Digital World: Internet snobbery

The latest development in Web sites is anything but democratic. It reeks of suburban style snobbery.

By DAVID SHAMAH
September 18, 2007 08:17
Digital World: Internet snobbery

internet finally 88. (photo credit: )

 
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Pundits, experts, eggheads and assorted cognoscenti believe the the Internet is the greatest thing that happened to democracy since Thomas Jefferson - voters who are too lazy to go to polling stations will one day be able to vote on-line (probably). Meanwhile, the "talkback culture" has done for the printed word what talk radio did for the spoken word - anyone with a computer and an Internet connection is an instant expert on the issues, or has an opinion that must be taken seriously. But the latest development in Web sites is anything but democratic. In fact, it reeks of suburban style snobbery in which those who are not deemed "good enough" (or are not one of the "lucky children," as one site put it) are kept out and away. Like vagrants with their noses pressed up the window jealously watching while the boss-man's family eats Thanksgiving dinner, the vast majority of us are fated to be kept on the outside of sites like Jooce.com, Feedthe.net, or Torrentleach.org. Unless we can get our hands on an invitation, of course. In a trend that apparently started with Gmail and LinkedIn, where anyone who was anyone sought an invitation to get in on Google's e-mail service, almost all new Web 2.0 sites seem to be "invitation only" - meaning you have to get selected by the site's bouncer (I mean selection committee), or get invited by a current member who, I suppose, vouches for you. But Gmail and LinkedIn had very specific - and legitimate - reasons for allowing only "trusted" people to become members; Google didn't want its new e-mail service to turn into another hotbed of spam like Hotmail, and LinkedIn, following the example of predecessors aimed at the business market that lost popularity because anyone could join, decided to allow new contacts to connect with members with their permission only. As a result, Gmail is still an extremely usable mail service (although spam does get in nowadays), and LinkedIn still retains an air of dignity. But any site that calls itself Oink.com is clearly aiming at something other than "dignity" when it allows users to join by invitation only. Boomloop.com? Brightkite.com? Fairtilizer.com? Are these sites that sound as if they need to breed exclusivity? Or is there something else here at play? Well, there could be several reasons for invitation-only policies. Among the first that comes to mind is the fear of server overload by users seeking to try out something new as soon as it goes live, crashing or significantly slowing down the site's servers and discouraging people from coming back. By limiting the user pool, site managers can keep an eye on traffic and allow growth on their terms, keeping everything flowing smoothly. And while that policy could apply to almost any site, there is a subset of invite-only sites that would probably be overrun by users if they grew too fast - or at all. The aforementioned Oink.com, as well as Torrentnet.com, Demonoid.com, and Feedthe.net, among others, specialize in high-speed downloads of TV shows, movies and music - all illegal, last time I looked (and another good reason to maintain exclusivity). The attraction to these sites - and the reason thousands of Web surfers have signed up to request invitations that may or may not come - is the very fast download speed and wide selection of "warez" to choose from. Of course, there are plenty of ways to get movies and music over the Net, and while some of them are wide-open, others are very exclusive. I bring these sites as examples of why site masters would want to institute invitation-only access. But there are plenty of other sites, with actual, legal business models, that have also opted for invitation-only access. And I'm not sure I understand why. Take, for example, Weewar.com, a site with a rather unsophisticated interface for playing an on-line version of Risk. I'm sure it's a great site, and the crowds that throng to it daily have a great time there. But invitations? If a game site like http://www.urbandead.com, with 800,000 registered users, is open to anyone willing to sign up and play, why isn't a game like Moola.com ("Real cash. Free to play")? Not everyone is going to sign up for a game site, after all, and there are plenty of massive multi-player game sites around to prove it. Ditto for Longjump.com (fitness), Orgoo.com (personal site aggregator), Mint.com (financial advice/management) and a host of others. These sites have their own unique vibe, I'm sure, but there are plenty of other similar sites that offer similar services, without sign-ups, invitations or fees. Clearly, there are other factors at work in invitation-only deals - perhaps the "cachet" involved? If they won't let just anyone in, the club must be worth joining is how the thinking goes - even if everyone knows it really isn't. Call it the snob factor - which is not a good thing, according to social critic Paul Fussell (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paul-Fussell), author of the classic social studies reader Class: A Guide Through the American Status System (http://tinyurl.com/39z7z7). Fussell says snobbery is actually a form of insecurity - by rejecting others, the insecure snob thus obviates the obvious question of who's social status is higher. By intimidating the more worthy competition, the snob gets to lord it over his or her betters - thus making him or herself feel better. Or something like that. The point, as far as I'm concerned, is that it's silly to use invitations to "build up" the attraction to a site. Show us what you've got and let us be the judge - that's Internet democracy in action! If, on the other hand, you insist on getting on the invitation treadmill, there are plenty of sites that can help you out. At http://www.inviteshare.com, you can sign up for one of 47 invite-only sites, requesting invitations from other users of the site. Of course, it helps if you have something to trade in return (although submitting invitations is not required to use the site). So, what people do, apparently, is sign up for all the sites, hoping to get as many invitations as they can - either to use themselves, or to trade for the sites they really want. Mashable Invites (http://invites.mashab-le.com/) offers the same service. Plus, almost all the sites listed with both these services (except for the file-sharing sites) have registration areas, as well, so you can get an invitation directly from the site you're interested in. Is it worth the effort? All I can tell you is that I've got a bunch of invites to some of these sites that are going (and will continue to go) unused, if anyone's interested. http://digital.newzgeek.com

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