The annoying web

Those of us who recall education, conversation, and research before the habitual use of the web often wax eloquently about all the affordances the web has given us. We can look up facts in seconds, engage in research from our sofa, video-conference with people in real time. It’s amazing!

We also know that things get lost with any new technology. It’s one of the major themes (well, the major theme) of my History of Technology class. We’ve seen that everything from real-life conversation, to civility, to shelf-browsing has suffered in ways connected to the advent of the web. I am considering examining these in some posts.

So here’s one. I have a colleague who researches American patent medicine in the late 19th century. Today I’m on Twitter, and see that A. J. Wright has posted a patent medicine advert. I’d like to share this with my colleague. In the old days of email, I might have sent it to him in an email. But now I won’t share it with him at all.

Why? Because the likelihood of it having been shared a zillion times, and him having seen it already, is very high. If I put the name of the product (H.R. Stevens’ Family Balsam Familine) into Google, I get some right away:

And there are more links below to sites like Rochester University, the Smithsonian, even eBay. My mind conjures up a Pinterest page of bunches of similar ads, and a quick search proves that yes, everybody and their mother saves images of patent medicines.

I am intimidated by the ease of finding more examples, so I’m less likely to share one. My “discovery” has been diffused by the commonality of the find, by the ease of access. Despite the fact that there are still areas of mystery (what is Familine made of?), I’m too deflated to care. It’s like that scene in Summertime where Katherine Hepburn discovers that the supposedly unique Venetian glass she’s been sold is just a cheap souvenir. In her case, she later discovers that hers is an original and the others are copies, but in my case they are all cheap souvenirs of a few minutes web searching. Hardly something one would share with a respected colleague.

It’s odd that in the web world, which seems so to value “sharing”, something can so instantly become not worth sharing.

1 comment to The annoying web

  • jmm

    Yesterday I read an article on the potential of asteroid mining (there’s gold in them thar rocks) that breathlessly predicted everyone on earth would be a bazillionaire when we got our hands on all the space platinum etc., and I thought: don’t be silly. If huge amounts of gold are available to everyone, it’s not going to be valuable anymore–or rather, it’s only going to be worth what it’s actually good for.

    The internet’s great strength is also its weakness: so much hay to obscure the occasional needle.