Saturday, 1 December 2007

The Information Mine

Before it was called the World Wide Web, the system of interlinked hypertext documents was intended to be named The Information Mine (TIM) by its inventor, Tim Berners-Lee - until he decided that would look too egoistic1.

In retrospect, how apposite that name would have been! The concentration of information available to just about everyone (in the Western world at least) is utterly phenomenal - and though we use it every day few of us spend much time reflecting on how it has changed the way we relate to information.

As a science undergraduate student, when I began my degree only a few journals were available online, and I would spend long afternoons in the library, photocopying papers of interest out of bound folders of back issues. Now, as a graduate student a paper of interest that is not online is a very rare exception to the rule.

It's the same for blogging (and journalism in general). 15-20 years ago the idea of having back issues of newspapers and magazines at your fingertips, to be searched by typing some word or phrase into a box on a computer screen, or browsed through a directory (such as LexisNexis2), would have seemed like a journalist's dream - Now it's as though it were never different.

All of us are familiar with certain websites. Names like Google, Wikipedia, Ebay, YouTube and Facebook have permeated our society and need no introduction. But listed below are 5 websites that I personally consider especially valuable outposts of the World Wide Web that you may not have heard of:

Ian's 'Hidden Gems of the Web':

  • BoardReader - I find discussion forums (otherwise known as 'message boards') to rank alongside blogs as one of the most useful aspects of the social web, providing a kind of (usually) moderated web equivalent of newsgroups. BoardReader does for forums what Google Blogsearch or Technorati do for blogs.
    If you like this, you might also like: BoardTracker, Google Groups.

  • BuzzFeed - The newest website on this list. Find out what people on the web are talking about. Self-explanatory, really - until you see some of the things this links to. From 'All Your Base'3 through Leeroy Jenkins4 to Lolcats5, the web's subculture is something to behold.
    If you like this, you might also like: Encyclopedia Dramatica, eBaum's World (neither of these are work-safe).

  • Everything2 - Like Wikipedia. With commentary - but it's not a discussion forum. With poetry and songs - but it's no Myspace. And with silliness - but not too much, it's not Uncyclopedia either (if you like pure unadulterated daftness, that site's worth a look too). I wouldn't use it as a reference, but it's highly entertaining and surprisingly informative along with it.

  • MoneySavingExpert - The articles on the website by consumer guru Martin Lewis are worth a read, but the real gold-mine (in both senses of the word) here is this site's discussion forums. This is possibly the best example I've come across of a really well-run, active, dedicated online community which will give you advice on anything from credit cards to entering competitions.
    If you like this, you might also like: HotUKDeals, Two Plus Two forums.

  • Snopes - Otherwise known as the Urban Legends Reference Pages, this essential site is the authority on urban legends, chain letters, scams and internet humour. If you want to check whether some rumour that has arrived in your inbox is true or not, come here. If you want to be entertained by tall tales, amused by some of the daft hearsay people take as gospel because they read it on the internet, and horrified by some bizarre pictures and lurid warnings of doom, have a browse of this site.
    One caveat (apart from the above) - This site has some rather annoying (and dated) pop-up and banner advertising.
    If you like this, you might also like: The Straight Dope, ScamBusters.


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