Week 2 of Intro to Digital Communications was all about the history of the Internet, how technology has evolved, and the state of the Internet today. The history of the Internet was interesting (who knew it had military AND commercial origins? Oh, everyone but me knew? Okay), and it was fun to look back at the dot.com bust and express our sympathies for websites that met an early demise. I chose Pets.com, famed for its sock puppet mascot, voice by Michael Ian Black, that tanked after two years due to poor business practices. Here’s the obit I wrote for the site:
Pets.com, 2, was closed in November 2000, an early casualty of the dot-com bubble that claimed the lives of hundreds of other sites, including Boo.com and GovWorks.com. Though its life was brief, Pets.com enjoyed a high-profile presence as an online retailer of pet products and supplies. The retailer’s “spokespuppet,” a sock puppet dog, earned it an appearance in the 1999 Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade and an advertisement during the 2000 Super Bowl. Despite being interviewed by People Magazine and appearing on Good Morning America, the spokespuppet was plagued by critics who claimed he was a rip-off of other famous sock puppets. The downward spiral of the spokespuppet, along with a weak business strategy that saw the company losing money on most of its sales and $300 million of investment capital squandered, led to the retailer’s closure. Pets.com is survived by many successful e-commerce websites, including PetSmart, which acquired the domain name and uses it as a “Pet Parents Resource Center.”
In lieu of flowers, donations can be made to the Retirement Home for Disgraced Mascots, where the Pets.com spokespuppet is living out his twilight years.
The part of week two’s discussion that interested me the most was the discussion about the pros and cons of the Internet. We all agreed defining the Internet was a difficult task; it’s just this thing that’s there that we use every day and base our lives around, but what is it really? A network, a tool, a map, a social space, a dictionary … the list goes on. We agreed that the Internet is a vast repository of knowledge and data, but is having access to that data a good thing or a bad thing? Sure, it’s great to be able to look something up quickly, like an address, recipe or definition, but when is the glut of information just too much? One of the great things about the Internet is that it’s user-controlled and basically unregulated, so everyone can have their say. But do we really need to hear the opinions of every single person, especially when we’re looking for specific answers?
Enter mass customization, which promises to make the Internet more manageable for each user by tailoring search results, advertising, etc. to the user’s interests, past purchases, indicated preferences and personality. This is both wonderful and a little frightening. I appreciate that Google knows me well enough to recommend search results based on past searches, but it’s a little unnerving to see ads alongside my Gmail that relate to specific things that were in the bodies of the emails themselves. There’s such a fine line between privacy and customization that it’s hard to know where the proper balance is. Does this customization benefit the individual user enough to justify the invasion of privacy, or is it really just about companies having access to data to improve their marketing and sales? Perhaps the study of Web 3.0 will tell.