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Last Updated 30 July 2010, 12:48 IST
Log in or stay locked out

The Internet has become a ubiquitous part of our lives. We read the news on online news portals, check up on what our friends have been up to on facebook, twitter or perhaps a forum we belong to, tune into some music from an internet radio station. If we are shopping, especially for electronic goods or books, many of us use google to search for products and reviews on online sites and perhaps use amazon to buy the goods. The first place we look for information about a product, a brand or an organisation is on the corresponding website — a far cry from even a few years back.

If we are travelling, we use the Internet to book our tickets, check the weather, what to do, what to see and what to wear. Serving us all this information are over 28 billion  webpages on the World Wide Web, belonging to over 46 million  domains. You are fairly unlikely to ever see all of them, but that really doesn’t matter. Because like everything else, there are websites and then, there are websites that have changed our lives and the world we live in fundamentally.

I was emptying out some old drawers, and came across a letter dating back to 1997. It felt strange reading it on paper, and not seeing it on a screen. And that’s how much  electronic mail has become a part of our lives. Hotmail was one of the first to introduce the concept of email that could be accessed from anywhere using a browser. The concept has revolutionised our lives — we are “in touch” wherever we go. Even our grannies have email IDs now. And nobody I know writes a letter.

A search engine so popular it has become an eponym. The Merriam-Webster dictionary, in 2006, added the verb “to google” to its dictionary, and with just reason. While Google was certainly not the first search engine in the world, it is powerful search and prioritising algorithms called Pagerank, quickly made it the search engine of choice following its launch in 1998. Who knows what people did before google? I am sure google has the answer to that — after all, it is our window into the 28 billion pages of information and insight on the Internet.

When I was a kid, my friends and I used to hang out in the evenings and everyone wanted to tell everyone else what they had been up to during the day. Not anymore — for everything is on Facebook. Over 500 million people have joined the conversation, gossip and daily dose of blah on Facebook and it is growing everyday. With Facebook, you never forget friends. Once on your friend list, it is but a click to send them a message. And they know everything you have been doing and you know what they have been doing too. You did update your status this morning, didn’t you?

If Facebook lets you tell people what you have been up to, Twitter goes a step further. You can now broadcast your thoughts in 140 characters or less. And everyone is on the bandwagon. Companies, actors, starlets, politicians, sports stars — everyone is busy telling the world what they are thinking, what they want to do, what they are doing and what their opinion is. And their followers, numbering in the millions, are all listening and responding back. It is almost a window into the collective persona of the globe. Of course, tweet with caution, as a certain Mr Tharoor found out.

In the good old days, people gave their second-hand stuff to the maid or the raddiwala, or browsed the papers for the best exchange offer. Then ebay came along, and people discovered that there were loads of people willing to pay good money for these things. And they also discovered that there were loads of people selling the stuff they wanted. Ebay has become the world’s largest marketplace and millions of people all over the world bid frantically for — well for anything and everything because there is nothing that has not been sold on ebay, including several ladies who have used ebay to find the market price of their virginity.

Though UK’s Thomson Holidays was the first online retailer (circa 1981), no other online retailer represents an online buying experience as much as Amazon does. Today, there is little that Amazon doesn’t sell — books, electronics, music, clothes, whatever — and it is the 8th most visited website in the world. Amazon allowed people to check out reviews by other customers, look at what other people were buying, and simplified the entire buying process with facilities like one-click checkout. They fundamentally changed changed consumer perceptions about buying online.

I remember the days when encyclopedias used to be big, leather-bound, beautifully illustrated tomes that were displayed in showcases. But for the current generation, wikipedia is where the answers lie. With an unlimited capacity for information, wikipedia has articles on almost everything under the sun. It provides quick answers, and also references for more in-depth research. As a collator of information, wikipedia is invaluable and has become an indispensable part of our lives since its debut in 2001.

People have always liked to travel and see strange lands from time immemorial. The traditional way to travel was to go to a travel agent who would then help decide the itinerary and book your tickets and accommodation. Online travel agents changed that for ever, enabling people to research their vacations from the comfort of their homes and make all their arrangements themselves. They provided online reviews of hotels, allowed people to compare lodgings, find flight times and routes that were most convenient and have total control of their holiday. It is a paradigm shift from the times when you were dependent on the travel agent to ensure you had a good holiday.

The Blogosphere

Previously, it was very difficult to voice your opinion to the world. The only option was to write a letter to a newspaper, who “might” print it on page 7! Blogs changed all that. If you could string two sentences together, you could tell the world what you thought about anything you fancied. You could tell the world your story and people were ready to listen. Blogs gave the janta a voice that could be heard. Today, blogs are used by corporations to express their views, by politicians to reach out to the masses, by news sites to discuss public opinion and most of all, by the common man to reach out to the world and communicate.

YouTube has enabled us to share our lives with people in a way that was unimaginable even a few years back. It has made video a part of our everyday life. If a picture is worth a million words, a video is worth a million times that. The videos on YouTube give us a glimpse into people’s lives and events across the globe. Beyond that, YouTube videos give us instant updates on what’s happening across the world — we are instantly aware of momentous happenings, natural disasters, rock shows and even the odd wardrobe malfunction. They are all recorded for posterity on youtube as a living encyclopedia of our world as it is today.

Napster introduced file-sharing into our collective vocabulary. It popularised online music and revolutionised the way music and films were sold. Legitimate file-sharing evolved into the hundreds of online media stores that exist today, including itunes. Napster also gave music and film piracy a boost like never before, before relentless action by the record companies put it out of its original business. Today Napster is a legitimate website where you can listen to unlimited tracks and buy music, but back then, it was an exciting world of free spirits.

Craigslist is the world’s bulletin board, where you can interact with your local community for your needs and wants. Post your “wanted” advertisement on craigslist, and someone is almost certain to respond. It has also taken the place of garage sales, providing a convenient place to post the items you want to sell, without the hassle of an online auction site like ebay. Today, craigslist is used to post jobs offers, jobs wanted, real estate offers, sell household items or any of the millions of transactions that a community engages in on a daily basis.

For many, it is a means of reaching out to the people around them and seeking their assistance. And, according to Craig Newmark who started it: “It works because it gives people a voice, a sense of community trust and even intimacy”.


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Imagine a world where you have friends in every city. Friends you can stay with and who help you really experience the place, its culture and its people. That is what ‘couch surfing’ (www.couchsurfing. org) is about.

Bangalore couple, Vijay and Niyatee Sharma, tell you their experience with CouchSurfing.

“We discovered CouchSurfing in 2008 and immediately signed up. The concept is simple. You offer to host travellers to your city and in turn, you get to stay with local people when you travel. The rewards are enormous. We went on a backpacking trip to Greece and Turkey and were hosted in Athens by a girl who is an architect. I am an interior designer myself, so we had shared common interests. Staying with her helped us discover the real Greece. Travelling is not about visiting museums, it is about experiencing the place, the food, the culture. And staying with a local makes this possible. We roamed narrow alleyways and the bazaars that the locals go to, and found a side of Greece that few experience. CouchSurfing helps you find new friends all over the world, discover people with common interests, really get the pulse of a place and its culture and save money in the bargain. Of course, you need to be open-minded for this to work and you need to like to meet people and make friends. Hosting people is also great fun because it broadens your horizons enormously. Over the past two years, we have hosted 15-20 travellers from Germany, France and many other countries. It has never been a chore — our guests are inevitably polite, sensitive to our lives and go to great lengths to ensure that they never become a burden. It is a great way for ‘making connections between travellers and the local communities they visit’, to quote the couchsurfing website.”

Augmented reality

In its most pervasive form yet, technology is blurring the line between what is real and what’s computer generated, by adding information to the world around us and increasing our understanding of our reality context in real time. Augmented reality adds sounds, visuals, touch and other sensory perceptions to the world around you that helps you find what you want quicker and enriches your interactions with the world. This has enormous potential. An example is a cell phone that uses GPS positioning to locate your current position, uses that information to find out what shops are around you and sends you messages in real time about the offers the shops have. Or if you are a traveller, to tell you something about the historical building you are standing next to. AR could superimpose an X-ray onto a person’s body as the doctor is examining him through some headgear that the doctor wears — this helps the doctor diagnose the problem more effectively. Or it could retrieve and provide you a personal profile of the person walking up to you — the resulting engagement is likely to be far richer. It is exciting to imagine a world where we are fully aware of our environment and use that information to shape the way we engage with people and objects around us — the technology is there and it is coming into your life now.

(Published 30 July 2010, 12:34 IST)

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