Friday, 10 October 2014

10 ways in which the internet has helped society

As part of the Enterprise module of my MA Online Journalism course at Birmingham City University, I am required to take a look at how the internet has helped changed society for the better.

Here are ten ways in which that has been achieved.

  • Voice-over Internet Protocol

Skype was probably the first mass-produced video-calling software that made use of the internet's Voice-over Internet Protocol (VOIP) system, and its quite clear that the technology is here to stay. Skype helps individuals keep in touch with families and friends over time periods that are far shorter that those employed by conventional methods of communication. 

Google too have entered the VOIP race with their Hangouts feature that is built into their email facilities. While both of these products are mass-produced, national mobile-phone service providers have also made this facility available to their customers.

One of the advantages of VOIP facilities is the fact that they're free, and everyone likes free stuff, yes? (or was that just me).

However, certain nations have also taken to blocking programmes such as Skype in order to promote their own more expensive VOIP services. The Sultanate of Oman, for example, has blocked the service on the account of it being against the "societal and cultural norms of the Sultanate".

Standard Block Site Management notice on websites blocked in the Sultanate of Oman.
These services are more expensive, and are at times barely affordable to migrant labourers in nations that need to use these services in order to speak to their families at home. A call from Oman to India, for example, where many of these labourers come from, is about 50 cents a minute using Omantel, Oman's national mobile service provider. 

They're only paid, however, about $250 a month, which would mean a significant portions of their salaries go towards VOIP services when the same could be accessed via an internet connection which, which most of them already have access to.

Moreover, while most people tend to own their own mobile phone(s), it is quite common for groups of people to jointly own and maintain an internet connection, which would further reduce costs incurred.

VOIP call rates issued by Omantel, Oman's national mobile telephony provider.

  • Faster journalism

The arrival of high-speed internet makes it extremely simple for journalists to conduct research which is oriented towards the stories they write. 

While digging up archives and going to the library to obtain information can sometimes be a time-consuming and painstaking task, the internet allows easy access to papers, articles and books that penned by people journalists would like to quote in their articles.

The internet has also allowed journalists to refer to other articles written on the same subject by journalists at different publications. This allows journalists to construct their own articles more quickly, assuming they wish to quote another article written by another journalist in their newspaper.

This practice is now commonly followed throughout the world, which means that news stories broken by one publication are now shared in a matter of hours the world over by other publications as well. 

In a world where online publications are dependant on the number of visitors that access their sites, this helps significantly increase the visits their sites would receive. In addition, while some might say that online publications can be accessed the world over, there is still a certain comfort zone that people maintain when it comes to finding sources of news. 

Most people would prefer their news coming from one publication than a host of different publications and to see a particular piece of news in the newspaper of their choice - even if that newspaper didn't break the story first - would make them believe that story more, thereby further increasing the trust they might carry in that paper.

The exclusive article from the Times newspaper which broke the news about the Qatar Dream League, a proposed football tournament to be held in the Gulf state of Qatar. The story later turned out to be a hoax and the newspaper issued a full apology. Image courtesy: The Guardian. 
However, faster journalism doesn't necessarily mean better journalism. Last year, a Times exclusive broke the news about a proposed pre-season football tournament titled the Qatar Dream League. The story was shared by newspapers throughout the world.

But the story turned out to be a hoax and a few days later, Tony Evans, the paper's Football Editor, issued an unconditional apology regarding a story, which surely caused the Times embarrassment that would've been multiplied the world over on account of so many other publications sharing the original story.

Extract from the apology issued by Tony Evans, Football Editor at the Times newspaper following the discovery of the Qatar Dream League being a hoax. Image courtesy: the Times. 

  • Online libraries

While there are some nations where library access is easy available to most, those who live in other countries are not as fortunate.

The Sultanate of Oman, where I am based, is one such example. Libraries found here are few and far between, which makes it extremely difficult to look for books from either an academic or leisure perspective.

While the presence of bookshops in the Sultanate does meet the requirements of leisure that one might have, the Oman Chamber of Commerce lists only five academic libraries, four of which are in the capital, Muscat.

For those who are pursuing academic courses, or those who wish to know more about a particular topic, online libraries are very important. It is because of resources such as Google Books and technology that has inspired products such as the Amazon Kindle and other e-book readers that has allowed people to access books when libraries aren't available for the same purpose.

The same can be said for those who live in areas that are severely affected by weather which would not normally allow people to go outside, the Scandinavian countries being a prime example, where temperatures often plummet below freezing during the winters. 

Another advantage of electronic libraries is its near-constant availability. Most physical libraries are only open for certain hours of the day, which means they are inaccessible at times.  

  • Distance education

While many around the world can afford to attend university, that number drops significantly when costs for travel, board & lodging and other day-to-day expenses are factored in.

From personal experience in the UK, I've found out that the above costs are roughly the same as the course fees that one would pay at university level.

This would mean that aspiring students would need to pay twice as much in order to go to a first-world nation and study, but the ability for students to study from their home countries fully negates the amount of money they'd have to shell out towards accommodation, travel and other supporting expenses.

To borrow that old adage 'time is money', distance learning also serves to help working professionals who wish to continue working full-time while attempting a part-time course. Given that these courses carry the same merit that on-campus courses do and cost less, have proved to be an excellent method of education.

  • Work from home

From the period of 2007-2011, telecommuting grew by 73% in the United States. According to a report published by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, one in four American workers now works from home.

This has been brought about because of the availability of high-speed internet and the fact that jobs which involve telecommuting are often done via computers. The working from home option may appeal to working parents who need to care for their children, or when a particularly skilled employer is based in a location different from the office he/she works for.

While it also proves to be very effective in areas which suffer from extreme weather conditions, working from home does not bring with it the motivation that comes from working in an office. 

Extract of the letter written to Yahoo! employees by CEO Marissa Meyer, who rescinded the company's worker's rights to work from home, stating a decrease in efficiency and output as the reason. Image and quote courtesy: Forbes magazine.
However, as Marissa Meyer, CEO of Yahoo! said in an open letter written to her employees, working from home leads to a lack of competitive work culture, which in turn leads to a lack of motivation, resulting in a lower output, both qualitatively and quantitatively.

She then rescinded her workers' rights to telecommute. Motivation and discipline are therefore key when it comes to working from home

  • Teleconferencing

With companies increasingly outsourcing their work to other nations where labour is cheaper or as part of restructuring, coordination between different departments of a company or between two companies that are in different time zones often becomes vital when working towards a common goal.

Teleconferencing between different employees across borders ensures that all parties involved in a project are brought up to speed quickly and also enables individuals to share ideas with their colleagues who are in other time zones. 

While larger corporations may not consider money allocated towards telephone bills a significant part of their budget, that might be an issue for smaller companies and start-ups. Teleconferencing through a VOIP service negates that necessity.

However, job outsourcing and coordinating across nations to meet targets means people in countries have to work night shifts, and those who work said shifts often throw their body clocks into disarray, leading to long-term negative medical and health effects.

  • Live streaming and Video On Demand

Sometimes, it may not be possible for people to watch their favourite television shows when they're scheduled to appear on TV. Television channels have, however, made those shows available online via Video on Demand (VoD) services that allow people to catch up with their chosen TV shows whenever they require.

Several channels throughout the world have launched such services, with the BBC IPlayer and Sky Sports' SkyGo being some of the best examples of the same. A similar service is provided by major channels throughout the world.

Shows are also broadcast 'as live' on the internet these days. For example, football's UEFA Champions League is one of the most watched tournaments in the world: more than 360 million people from 230 nations watched the 2012-13 final which was held at Wembley Stadium.

Graphic showing the viewing figures of the UEFA
Champions League Final. At its peak, the final
attracted more than 360 million viewers.
Image courtesy: Image has been
reproduced for academic purposes only
While the match was available on TV, the game was also available to watch online via stream from

Regional broadcasters who had been awarded the rights to air the Champions League in their respective regions also offered stream options.

What services like these do is provide those who do not have or cannot afford a TV connection an opportunity to watch TV for either a nominal fee or for free. 

However, the process of streaming has been used for activities termed illegal by world governments as well. Sporting events in particular are featured on sites which use pirated streams to broadcast them.

The United States Government's National Intellectual Property Rights Coordination Center launched Operation In Our Sites in 2000, with a view to crack down on illegal streaming.

One such sight that was blocked on the orders of USG was popular sports streaming site

However, a United States court quashed the government's indictment of the website on the grounds that rojadirecta was only an intermediary for other streaming links and provided none of its own.

Similar indictments were overturned in Spain but the website now faces a similar legal battle in Italy.

  • Social Media

In 2004, before Facebook captured everyone's imaginations and minds, there was Orkut, the world's first ever successful social media site. What it did was provide unprecedented access for friends around the world to get in touch with each other, thereby negating the distance between them.

Fast forward ten years and social media networking has become an integral part of millions of internet users throughout the world, so much so that companies now have dedicated Social Media Executives maintaining and monitoring their organisations' Facebook and Twitter feeds.

Marco Camacho of Orlando, FL, was
arrested in December, 2013 for posting
lewd messages on the Facebook wall of
his 11-year-old female neighbour. Image
courtesy: NBC News. 
The rise of the instant messaging feature of these sites saw further development in this field, as was characterised by the arrival of WhatsApp, which allowed people to keep in touch with each other on the go, without the service charges attached to Short Messaging Services (SMS).

Social media sites are now considered the water cooler of the online world, where people stop to meet and discuss ideas. 

However, social media sites have been used in the past to prey on unsuspecting children and adolescents. 

For example, in December last year, 37-year-old Marco Camacho of Orlando, Florida, was arrested for sending his 11-year-old neighbour lewd messages on Facebook. Camacho was arrested after his neighbour's mother found these messages on her daughter's wall.  

  • Torrent downloads

While the downloading of Torrent files is most definitely illegal, there is little doubt that this method of peer-to-peer sharing is here to stay.

This is because only a fraction of those who download a particular torrent (leechers) will be from a country that enforces its laws against piracy, which makes cracking down on global leechers nigh impossible.

While countries like the UK have blocked popular torrent sites like The Pirate Bay, thereby blocking torrent downloads at source, it is also easy to bypass these controls via Virtual Private Networks (VPNs). Proxy sites for the same are also available.

While the bottom line regarding torrent downloads is because all downloadable data on these sites is free, people primarily frequent them because more often than not, they cannot afford the prices of the latest game releases and may not have access to the channels that carry their favourite TV shows.

Essential software such as MS Word and video editing suites such as Adobe's Premiere Pro are also available on torrent sites and while torrent downloads may not help the producers of TV shows or the developers of games, what they've done is provide millions of people with tools and entertainment that they would otherwise have to pay a fortune for.

The wildly popular joint HBO-BBC TV series Game of Thrones for example, is considered to be the world's most pirated TV show at present. accounting for more than a quarter of all pirated downloads. The show's popularity wouldn't have come about if people hadn't downloaded it via torrents, because several countries don't have access to the channels that carry this show. 

Given the current economic climate that is currently sweeping the world, working class individuals also consider torrent downloads to be an act of defiance against major corporations, given the amount of money they've amassed over the years.

Governments and agencies are of course taking steps to combat this, but they've so far amounted to little. In 2013, Canadian torrent site was taken down on charges of piracy and its owner and founder Gary Fung was ordered to pay $110 million in fines to the Motion Picture Association of America. 

However, less that three months later, the site was back online and continues to operate to this day.

  • Online shopping

Why go to the shop when you can bring the shop to you? That is the modus operandi behind online shopping sites. In addition to enabling customers to shop from the comfort of their homes, e-retailers also have access to a variety of goods that traditional stores may not stock.

Promotional content for The Big Billion Day sale
by Indian retailer Online stores are
increasingly common and offer people the comfort
of shopping from their homes.
Image courtesy: Flipkart,com
Amazon and EBay were the first sites that embraced the idea of shopping via the internet and while they cater to an international clientèle, sites that cater to more local customers are now springing up all over the world.

On the internet, it is now possible to by everything from furniture and electronics to health supplements and even groceries without leaving home. In an era where people are pressed for time, online shopping has enabled people to get more out of less.

In addition, e-retailers do not require physical shop floor space, thereby saving on operating costs such as maintenance and rent. They therefore need less income to balance the books, which means their products can be sold at cheaper prices, thereby passing the savings onto the customer.

Shopping aside, the internet has allowed for a myriad number of services to be accessed from home. With services such as banking and ticket-booking accessible via the internet, what this has done is not only save customers the time taken for many potential trips, but also shorten queues at travel agents and banks, where only matters that cannot be resolved online or pressing issues can be attended to.

While online services are welcomed by customers everywhere, the people they will most help are those who suffer from mobility-related disabilities. Regular trips to places they must frequent often will require painstaking efforts from them, often at great cost to their time and energy. What services like these do is enable them to live more normal lives. 

However, while online shopping services have opened up new vistas for people, they've also caused people problems. For example, just six days ago, police in San Jose, California, opened investigations regarding the theft of more than $200,000 via credit card fraud

It is also becoming increasingly common to see internet vendor sell counterfeit medicines to unsuspecting customers. Not only does this cause financial harm to them, it can also fatally affect their health.

A study in 2012 conducted by the US National Association of Boards of Pharmacy found out that 97% of the 10,000 sites they sampled were of ill repute. It is quite common to see counterfeit drugs that claim to promote sexual stimulation and anabolic steroids that increase muscle growth routinely advertised online.

All images in this post have been attributed to their respective owners and have been reproduced for academic purposes only.

No comments:

Post a Comment