The Phantom of the Internet
A story for the experienced and addicted owner of a personal Web site
This is a story that only owners of personal Web sites or their friends and relatives should read and can appreciate. All other readers please move on to another story. I don’t want to scare you unnecessarily.
Web sites—they should be called Web buildings—can be compared to real estate. Of course, they are virtual real estate. They do not exist in the real world but exist only on virtual ground, whatever that is. You can get small sites, comparable to city apartments, for free from telephone companies or internet connection providers. Compared to real apartments, they are not wide and not deep; usually they contain only enough room for some biographical information about the owner or, say, a report on Aunt Jane’s seventieth birthday.
Larger Web sites belong to sports clubs. They have one room for listing upcoming events and another for showing the winners of the last games. Sometimes these Web sites have a separate lobby, the so-called welcome page or home page you see upon first typing in the web address.
Professional Web sites are a cut above all that. They cost a monthly fee of $14.95 and are spacious spaces, millions of bits wide and deep, with beautiful architecture and an impressive sounding address. The bourgeois sites merely end with “.com,” which is read as “dot com”. The high-brow ones end with “dot edu” and are of an academic nature, even if reporting only the newest research on the life expectancy of some bug in the Amazon jungle.
The nobility among Web sites reside in the “dot orgs,” belonging to real or make-believe organizations for the common good of mankind, who usually start by asking for donations. Beware! There are some lowly players, like in real life, who quickly start a little foundation in order to acquire a dot-org address, then collect donations and do not pay taxes ever after.
I am only a dot-com citizen and supposed to be proud of that.
As in real estate, you become attached to your own property as you grow into the world of Web sites. You start timidly, small when young, and progress with age and success to more imposing property. The casual composition of a first poem or the writing of a first story suffices for some friends or relatives to urge you to “put it on the web.”
How do you do that, and why? “There are people around who can teach you, you know. Just get one of those smart young kids who know everything about computers. Come on, be modern. How else can we read your writings in a proper way?”
It took a year of such talk to make me put an ad in the local university’s student paper in search of a Web site architect—yes, that’s what they are called. After all, they build something on your empty lot in cyberspace or modify what you may already have, like putting an addition on the back of your house. Even the famous architect Michael Graves once started by designing additions to private residences. He built one for our house at a time when ordinary people could still afford his services. Now, we can only afford to buy one of those tea kettles he designs.
Within days of placing the ad, I found a student to act as my Web site architect. He wanted $25 per hour. I was scared. Just calculate: twenty-five times a few hundred is a substantial sum. I contracted for a simple start, just trying to get my feet—or my toes—wet.
What happened? Within a few hours, the student had established a Web site with my first story already posted. He had done an outstanding job. The site looked great and even appeared in two different colors. My wife complimented me. I felt that I had to pay the student more than his bill. How could I avail myself of the support of such a sophisticated and friendly expert ‘architect,’ who had constructed a whole Web site, and not pay at least as much for his time as I would for a plumber’s?
The next step soon followed. Didn’t I want to know who was looking at my Web site? Certainly! The student set me up with some “traffic reports.” A simple one is called “Tracker.” In addition, there was the one provided by my internet connection provider for free, and, finally, there was a sophisticated one called the “Summary Report.” Wow! I was impressed.
Within a very short time the traffic reports showed that I had a number of “hits,” the term for counting the number of visits to my Web site by people in cyberspace. I could hardly believe it. Had I already become famous?
Only later did I learn that these visits were merely from search engines like Inktomi and Googlebot, which look at any and all Web sites, regardless of their worth or their standing in cyberspace, in order to be able to report what to find or what to expect on all the Web sites out there. These search engines may account for more than a hundred hits per day, or about 20 to 50 percent of all the hits coming to your Web site.
But I was hooked. I began to share my real life and love with my Web site. I kept writing more and more material to put on the site, and watched the traffic reports more and more often to see how my readership grew.
Exciting news! I had readers from other countries—Canada and Australia at first, then the UK, Germany, and more—soon from dozens of countries.
That was the moment when this story began— the story of the “Phantom of the Internet,” a story in five scenes, which may soon be found on my Web site. Please come and visit my Web site so my traffic report can record more hits!
Scene One: Middle Age
A man named Ygor wrote stories about the country in which his ancestors once lived. They were stories of ordinary people, of heroes, and of ghosts. Ghosts, because Ygor had a dark streak, dreaming of the fantastic and letting his mind roam through vast spaces of his thoughts; some were light, some very dark.
Ygor also wrote about philosophy, and then he wrote about spirituality. He developed a theory of the origin and function for the whole world. He also wrote short stories. One Web site was not enough for all this material. Soon he had two! There are few people in cyberspace who need, and actually have, two Web sites. Not even the dot-orgs have that, normally.
Ygor actually had two.
Ygor wrote almost daily—much to the chagrin of his lovely wife. He developed a curved posture from constantly bending over the keyboard of his computer.
Scene Two: In Retirement
Thirty years went by. Thirty wonderful years—or what could have been wonderful years. Spring filled the garden with flowers. Summer let everybody go on vacation—everybody? Winter was time to frolic in the snow, if you were not sitting inside behind the computer as Ygor did.
Ygor had become a computer addict—or, should I say, an internet addict.
In the morning, Ygor’s first action was to look at the traffic reports for the previous day. Happy was the day when the reported count was over five hundred hits in one day. Miserable was the day when the count was down below four hundred. There once was a day with 750 hits, but there was another one with only 375.
When Ygor came down to breakfast, delayed by this report evaluation, his darling wife immediately knew where things stood. By then, she had finished her coffee and read the newspaper and was ready to move on. Ygor’s thoughts were already on what he would write that day or how he could change his Web site to attract more hits.
How do you attract more hits from Web site visitors? For one, there were the titles of each essay. Each story required careful wording so certain search words would provide for high positioning within Google’s search lists. Then there were the hidden titles in the hidden code of each piece and its associated index code page, both accessible only by the little-known WordPad software. Again, suitable titles and words had to be found for that index page code.
Then, you can evaluate to see whether the changes in search words had made a difference in the number of visitors and their hits.
Mostly, they didn’t, but sometimes they did, as you will see.
Scene Three: End of the Trail
By his later years, Ygor had learned the intricacies of improving reader response. On his Web site, little areas called out for his visitors to “Contact the author with your comments or questions.” When a reader clicked on those links, a little form appeared, which the reader could fill out for the author and, with another click, send an e-mail to the owner of the Web site or whoever was programmed as the recipient of the form.
Ygor went far beyond this, however. He set up a memory base of his own, containing birthdays of all his friends and relatives, for example. He set up a “crawler” of his own, capable of finding the actual day of the week for each date of the year. When a birthday came along, a congratulatory e-mail addressed to the right name went out automatically.
He added other features. The memory base contained a bit of personal information about each relative and friend. Hence, the congratulatory notes would refer to that information—hobbies, collections, sports interests, for example. One such note read: “Congratulations, Joe, on your thirty-seventh birthday. I hope you will have a good day of golf today, and don’t forget to drink your bottle of Miller Light beer afterwards!”
As the crawler capability expanded, the e-mails became more sophisticated—making reference to the daily weather in the area of the recipient of the mail and to events in his or her hobby realm.
Finally, the crawler pretty much knew as much as any person would know—or was able to find out on the web. The e-mails became indistinguishable from real letters you or I would write. The recipients could even reply—and most questions found counter-answers in a response. A friend’s question of “How are you?” was easy for the automatic Web site to answer. The answers came in a random mix between “Just fine” and “Today is not such a good day for me—the weather, you know!”
Ygor established an endowment to provide automatic payment for his Web site and e-mail charges for many years into the future. Consequently, even after he died, the congratulatory notes kept going out to his relatives and friends—unless they had notified his Web site of their own demise.
The weird thing about this program was that Ygor’s wife kept getting letters from him—just the way he used to write them and with actual reference to daily events—even though he was long dead. Eerie! Ghostly!
Scene Four: The Phantom Appears, or Does It?
Ygor’s wife could take it no longer. She contacted the Web site hosting company and the internet connection company, asking for everything to be disconnected, in one bold stroke of cyber-euthanasia killing what was left of Ygor’s spirit.
What Ygor’s wife had not known, however, was that a friend of Ygor’s—if you can call him a friend—had hijacked his Web site by simple hacking. Afraid that this new Ygor site would be cut off as soon as he had resurrected Ygor’s spirit, the hacker programmed it to appear only at irregular intervals and from a wide selection of different internet servers at random.
Ygor had become a true phantom—the Phantom of the Internet!
Now, it could happen that a friend of Ygor’s was happily tapping away at his computer and was suddenly interrupted with Ygor’s image on his screen together with a friendly note relating to the events of the day, or worse. An instant later, it was gone, leaving no trace in the inbox or any memory location, only to appear again days, months, or years later.
Scene Five: The Final Bang.
Word about the “Phantom of the Internet” quickly got around. People wanted to participate in this phenomenon.
Then, it became possible to subscribe to the “Phantom,” to be put on the mail list of recipients—that way you could expect phantom appearances.
So far, so good. But then, a presidential election approached. The phantom took a strident approach to politics. Finally, “he” (after all, the phantom was Ygor’s spirit) requested that his readers write him in when voting. The phantom was elected with a clear majority as the next president of the country.
Actually, many politicians are not much more than phantoms of the advisors who direct them and provide them with media presence—even some famous women politicians can and do appear that way.
The phantom began his term as president by hiring Karl Rove as consultant and handler of the phantom appearances—a very clever and successful move, providing all the ideas for the phantom’s later statements and actions. Next, he presented his cabinet and political program and pushed it forcefully day by day.
By now, the previously short images of Ygor on the computers had become video clips showing him speaking—with a synthetic voice modeled after that of a famous actor who had been president some years before.
Until a gigantic power failure hit the whole country. It started with a small rodent biting through the insulation of a control cable of the power grid somewhere in the Midwest, but the whole country went dark.
The video images and the voice of the phantom ceased to rule.
The entire country began to experience a spiritual vacuum.
But the phantom’s wife finally found peace.
How can we protect ourselves against this sort of thing ever happening?
Let’s throw away all our computers.
Let’s go back to mechanical typing machines and use the normal postal services to transport our letters.
Let’s stop listening to synthetic political voices without the real depth of life.
Let’s embrace our lovely wives and leave more time for their wonderful company while we are still together in this beautiful world.
If Ygor were still alive, he would now turn off his computer and look for a new hobby.