Most powerful tool known to mankind

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The internet

If information is power then the internet is the most powerful tool known to mankind. Made up of millions of interconnected computers connected over billions of miles of cables, the internet has revolutionised the world making it feel ever smaller. With so many resources available on the internet, and all of the problems that each of them have. Which resource has had the biggest influence on compelling us to connect 681 million devices to it (Internet Systems Consortium, 2009)?

Social Networks

The latest craze to hit the internet has been the social network. Sites like Facebook allow millions of users to connect with each other creating communities of friends who can each share pictures and comments. Facebook alone has more than 350 million active users. With more than 2.5 billion photos between them and more the 3.5 billion events created every month (Facebook, 2009). These statistics show just how much of an influence social networking sites have. A similar look at competitor sites like Twitter or MySpace would result in similar statistics. For many people social networking sites are an essential part of their everyday lives, allowing distant family and close friends to keep in touch. Individuals are not the only ones benefiting from the likes of social networks, many businesses now incorporate them as a key part of their advertising. For example, a nightclub in Derby might send out messages to all of the members of a "Derby University" group about special offers on student nights. This quick and cheep ability to advertise has lead many bands, shops, and clubs into the social networking web.

However, there are some issues with social networks. The first and possibly most troubling of these is cyber-bullying. On March the 3rd 2009 British researchers claimed that social networking websites are "Fuelling an epidemic of online bullying" (Prigg, 2009) and went on claim that one in three British children are bullied on the internet. Another key issue associated with social networks is identity theft. Users post up pictures of themselves as well as information such as their date of birth and schools they went too. This information is what banks usually ask for to identify who you are when you ring up to make telephone transactions. A BBC television broadcast in 2008 showed just how easy it is to steal details from a Facebook user as a part of their Click program (Kelly, 2008). However, personal details from Facebook are exploited for more than just fraud. Many businesses use the information for market research and data mining, which could lead to unwanted spam messages.

Shopping

One of the first big things the internet offered was online shopping. Allowing users to shop from anywhere that has an internet connection, resulted in a huge boom of online shops. Firstly, it allows people that are unable to travel to shop online. Secondly and possibly, most importantly it has opened up shops to the global market place. Previously a store would need to be setup in every town in order to cover a large area of shoppers, requiring many members of staff. Now a single warehouse can be setup and can serve the whole world. This has allowed shops like Amazon to seemingly appear from nowhere and now be one of the biggest retailers in the world.

As always however, there are disadvantages. The first and most obvious being that goods purchased online are going to need to be delivered, which is going to take time, with many shops taking up to a week on regular postage options. However, it has also opened the doors to a lot of crime. Websites that are not secure could allow criminals access to customer payment details. Many websites are designed with fraudulent intentions from the start. Designed to steal money, send inferior goods or send no goods at all.

Information Resources

One resource the internet has always offered us is information. This is even more the case with the modern internet offering us sites like Wikipedia the free online encyclopaedia, maintained by the public. There is such a wealth of knowledge out there that the expression "Google it" has become commonplace in the modern world. Resources like Google offer a priceless facility to many web surfers. Allowing people to enter a search request and then have hundreds of pages on the subject presented to them. This allows research that could take days of visiting public libraries take mere seconds. For example, someone feeling ill can easily search for their symptoms and quickly find many resources on what might be wrong with them, as opposed to visiting a doctor.

However, the information provided by the internet comes at a cost, because of the free nature of the internet; anyone can create a website that could state anything. This has been the subject of huge debates between academics and the people running sites such as Wikipedia. Many schools and universities refuse to allow students to use Wikipedia because there is no guarantee that the information provided by it is reliable. There is also another hidden side to the debate, the wealth of internet resources are making it increasingly easy to plagiarize a university education. An online survey last year at the University of Cambridge showed that 49% of students admitted to plagiarizing. The study identified Wikipedia as the largest source with 82% of plagiarists admitting taking materials from the website (BBC News, 2008).

Downloadable Media

One of the newest emerging markets on the internet is for downloadable consumable media. At the forefront of this market are two companies, Apple with their iTunes application and Amazon with their download store. Both companies offer content like mp3 music, movies, books, and even computer games. This new market has allowed consumers to download music and movies instantly to their computers meaning that they do not have to go to stores. This consumption of media is becoming more and more commonplace in the market, with manufactures starting to incorporate the software required into their new television sets and games consoles. Organisations like the BBC have also embraced the digital content era, offering free streaming and downloading of television broadcasts to any UK residents.

Downloadable media has been in the news a lot recently. This is because along with great services like iTunes, there is also a huge web of people who illegally download content using peer-to-peer download applications like Bit-torrent and illegal UseNet groups. This is causing big problems for the original owners of the media who are missing vast quantities of revenue. Studies conducted in January showed that 95% of all music downloads are illegal (Swash, 2009). This clearly shows that although services like iTunes are very popular, illegally downloaded music is still the medium of choice for many music fans. Researchers investigating one of the file-sharing networks discovered that 1.3 million users in the UK were actively downloading on an average weekday. The researchers estimated that over the space of a year these users were gaining free access to 12 billion pounds of media (BBC News(2), 2009), illegal downloads like this are harming the entertainment industries as well as affecting the UK economy.

Effect on the Internet

Advances to combat the problems facing each of these areas are under constant development. Social networking for example is receiving government attention in the UK to help fight bullying. A British teenager was sent to prison in august of this year for death threats posted on Facebook (Salkeld, 2009). Furthermore, many banks are changing the methods they use for customer identification by changing the security questions they ask and sending out special electronic card readers for online bankers to secure their accounts (Wallop, 2007). Online shops are also gearing up their defences with new systems like PayPal and Google Checkout, which work as a third party. Sorting out any discrepancies and offering full refunds to buyers when problems are not sorted out. This system offers a layer of security and trust to smaller websites and sellers.

Illegal downloads are also being actively combated to try and make digital media sales more popular however the changes are coming at a very slow rate. Against much controversy, the UK government recently put forward a plan to ask internet providers to monitor user downloads and provide warnings followed by line disconnection. However many internet providers are refusing the new legislation claiming it's not their job to regulate downloads and worried about losing customers (BBC News (3), 2008).

Each of these areas has had a huge impact on the internet, and the individuals that use it. However, it is my opinion that information resources have had the biggest influence on internet use. This is because the benefits of being able to have a portable free to use resource for finding out about almost anything is one of the key reasons for the creation of the internet, the first web page was designed to inform people about the progress, and details of physicist Tim Berners-Lee's project the Hypertext webpage (CERN, 2008). Although there are many issues concerning the reliability of websites like Wikipedia, it is also easy to find many other articles that could backup or contrast the opinions of a single article. Furthermore, issues regarding plagiarism in the education sector are being combated by anti plagiarism applications like Turn-It-In used by many universities in the UK (Staffordshire University, 2008).

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