that's hard to get locally. Still, when I want sites like that, I like to go find them on my own, and not have them come gunning for me (and frankly, I've never received a piece of e-mail spam that looked even remotely interesting). It'd be nice if I could research a topic without being inundated with strident, gaudy pitches for products I neither need nor want, through fecund pop-up windows that breed like tribbles, and ads that slow down response time to a 15 byte per second grind.

On the other hand, maybe I'm just getting cranky in my old age.

Tim Eagen
February, 2001

Topic Search Criteria No Ad Ad Com
Enya's Watermark CD + watermark +enya 2 6 2
The Harry Potter books "harry potter" 5 1 4
The Chieftans (celtic music band) +chieftans +music" 2 6 2
Orign and meaning of names +origin +meaning +names 0 3 7
Influence of the media +media +influence 6 2 2
Irish music "irish music" 2 2 6
An anime TV series "tenchi universe" 1 5 4
A humorous book by Edward Gorey "the doubtful guest" 4 2 4
A history of Shanghai +shanghai +"stella dong" 2 7 1
A collection of Irish folktales +yeats +"fairy and folktales" 3 3 4
cultural separatism "cultural separatism" 7 1 2
Total 33 38 38