So, how do you get one single "best" website on the Internet? There are almost as many different websites out there as there are different people using them. Different people are drawn to different things. What I might think is the best is not necessarily what you will think is the best. Our personal preferences and style, even our age and gender, can influence what we consider to be "the best".
A quick Google search for the phrase "the best website on the Internet", when run at 6:17pm on Monday 16 July 2007 (New Zealand Time, which is GMT +12:00) revealed 734 results. The top result was an article about why a particular person thinks that Wikipedia is the best. The second result was a poll that allowed users to vote for the best website of 2005, and listed options including AOL, Yahoo, MSN, Google, Amazon, and eBay. The third is an article about why Associated Content is the best website ever, and it just happens to be published on the Associated Content website. Talk about self promotion!
The Internet is constantly evolving. The Associated Content claim to be the "best ever" is an interesting concept. It relates to the fact that I specified the exact time and date that I ran my Google search above. By the time you read this article on Helium, if you were to do exactly the same Google search that I did, you may well get different results. I remember using the Internet back in the 1980's, and we all thought that Altavista was just the best search engine ever. That was before the advent of Google. What will tomorrow bring for the ubiquitous Googleplex? Are you, my reader, currently working on a simple search algorithm in your spare time as a hobby, tinkering with C#.NET, which will become the next big thing in search engines?
Being an early adopter of new technologies, I see a lot of what is on the horizon on the Internet. Currently, the big buzzwords for things that I am particularly interested in are: social networking, web 2.0, communities, tags, web presence, online identity. These are the the things that I personally am interested in right now. Oh, by the way, that changes too. What we like today will not necessarily be the same as what we will like tomorrow. Moods change, attitudes, priorities, they all change in lives over time. I know some very young Internet users who would say that the best website ever on the Internet is Nickelodeon Games, featuring the characters of Jimmy Neutron and Spongebob Squarepants. I bet when they're 18 years old or so their view of the "best ever website" will be somewhat different.
Right now, today, for me personally, the best website on the Internet is one called Zude (www.zude.com). It is an emerging new social networking and personal web presence site that is built using a revolutionary new development platform called Open5G by Fifth Generation Systems (www.open5g.com). It features freeform drag & drop, allowing users to place any type of content anywhere on their pages. The users, known as "Zuders", are allowed to create unlimited pages within their own free account,also called a "Zudescape", and can upload unlimited content to them. Zude's motto is "Feel Free" and it lives up to this motto by providing a real sense of freedom in design options. I can add any content that I want to, be it videos, music, images, text documents, links, even embedded pages from other websites. I can place these objects anywhere that I like on my pages. Talk about freedom! It sure beats having to place your content into fixed, predefined boxes like "About Me", "I'd like to meet", or "Interests". I can have everything straight and orderly, using precise positioning by specifying pixel location from the top and from the left of the page. Alternatively, I can just drop things onto my page where-ever, having things overlap, and using varying amounts of transparency so that you can still see the objects below. I can also easily control who has access to each page, by either specifying a password or by creating an access control list of authorized users. The options are limitless, and the opportunities for self expression leave you feeling as free as Zude's motto says.
As I say, for me, right now, this is the best website on the Internet. It really is one to keep an eye on, as I personally believe that it will soon overtake the current leaders in the social networking space, just as Google overtook Altavista in the search space. With the variety of objects that you can place on a Zudescape page, including embedding pages from other websites on your page, Zude truly has the potential to become all things to all people.
Are you visually recognizable on the Internet? Do you have a "web presence"? What do you "look like" on the Internet? Everywhere we go, whether it be online or in the real world, we see branding, images, logos. Coca-cola. Hasbro. McDonalds. These brands are all instantly recognizable. If businesses do it, why shouldn't individuals? On the Internet we are each formally identified by our username and TCP/IP address, but a computer generated number like 184.108.40.206 is not a very friendly way to identify ourselves personally to someone else. In fact, it is somewhat reminiscent of those highly fashionable numbers that criminals wear in their mugshots. And with so many people now connected on the internet, usernames are becoming more and more cryptic. Unless you have been on the Internet since it began, and have kept your original username, chances are you will have to include numbers as part of your username.
So how do we identify our uniqueness, our personality to others on the Net? The multimedia nature of the Internet provides an instant answer: pictures, or images. As they say, a picture speaks a thousand words! An image used in this way is often referred to as an avatar. An avatar, as wikipedia says, "...is an Internet user's representation of himself or herself, whether in the form of a three-dimensional model used in computer games, a two-dimensional icon (picture) used on Internet forums and other communities, or a text construct found on early systems such as MUDs. The term 'avatar' can also refer to the personality connected with the screen name, or handle, of an Internet user."
What we each use as an avatar on the Internet speaks volumes about our own individual style or personality. As Dr Suler of the "Psychology of Cyberspace" says, "Wearing a costume at a real-life party does indeed filter out many of the physical features of your identity. You are somewhat 'anonymous.' But the costume also symbolically highlights aspects of who you are. It amplifies one of your interests, some facet of your personality or lifestyle, or something you wish for." He then goes on to say that the same is also true of avatars in a multimedia community.
One of the most common types of avatar is a two-dimensional picture or icon. Most are constructed as a 32x32 bit square bitmap image or similar, depending on the forum or website they are used on. Different sites have different size restrictions. Screen avatars of this type are very often "borrowed" by other users who feel that a particular image represents them also. How many troubled teens now use an icon in the shape of a smiling skull with a dagger in it's head as their avatar? If you want to be more unique, to be able to "stand out from the crowd" like Coca-cola or McDonalds do, you need to spend millions on registered trademarks, which is generally unrealistic for an individual. An alternative is to use something which is already unique. Yourself. You are unique, your own appearance.
There are many services springing up on the Internet which provide 2D and 3D graphical representations of your own appearance. Some examples are WeeMee, IMVU, Klonies, and Meez. These services start with a basic body shape, male or female, then add facial features, eye shape and color, hair style and color, etc. Then you can put clothes on them in an almost limitless variety of different styles and colors, add some bling or accessories, pick a background, and maybe even animate your avatar. The huge range of different options allows the user to customize an avatar to bear as much resemblance to their own real appearance as possible. Alternatively, you can go for that "party costume" anonymity and create a stylized avatar of what you may want to look like, or maybe go really wild and make one that looks nothing like you at all.
Not all websites that provide such a service are equal though, and they are not all free either. The very popular IMVU multimedia chat client allows you to create your avatar and immerse it in a 3D chat environment. But you only get a choice of a basic set of options to choose from for free. While they have a huge catalog, everything other than the basic options cost something. Klonies, which is being pushed by the voice-over-IP giant Skype, also follows this marketing method, but doesn't even provide basic options for free. Meez, on the other hand, have a wide selection of free wardrobe items, accessories, backgrounds, and animations that you can add to your avatar. You can also purchase other options with the internal currency called "Coinz", which can be purchased with real-world currency or won in competitions.
Developers are constantly adding to the catalogs of these avatar creation services, so you can be sure to find the latest t-shirt, hairstyle, or other accessory that helps define you, your unique personality. Now everywhere I go on the Internet I am represented by an avatar that looks like me. It is instantly recognizable.
By the way, if you decide to get yourself a Meez, don't forget to mention jedkantos as your referer, and you will get an extra 5 Coinz straight away that you can spend on an item of apparel or something.
The buzzword that is on everyone's lips right now seems to be Web 2.0. There are a whole array of new services coming on-line that fall under the web 2.0 umbrella. I currently subscribe to many RSS feeds that are purely dedicated to unearthing new Web 2.0 sites and services, and additions are added daily to these lists. But how trustworthy are some of these services? I admit to being somewhat on the paranoid side, having spent most of my earlier life as a computer security professional, but some of the new Web 2.0 offerings are just plain scary to me, and perhaps should be to you as well. Take a step back with me and consider some of the options currently available, from an outside observer's perspective.
The first big thing that scares me half to death is the concept of an on-line service for outsourced Customer Relationship Management (CRM). There are many such new services being pitched at the Web 2.0 community. What are we doing here? Are we truly willing to release the confidential business data about our prime asset, our customers, to some geek who knows how to program in Ajax or Ruby on Rails, and who lives in a country that may be known for Internet scams? What could possibly draw someone to take such a risk with their confidential data?
Sure, one of the clear goals of Web 2.0 is to turn the Web into more of an application supporting operating system in its own right. Take the applications off the desktop and run them on the Internet. A great plan. As the workforce mobilizes more, having platform-independent and easily accessible applications available on the Internet is ideal. But are we sacrificing security for accessibility?
This goes beyond CRM, and extends into all business relations and all business forms and documents. There are Web 2.0 applications out there that provide the ability to generate on-line business documents. Take for instance Google Docs & Spreadsheets, ThinkFree Office Online, iRows, and gOffice, to name a few. Again, they take the applications off the desktop and onto the Web. But would you really trust such services with your confidential business data?
Let's take a look at another example. One of the biggest desktop applications of all time, and one that has always had competition from web-based alternatives. I'm talking about e-mail. But in a Web 2.0 environment, there are opportunities to not only run the e-mail client on-line, but also an enterprise e-mail server can be outsourced and run in an Ajax Web 2.0 environment! Would you really want your e-mail server to be run from outside your firewall? Is this good security practice? Doesn't "Internet Security 101" tell you to hide your servers behind your firewall?
The risks involved in Web 2.0 technologies do not only apply to the enterprise. We all, as consumers, end-users, are possibly giving out way too much information. Next time you fill out an on-line application form for a Web 2.0 on-line application, think on this: "Do the people who run this whiz-bang on-line application really need to know my personal home telephone number? Is it even really necessary to list my zip code?"
As I said at the outset, I admit to being somewhat on the paranoid side. I relish my privacy, both on-line and offline. I don't have FlyBuys or other loyalty cards because I know that they are just used for data warehousing, despite the perceived benefits to the card holder. I know that if anyone really wanted to trace me, and if they tried hard enough, they could still find out a lot about me anyway, but I choose not to make it too easy. Are you giving away sensitive information about yourself that could one-day be used to your detriment?
We are getting personal opinions now from millions of people around the globe
The Web is more than just a bunch of interlinked computers these days. With the advent of Web 2.0 and dynamic content it has become more about interlinked people. Some examples of this are such websites as Digg and StumbleUpon, where other people contribute what they think is the most important or relevant news item or website. We are getting personal opinions now from millions of people around the globe. Each of them may feel very strongly that YOU should be looking at this item or this website. By setting up an account on such a service and specifying your own preferences and your own tastes, the service provider can automatically match your request to view something with someone of similar tastes and preferences who has recommended such a news item or website. This is the essence of Web 2.0.
Just on the horizon is a new technology, a new killer app, which is going to enhance these services to a whole new level. That technology is personal global positioning systems (GPS). Anyone who remembers WAP services on a cellular phone will have some idea of where this is leading. But imagine a world where GPS services and the personal opinions of millions of Web 2.0 users collide. Not only could you get recommendations based on your own likes and dislikes, but also based on where you are geographically right now.
How could this work? Think of a social network that focuses on parents, such as ParentsConnect or GotKidsNetwork. Parents submit suggestions for places of entertainment (or any other category) that may be of interest to other parents. The entries are accompanied with the GPS co-ordinates for each recommended location. You are out in the car with a bunch of bored, screaming children, and you pull out your Internet and GPS enabled cellphone, browse the site, and get instant recommendations of places that you could take your little darlings to, places that are highly recommended by families just like yours, and places that are within a very short drive from where you are right now, thus reducing the number of repetitions of "are we there yet?"
Another example, and one that is very close to reality, is when looking for a clean toilet near you. You simply enter your current GPS co-ordinates into an online service provider. Then the locations of toilets in the near vicinity, that were used and rated by other people, are displayed on a map on your cellphone screen. Do you think that this sounds far-fetched? The basics of such a system are already in place. Take a look at www.mizpee.com "Do you ever find yourself desperately looking for a clean toilet in the city? MizPee finds the closest, cleanest toilet and gives you entertaining reading material once you get there. Since the service is cell phone-based, it's always with you, when you really need it."
There is no end to the uses that such technology could be put to. Incorporating GPS co-ordinates with social networking sites will open up a whole new world of interaction, where you can meet new people, get their opinions and recommendations on all sorts of things, and they all live in your neighborhood.
The problem is, I don't know what your neighborhood is like, but I know that I certainly wouldn't trust everybody in my neighborhood. I can foresee problems with such upcoming technology. How hard would it be for a technically-savvy rapist or pedophile to take advantage of such technology? This gives a whole new meaning to the term "Internet-safe". There are a lot of questions that need to be answered first before such technology should become mainstream. Personal GPS is still a fringe technology, but is becoming more widespread. My next cellphone is definitely going to be GPS enabled. There are so many positives to it, and if used wisely, I believe it could really improve our lives in a multitude of ways.
I know that it's cliche now, but this really did happen to me, for real. Back in 1992, one of my customers handed me a floppy disk and asked me to copy the Internet onto it for him, so that he could install the Internet on his home computer. The poor guy clearly had no understanding of what the Internet was. His computer didn't even have a modem in it. I think he expected me to be able to fit every piece of information that was available from all the servers connecting to the Net at that time onto his 1.38 megabyte (formatted) floppy disk.
I've been on the Internet since well before we had GIF images available, and all graphical elements were constructed out of ANSI characters. The World Wide Web hadn't even been invented then, and we used Telnet, Gopher, and Archie programs. As a sysop of my own bulletin board system back then, I took quite an interest in the development of the underlying technologies of the Web. I had subscribed to a newsgroup that was publishing all of the Request For Comments (RFC's) which became the building blocks for the foundation of what we now call the Web. I literally watched the creation of the World Wide Web in much the same way as you can watch a construction company building a new office block. To me this was the great change from what I would call Net 1.0 to Net 2.0, with Net 2.0 being what we now call the Web. The difference between Net 1.0 and Net 2.0 is very clear. The multimedia-rich content of the World Wide Web stands in stark contrast to the text-based format of its predecessor. There are clear guidelines as to what constitutes a Web page as opposed to a regular Internet resource. The most obvious difference is the hypertext markup language HTML that is used to define the pages, and which allows this multimedia-rich content. There are RFC's and ruling bodies such as the IETF, ISOC, IANA, and the W3C Consortium to help define Net 2.0, the World Wide Web.
With this background, you would think that I would have a fairly good understanding of the difference now between Web 1.0 and Web 2.0, right? In fact, I didn't even know what Web 2.0 was until after I had been using it for about two years! All this time I had been using Web 1.0 and I didn't even know it! The change from Web 1.0 to Web 2.0 was much more subtle than the change from Net 1.0 to Net 2.0 was. In fact, it had been barely perceptible until it was defined by computer book publisher Tim O'Rielly in 2004.
So what exactly is Web 2.0? How do I get to it? Is there a website I can go to that has a flashing neon sign above it saying "You are now leaving Web 1.0 and entering Web 2.0. Have a safe and pleasant journey" or something? Can someone please put Web 2.0 on my USB thumb-drive for me, so that I can install it on my computer at home?
We the people.
Web 2.0 has not been defined by a ruling committee or any collection of RFC's. There isn't a specific technology that clearly delineates the boundary between Web 1.0 and Web 2.0 as there was for Net 1.0 and Net 2.0. The fact is that Tim O'Rielly, who coined the term, merely identified a new way in which the existing Web was being used. I think the best way to describe the difference is with the terms "static" and "dynamic". A static website is created and published by its owner, the content of each page is determined by the owner of the site. Even if the website is built on dynamic technologies, such as XHTML and SQL, as long as the site owner has absolute control over what content is available from their site, this would be a static site, or Web 1.0. Conversely, a dynamic or Web 2.0 site has the content of each page determined by the users of the site, not the owners. There are technologies that allow for such interaction, but it is not the technologies themselves that define Web 2.0, but rather the use to which those technologies are put. For instance, a website built using such technologies as an SQL server back-end, with XHTML dynamic pages, and providing constantly updated content that is exclusively provided by the site owner, would not really be a Web 2.0 site, despite the technologies being used. Web 2.0 is about user-generated content. We the people.
So, how does a site owner benefit from handing over the rights to generate the content for their site into our hands? What's in it for them? The answer is advertising. A captive audience. One of the biggest hurdles that Web 1.0 static sites had was how to attract traffic. With Web 2.0 this problem is largely overcome as we the users now have become stakeholders in the success of the site. Each time we visit, we know that things will be different, and each time we leave, we will have (hopefully) made the site a little more different for the next person. And all the while, the site owner is bombarding us with their own advertising, or gathering revenue from paid shared advertising schemes.
Web 1.0 focused on the corporate entity, or the site owner. Web 2.0 focuses on me, the user. Me. Mine. I wrote this article. I uploaded this video clip. I customized this MySpace page to suit my own personal tastes. I have much more interest in coming back to this website because a part of me lives here. That is what constitutes Web 2.0. I can have my own little place on the Internet, and then if XYZ big company wants to sell me something, then they can jolly well come to me! Its all about having a presence on the Web.
I have met the Web 2.0 challenge head-on. I don't have great stacks of money. I don't even own a domain name these days. I don't have my own website as such. I haven't released an IPO. I'm never going to be subject to a hostile takeover by Google. But I am very definitely a citizen of the Web 2.0 space. I have my homes on MySpace, Friendster, Facebook, Xanga, Bebo, and other social networking sites. I have a digital camera that can take video clips, and I have my own YouTube account to go with it. I have a blog, and I create mashups of my own favorite RSS feeds. I have a PayPal account and I know how to use it! And now, I write about all this stuff here on Helium. I am a citizen of Web 2.0, a consumer, a producer of content. Without people like me, people like you, the Web 2.0 community would fail as spectacularly as when the dot com bubble burst. We, not technology, are the backbone of Web 2.0. We the people.
In my past life as a computer security professional, I often had customers ask me what was the best, most secure method for password management. I would then begin to inform them about a sub-dermal microchip implant that I had seen which automatically generates a daily password combination that is emitted via an ultra-bright LED display which is visually readable through the skin. Before the concept of having to have surgery to implant a password generator under their skin causes them to vomit or slip into unconsciousness, I tell them that this is only recommended if you are trying to protect state or military secrets.
Passing the more queasy ones a cup of water and getting them to sit down, I then reiterate the commonly regarded rules of password management, as follows...
1. Do not write passwords down. 2. Do not use a word or words that could be looked up in a dictionary-based attack. 3. The more characters there are in a password, the the longer a brute-force attack will take. 4. The greater variety of types of characters (upper, lower, numerals, special characters) the longer a brute-force attack will take. 5. The more frequently your password is changed, the harder it will be to crack. 6. Do not re-use the same password on multiple systems. Each password should be unique.
What you end up with is a password like rU^k3Dmb1*oqzA8u which needs to be remembered, not written down, replaced regularly with a new unique combination, and each website or service you require a password for should have its own unique combination also. By about now, often even the hardiest of inquirers have passed out!
After splashing a little of the remaining water on the inquirer's face, to bring them back to consciousness, I then proceed to give them the good news. It's not all bleak, there is a solution to the problem. While you can't be expected to remember such complex combinations, this is a task that is uniquely suited to a computer. A computer can quickly and easily create such a random sequence for you. A computer can generate numerous such unique random passwords very efficiently. A computer can also record and regurgitate such abominably long passwords for you. However, this solution presents its own set of problems, as follows...
1. The password store itself must be secure, ideally it should encrypt the stored passwords. 2. The program that is used to store and retrieve the passwords must be able to be trusted. 3. What happens when you need to access your password collection from somewhere other than your regular computer? 4. If you are using such a program in a business environment, would installing such an application bring you into conflict with rules on user-installed apps?
What we are looking for now becomes quite obvious. We need a small application which runs without needing to be installed, and can run from a USB thumb drive or similar device. And, of course, the database needs to be encrypted. Finally, it needs to be trustworthy. Looking at the market today there are several applications that will meet all of these requirements. One that I use and recommend is called KeePass Password Store. It has the added advantage of being freely available under the GPL license and is open-source software, so if you are of a mind to, you can check the source-code yourself, and know that it is a trustworthy program.
For my own installation, I have two copies of the executable file for KeePass loaded on the storage card in my HTC Apache smartphone. One runs locally on the cellphone itself, and the other can run on any PC, through the ActiveSync connection. Both copies share the same database. Now I can remember all those long complex passwords and change them quickly and easily. I can automatically generate strong, unique random passwords. I can carry my passwords with me anywhere, and access them on the screen of the smartphone even if I can't connect the phone to the computer at the time. Using the built-in scripting language, I can even auto-fill web forms with my username and password. And for all this I only need to remember one password, the one that is used to encrypt the KeePass database itself.
Now, if only I could remember what that password was!
Many people get into the online world without ever thinking about it, about why they are doing it, and what they want to get out of it. Because of my nature, my own personality, I am not satisfied with that. If I am going to do something, I generally have to have a good reason to do so. I am all about goals, objectives, reasons, purposes. I have a melancholic personality type according to a personality profile that I did at university. I tend to focus on minutiae, and my current job is a reflection of this, being that I have to constantly analyse facts and figures, event logs, and then to identify anomalies. As I write this, my wife is reminding me of the invitations that I made for our wedding guests, and is agreeing with me wholeheartedly that I tend to focus on minutiae.
This first blog entry is an introduction and explanation of who I am and what I am doing here. As you may already know, if you have stumbled upon my MySpace page, my real name is not Jed Kantos. This is a name I have created for myself, based upon a character from Edgar Rice Burrough's fictional works about Barsoom. I chose the name Jed Kantos because it is unique (Kantos Kan was actually a Padwar in the Barsoom series, not a Jed, I just made that part up), and also, because the concatenated version "jedkantos" was completely devoid of any references on Google. I have since claimed the name on most popular Internet sites and webmail servers, with every new reference to "jedkantos" referring to my own online presence.
While this gives me almost total control of how people view me on the internet, it also allows me some privacy, protecting my real identity. I chose to do this for a number of reasons. Online scams, phishing, and other nefarious deeds are rife on the Internet, and my alter ego helps me to avoid succumbing to them. The fact that I control what can be easily found out about Jed Kantos through a quick Google search gives me a sense of personal security, and helps me to avoid negative issues from my own real life that may be lurking somewhere on the Internet. And also, as Dr. Suler says, it allows "an attempt to understand and explore oneself, to work through problems and find new ways of being." I can be more open and honest about my thoughts and feelings about myself when hiding behind the mask that is Jed Kantos.
On the other side of the coin, it does mean that I am harder to find on the Internet by my real-world, face-to-face contacts. My friends, family, work colleagues, etc wouldn't know me as Jed Kantos, so they wouldn't know how to search for me. This also means that potential employers and employment consultants won't find me easily either. Anonymity and obfuscation are a two-edged sword. On one hand I can maintain my privacy while still being out in public. On the other, I can't really be seen for who I am when I would like to be. Fortunately for me, as I write this today, I am quite comfortable in my present job, so the negative result of my anonymity is far outweighed by the positives.