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Getting Lost Online

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'People got tired of cities after the war, and they are getting tired of the Web, too. Don't get me wrong: I love the Web, but it's a wild and dangerous place. It's a teeming commercial city. It's haphazardly planned. Its public spaces are mobbed' (Virginia Heffernan, 2012).

HOW do you find your way around the city when you don't have a Google map? Where is the app to help you find your way around the web?

Sure, a number of directories and sites exist online -- some very thorough -- but for the most part the web is like a crowded, sometimes unsafe and scary, city.

With almost 11 million Australian users linked in some way to social media champion Facebook -- not to mention Twitter, Tumblr, Flickr, Pinterest and the list goes on -- is it any wonder the web seems infinite? The question is, how do we navigate the online world, with its back streets and alley ways, safely?

The web is increasingly referred to in terms that attempt to map and divide what is essentially a vast and complex space. `Social media' is one term which refers to platforms through which people can communicate, while more specific, and more established/old, terms like the `blogosphere' refer to the various pockets or online communities which converge around a particular issue or event.

The chaos of an unruly, unregulated city of millions has its pros and cons. Like any populated area, sometimes we encounter danger and interference during our forays into the wilderness.

As the web expands, signs of urban decay abound in broken links and abandoned projects. Sometimes you can find yourself in a creepy part of the city without really knowing. As James Temple tells us: "Predators have long used the internet to find young victims but online safety experts say social networks and mobile apps that roughly indicate the location of users simplify the task".

Virginia Heffernan, author of The Digital Revolution, spells out more obstacles: "Malware and spam have turned living conditions in many quarters of the web unsafe and unsanitary.Bullies and hucksters roam the streets. An entrenched population of rowdy, polyglot rabble seem to dominate major sites. What's more, lots of people feel watched. So whether you're law-abiding and threatened by pranksters, or a prankster and threatened by scrutiny, it can feel like New York City in the 1970s on the web''.

Not completely unrelated to this pandemonium in the streets, we find organisations and communities being born online. The city is shaped by its occupants -- good or bad, outspoken or shy, motivated by gaming, hacking, fashion or politics. The online city has its main streets, media websites and online stores, but it is the back alleys -- tweets, blogs and comments --- that house arguments, controversy and, dare I say it, even grassroots movements.

Recent uprisings in Greece, the UK, North Africa, America and the Middle East demonstrate the ways in which the web offers a space for regulated, oppressed, marginalised, everyday voices to be heard. In some cases, for instance in Tunisia and China, the use of the internet has been heavily regulated, however, activists in other countries have occupied the web to mobilise and resist social and political pressures.

While the web is for some a frightening, dark endless metropolis, it is for others a place where side streets and nooks lead to friends and collaborators. The people who occupy these back streets might question if they are just empty voices in the wilderness of cyberspace. They might ask if anyone is listening.

As more and more people flock to the city, some with directions others without, it seems that words and images, videos and tweets are not going to waste. Instead they are reaching people like you and me, complete with an invitation to call the digital wilderness home.

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