7 Tips for Buying Clothes Online

Suffering through ill-fitting clothes, scratchy materials, and shipping costs may sway you to stick to your current closet rather than hunt through countless sites. However, now that many dressing rooms are closed, online shopping offers an experience similar to being in the store, without the concerns of social distancing. Below are some tips to enhance the digital shopping experience.

1. Know your measurements and check for size charts

The biggest concern for online clothes shopping is usually the fit, because sizes vary greatly depending on the brand. To skirt the issue, take your measurements beforehand and check the size chart. Some sites’ size charts even tell you exactly where and how to measure your body, so you start with accurate information.

2. Read the reviews

Reviews can can attest to the durability of the clothes, the condition they arrived in, their comfort, and often how true they are to the size chart. Some reviews also include pictures from customers.

3. Check the material

This tip may not be intuitive for first-time online shoppers because material is easy to access in a store, but checking the fabric is important to determine the fit, look, and texture of the clothing. Knowing what a piece of clothing is made of helps you consider how the clothes will shrink, stretch, and feel when you wear them.

4. Try to find free shipping

Many online stores offer free shipping if you spend more than a certain amount of money. Buy the clothes you need all at once, and you won’t lose your shirt on shipping costs.

5. Filter your results

Online stores tend to offer more options than brick-and-mortar places because there is no storage limit. The vast amount of choices can be overwhelming. Most sites offer filters that can narrow your search by size, style, cost, and so on and make your shopping experience more efficient.

6. Read the return policy

Even with these tips in mind, the clothes you buy online may just not work for you. And that’s okay — if you know the return policy. Just make sure to send back any unwanted clothes in the given time. If a store doesn’t allow returns, consider looking elsewhere. You can often find a link to the return policy at the bottom of any page on the site.

7. Save time to ship

It could take about three weeks for the clothing to reach you — longer if you’re shopping internationally. Normally, this isn’t a big deal; just remember not to buy the dress you need for your friend’s wedding the day before the event.

Featured image: anon_tae / Shutterstock

Con Watch: 5 Best Practices to Prevent Getting Hacked on Social Media

Steve Weisman is a lawyer, college professor, author, and one of the country’s leading experts in cybersecurity, identity theft, and scams. See Steve’s other Con Watch articles.

The recent hacking of the Twitter accounts of many prominent people including Joe Biden, Bill Gates, Elon Musk, Warren Buffet, Jeff Bezos, and Mike Bloomberg highlighted how vulnerable all of us are when using social media. The hacking of your social media accounts can be leveraged by sophisticated criminals to make you a victim of identity theft or to steal your assets. However, there are simple steps you can take to avoid being hacked. Here are five best practices that we all should follow to protect ourselves.

1. Use Strong Passwords

Having a strong and unique password for each of your social media accounts can go a long way toward protecting your security. Unfortunately, too many people use the same password for all of their accounts. This makes you particularly vulnerable to being hacked because in the event of a data breach at one of your online accounts, the hackers now have the password for all of your accounts, which puts you in great jeopardy. (I’ll have Identity Theft for $500, Alex).

Consider using a password manager, which is an app you can use that will create complex passwords for each of your online accounts. All you have to do is remember the one password to your password manager. Some people are concerned that even a password manager can be hacked. While this has not occurred yet, it is a reasonable concern. A good way to generate your own complex passwords for each of your accounts that are easily remembered is to start with a base password, such as IDon’tLikePasswords. This is a good base password that has capital letters, small letters and a symbol. Now make it even stronger by adding a few symbols such as !!! to make your base password IDon’tLikePasswords!!!. This base password can easily be customized for each of your accounts with a few added letters. So, for instance, your Amazon password could be IDon’t LikePasswords!!!Ama. This is an easy way to create complex, unique and easy to remember passwords for each of your accounts.

2. Provide Fake Answers to Security Questions

A security question is an important element of protecting you from being hacked. Unfortunately, enterprising hackers have managed to change the passwords of their targeted victims by answering common security questions with information found through online searches. Often we are our own worst enemies when we provide too much information on social media that is available for a hacker to learn the name of your dog, for instance, or other information that might provide the answer to your security question. An easy solution to this problem is to provide a nonsensical answers. There is no legal requirement that you answer your security question honestly. Thus, the answer to the security question asking your mother’s maiden name can be “firetruck.” You will remember this because it is so silly and no hacker will be able to guess it.

2. Use Dual Factor Authentication

One of the best things you can do to protect yourself from being hacked is to use dual factor authentication on your accounts. With dual factor authentication , when you login to one of your accounts, an additional form of authentication is required. Most commonly, after you type in your password, a special one-time code is sent to your cell phone. You then must enter that code in order to access your account. Even if someone manages to steal your password, they will not be able to access your account. Actress Jennifer Lawrence’s iCloud account containing nude photos of her was hacked when she unwittingly responded to a socially engineered email that appeared to come from Apple asking her to confirm her password. If she had used dual factor authentication, even if the hacker had her password, he would not have been able to access her account.

3. Beware of SIM Swapping

Some very sophisticated hackers have been able to defeat dual factor authentication by SIM swapping your phone number to the hacker’s phone. A Subscriber Identity Module, more commonly known as a SIM card, is an integrated circuit that stores information used to authenticate subscribers on mobile devices, such as cell phones. SIM cards can and are transferred between different devices, such as when you get a new phone. Hackers call your cell phone provider posing as you, answer a security question, and have your SIM card switched to their phone, enabling them to defeat dual factor authentication, because now the authentication code is going to their phone and not your phone. Fortunately, you can set up a PIN or password in order to access your mobile service provider account to protect yourself from SIM swapping. Particularly prudent people can even require that their SIM card only be changed in person.

4. Use Security Software and Install Security Updates Right Away

Make sure you have installed good security software on all of your devices and install the latest updates on your programs, applications, and computer and mobile device operating systems as soon as they become available. Note that even the most up-to-date security software will always be at least a month behind the latest strains of malware. This is why, even if you have the best security software, you should never click on links in emails or text messages unless you have absolutely confirmed they are legitimate. Clicking on links infected with malware sent through socially engineered phishing emails and text messages is the most common way that malware is installed.

Nothing you can do will absolutely guarantee that you will not have your social media accounts hacked, but following these five best practices will go a long way toward keeping you safe.

Featured image: (AngieYeoh / Shutterstock)

Contrariwise: Let’s Stop Bashing Millennials

“I believe that the abominable deterioration of ethical standards stems primarily from the mechanization and depersonalization of our lives — a disastrous byproduct of science and technology,” said Albert Einstein in 1946, as the first wave of baby boomers entered a new, post-war, consumerist culture that coincided with the rise of mass media. Those coddled, Dr. Spock-reared bundles of joy couldn’t have possibly known they’d grow up to be a cranky senior population complaining about their grandchildren’s addiction to smartphones. In fact, they formed the habits millennials would soon inherit.

Ever since the advent of the radio, older generations have complained about those damn kids and their new-fangled gadgets, fearing media consumption would lead to the degradation of society. In the 1950s, you may recall that satirists referred to TV as the idiot box or boob tube.

Let’s be honest — we’re all addicted to technology in one form or another unless we’re living off the grid.

Fast-forward to the present day, and the generational divide appears greater than ever as baby boomers and millennials trade digital blows in name-calling — from “snowflake” to “OK, boomer” — unaware that they’re more alike than they realize. A recent survey conducted by the Pew Research Center showed that while 93 percent of millennials own smartphones, baby boomers are not far behind at 68 percent with a rapidly growing adoption rate. Seventy years after television invaded our homes, we’re all staring at our screens, and now we’re bickering about them.

Let’s be honest — we’re all addicted to technology in one form or another — whether TV, Alexa, Nest, or Life Alert® — unless we’re living off the grid. While these new gadgets have had some negative impact, as all innovation does, they’ve done some good too.

Today, I can FaceTime with my grandma in Florida and see her smile each day without boarding an airplane. I can listen to records and watch TV shows without accumulating large quantities of crap in my home. My in-laws can leave me alone and go upstairs and watch Netflix on their iPad while I watch PBS on the overpriced cable I pay for. Should I go on?

No matter the current issue, oldsters have been groaning about younger generations for, well, generations. This concept isn’t new, it’s nature. If I had a dime for every senior I see complaining about millenials, I wouldn’t worry about having Social Security in 40 years.

—Raj Tawney is a journalist specializing in entertainment’s impact on culture

This article is featured in the July/August 2020 issue of The Saturday Evening Post. Subscribe to the magazine for more art, inspiring stories, fiction, humor, and features from our archives.

Featured image: Shutterstock

No Sweat Tech: How Technology (Yes, Technology!) Can Help You De-Stress

Almost everybody is under a lot of stress these days, between politics, climate change, the wildfires in Australia, a new virus spreading around the world. So I’m going to look at ways you can calm down, rela— well, relaxing might be too much to ask for, but de-stress. There are sounds you can use, sights, and exercises. And if using these doesn’t help, I’ll give you a few places where you can talk to someone about how you’re feeling for free.

Soothe Your Ears

Usually when I work, I like it silent. But sometimes I find myself getting a little antsy or restless. I need some sound to settle me down. But I don’t try to find just the right music; instead, I look for some ambient noise. Via your speakers, you can recreate anything from a crackling campfire to a gentle rain to the Slytherin study room at Hogwarts. Here are three of my favorite noise generators.

Noises Online


At first glance Noises Online looks pretty complicated, but it’s really not. Each icon is a kind of sound. Hold your mouse pointer over it to see what kind of sound. If you click it, the sound comes on. If it click it multiple times, the sound quiets until it turns off completely. You can click multiple sounds to make a soundscape. For example, I made a nice audio collage of a crackling fire, ocean waves, and windchimes. There’s also a button to make a .WAV sound file of your selections so you can download it and take it with you. If you scroll down a little there are even more options for the tone and liveliness of your selection.

If you’re feeling intimidated, click on the “Pick of the Week” in the right corner to see how the site works. Summer Night features a chorus of frogs, a brook, and the gentle sounds of a warm evening.

Ambient Mixer


Ambient Mixer is less about individual sounds and more about making up a soundscape. The site has what must be thousands of different soundscapes for you to browse through via its category system, or search by keyword.

I did a search for campfire and got 743 results. After browsing for a while (the biggest problem with this site is that you can wander around in it for hours) I found “Rainy campfire while reading,” which was a nice mix of rain sounds, campfire, and someone drinking coffee. If you don’t like the mix available, you can adjust it with the mixer that’s built into the soundscape’s page.


I can imagine this site would be useful for all kinds of things. Writing and need a particular kind of atmosphere? Having a themed party? I bet you can find a relevant soundscape here.

Listen to the Clouds


This one is a little different, so bear with me. Listen to the Clouds is a web site that blends audio feeds from air traffic controllers with ambient music from SoundCloud. Pick an airport (they are arranged by location) and the site will load the audio. Sometimes airports are offline, and in a few places (like Germany, UK, and Spain) there are no feeds available at all. I like to choose airports that don’t use English, because otherwise it can be distracting. Once you find a feed that you like, you can select an ambient music piece underneath it, individually controlling the volume of each item.

Odd option for relaxation, isn’t it? But the soothing ambient music and the calm, usually flat delivery of the air traffic controllers provides an “everything’s okay” vibe which can help you relax and focus on your work. One note: I use ad and cookie blockers in my browser. They completely broke this site. If you have a lot of browser extensions installed, try using this site in an incognito window (in Chrome, this means your browser extensions don’t apply) first.

Easy on Your Eyes

Ever just wanted to watch TV and distract your mind? You don’t want people yelling or things blowing up, you just want to settle down, turn on the screen, and zone out. Or maybe you want something playing in the background for a little company. If that’s the case, check out slow TV.

Slow TV isn’t a particular program, it’s a type of programming; ordinary things, done at ordinary speed, in ordinary time. This might be a train ride, or a fire burning in a fireplace, or someone knitting. There’s a web site called Watching Grass Grow that’s just a live video feed of a lawn so you can watch grass grow.

When I want some slow TV, I find that searching YouTube for the words slow TV and either a place or a thing name works well. For a place name, countries work better than states, and cities don’t work well at all unless it’s a famous city. For things, you’ll have to experiment a little. Slow TV landscape and Slow TV space will find you interesting videos, but I can’t help you if you insist on searching for Slow TV spaghetti.

What kind of things do you find? Searching for Slow TV Japan found me train rides, walks around cities at night, and similar calming things. Searching for Slow TV Georgia led me to discover BigRigTravels, a YouTube channel apparently set up by a long-haul trucker who livestreams his drives.

Of course, you’re not supposed to pay close attention to slow TV. You can watch for a while, get distracted, close your eyes, think about something else, maybe even take a little nap. And that’s the whole point.

Calming Exercises

Up until now we’ve looked at things you can do passively to relax — sounds and videos you can take in. But there are deliberate exercises you can do as well to help you maintain equilibrium.

Breathe Slowly

Isn’t it weird? Breathing is our core necessary function. If we don’t breathe, we die. And yet it’s so easy to forget to take deep, full breaths. If you get stressed you might find yourself taking shallow breaths or even holding your breath as if you’re bracing yourself. Breathe Slowly is an animated circle that grows larger and smaller as it reminds you to inhale and exhale.


After a few minutes of breathing along with the circle, you might find your shoulders settling down a little. If you find the circle goes too fast or too slow, click on the menu in the upper right corner to adjust the speed.

Stress Analyst

I suspect this site is one of those you’re either going to love or hate. So if you visit this site and find yourself going “ugh!” that’s okay. Skip it. Stress Analyst is a site that walks you through the anxiety and stress that you’re feeling. You’re asked to answer questions about how you’re feeling and strategies you could use to de-stress. As you’re answering questions, the site periodically asks you about your stress level.


You might find this approach validating and reassuring. Or you might find it annoying and perhaps patronizing. Personally when I’m feeling really stressed, I like a third party kind of taking me through all the facts I tend to forget (that stress is a physical reaction, you can take steps to counteract it, etc.). It’s a quick process and could be useful when you just want to check in with your own feelings.

Pixel Thoughts

Pixel Thoughts is a 60-second exercise designed to help you get over anxious repetitive thoughts. You’re asked to put your thought in a star, and then the star floats away as you’re reminded of the vastness of the universe and how incredibly tiny your thought is compared to it. Then the star vanishes into the star field.


(This is kind of an off-label use, but this site can also help you when you’re feeling really angry and don’t have an outlet. It’s cathartic to fill the star with swear words and then watch it float away.)

When You Need Help

Sometimes gentle music or slow TV can’t help you. You might be panicky, with racing thoughts, and you can’t seem to steady yourself. If you think you’re in immediate danger, please call 911 and talk to humans who can help you immediately.

But if it’s not that much of an emergency, then there are some ways you can talk (or chat, or text) someone who can point you to helpful resources, or just listen. (Isn’t it amazing how often we can feel better if someone just listens to us for a little while?)

Suicide Prevention Lifeline

Put down the mouse and pick up the phone. The front page of Suicide Prevention Lifeline has an 800 number you can call immediately. The crisis worker you can reach will listen to you and can connect you to resources to help. You don’t have to be suicidal to call this number; maybe you’re depressed, or worried, or you’re really lonely. This number will get you to someone who will listen, and who cares about you. The site also has resources for specific kinds of struggles and concerns.

(What did I hear? Did I hear someone say that their problems aren’t important enough to call this number? You stop that right now! We are not having a problem comparison contest. Or if we are, then I’m the judge and I say your problems are important enough and you are important enough. Pick up the phone.)

Crisis Text Line

Sometimes when you’re really upset, you don’t want to talk on the phone. Or maybe you don’t like talking on the phone anyway. Crisis Text Line provides numbers for people in the US, UK, and Canada to text and talk to someone. The site describes its mission as helping people “move from a hot moment to a cool moment,” which is a great way to put it. Like the Suicide Prevention Lifeline, this resource is not just for those with suicidal thoughts but, as the site says, “it’s any painful emotion for which you need support.” It’s available 24 hours a day.


Don’t want to call, don’t want to text? Maybe you want to chat. IMALIVE has a crisis chat available 24 hours a day if you’re feeling stressed and need to talk to someone. In addition, IMALIVE does “mental health fairs” at college campuses around the country. The site’s blog has stories of other people sharing their experiences with stress and anxiety. Knowing you’re not alone may help.

“All times are hard times sometimes,” as my Granny says. It’s only human to have times when you feel anxious and unbalanced. There are lots of resources online that can help you, and if those aren’t enough, there are people who can help you too. I wish you the best, happiest, healthiest, most love-filled year you can possibly imagine.

Featured image: Screenshot from Breathe Slowly (https://xhalr.com/)

No Sweat Tech: Keeping Up with Slang and Memes

Every generation has its own slang. When I was growing up, we went from hippie slang like groovy to disco slang like boogie and then everything went pastel in the ’80s and we were constantly getting grossed out the door. Like, bag your face.

The generation of the Internet also has its own slang, and it seems like there’s more of it every day. Some of it you can infer (“realness,” “basic,”) some of it is still getting argued over (“woke”) and some of it will be completely bewildering without help (“milkshake duck”).

Offering a column that guarantees you’ll understand your kids or grandkids is probably a reach. But I will provide some resources for learning more about current slang — and how it can help you in your web search! We’ll also take a look at memes, little slices of culture or responses to current events that are often image-based.

Slang / Language

Let me offer some comforting bad news: you can’t keep up. There’s too much Internet culture erupting from all corners of the web to keep a handle on it. Someone might invent a new word in a Twitch stream. Someone else might create a song on Twitter that suddenly everyone is using. The comforting part is that we’re all in the same boat. So if you come across a word that you don’t know, don’t despair; just check out these resources.

Warning: Internet slang reflects all aspects of the Internet. That means you’re going to find some definitions that are crude, cruel, not safe for work, and overall distasteful. A couple of the resources I mention here are more likely to have that kind of material; I’ll warn you.


Are you familiar with Wikipedia? It’s basically an online encyclopedia that anyone can edit. Wiktionary is an online dictionary that anyone can edit. At this writing the English version of Wiktionary has a little over six million entries. Let’s look up that bewildering expression, milkshake duck.

Screenshot of “milkshake duck” from Wiktionary
Screenshot of “milkshake duck” from Wiktionary

The explanation is simple, but note there are a couple other things here. At the bottom of the page there’s a link to a category of English-language slang, if you want to do some browsing. There’s also, on the lower right part of the page, a link to the Wikipedia entry for milkshake duck, which provides much more in-depth background, etymology, and what is frankly a rabbit hole of other Internet cultural references (like Chewbacca Mask Lady).

There are over 170 other Wiktionaries in languages from Abkhazian to Zulu. Slang isn’t limited to just English!

Urban Dictionary

I’m so ambivalent about Urban Dictionary. On the one hand, it’s over 20 years old and an essential resource for keeping up with slang online. On the other hand, it’s not moderated strictly and because of that has a lot of crude sexual and violent content. Urban Dictionary also offers you search suggestions as you type (which can be crude and sexual) and also has a list of trending words or words that are close alphabetically to what you’re looking up (which can also be crude and sexual). Looking up one single definition without running into any offensive content is not easy on this site. If you’re someone who doesn’t like to see swear words on the Internet, skip this resource and stick to Wiktionary.

Screenshot of “milkshake duck” from Urban Dictionary
Screenshot of “milkshake duck” from Urban Dictionary

So why am I including it in my column? Because it’s extensive and it offers multiple definitions of a term for which people can vote. The one with the best upvote/downvote ratio rises to the top. (Downvoted definitions tend to be just people being silly, political, or — you guessed it — crude and sexual.) The definitions include the date each was added, allowing you to see the evolution of a term. There’s also a lot of cross-linking to other terms. I have thrown the weirdest terms at it and it always has some kind of definition.

Word Spy

Word Spy is not as in-depth as the other resources I’ve covered here, but it’s a great browse for a word nerd. The definitions have extensive examples and etymology you won’t see as much of at Wiktionary, and won’t see much at all in Urban Dictionary. Milkshake Duck isn’t on the Word Spy list, but let’s try a word provided by Word Spy’s random feature, al desko.

Screenshot of “al desko” from Word Spy
Screenshot of “al desko” from Word Spy

Word Spy provides two examples of the use of al desko, some etymology, and related words. You can also share the word on social media or browse other words in the category. I find Word Spy useful when I’m looking for a definition that’s not quite slang, but doesn’t appear in regular Internet searches or has another meaning that makes Internet searches more difficult. (The word spim is an excellent example of that.)

Urban Thesaurus

Urban Thesaurus isn’t intended for you to look up words directly. Instead you enter a non-slang word, and Urban Thesaurus gives you slang terms related to that word. Here’s an example for the term angry:

Screenshot of “angry” synonyms from Urban Thesaurus
Screenshot of “angry” synonyms from Urban Thesaurus

Click a term and you’ll get the definition (from Urban Dictionary) and a link to more information. You’ll see some terms that are blurred; these are terms that are offensive and viewable only if you specifically request them. This is a less offensive way to get definitions from Urban Dictionary, but I still found plenty of content here that was offensive and not blurred out. Proceed with caution.

Adding Slang to Your Internet Searches

Now, the purpose of this column is to tell you where to get definitions for slang words so you’re not all at sea. But by adding slang words to your Internet searches, you can really narrow down your search. Let me give you an example.

If you grew up in the 1970s, maybe you said “dynamite” or “groovy.” If you grew up in the 1980s, maybe you said “grody to the max” or “gag me with a spoon.” But it’s a fair bet you don’t say them now. Slang tends to be ephemeral, existing for a little while and then petering out. This makes it an excellent way to delineate time periods in Internet searches; adding a once-popular slang term will definitely slant your results.

Let’s try a search for denim fashion.

Screenshot of Google search results for “denim fashion”
Screenshot of Google search results for “denim fashion”

There’s a lot of mentions of 2019, and current fashion. These search results are about denim fashion right now. But let’s add an old slang word from the 1960s and 1970s — groovy.

Screenshot of Google search results for “denim fashion ‘groovy’”
Screenshot of Google search results for “denim fashion ‘groovy’”

That search has moved us from current fashions into the history of blue jeans, mentions of flares and tube tops, and more of a retro look. But this search works for more current slang as well. I’ll remove the word groovy and add the term on fleek — a slang expression from around 2014.

Screenshot of Google search results for “denim fashion ‘on fleek’”
Screenshot of Google search results for “denim fashion ‘on fleek’”

This is more current, but now we’re back to skinny jeans and street chic. It’s amazing how much one little term can change the slant of your Internet search.


So far we’ve talked only about slang, which are words. Now I want to tell you about memes (rhymes with teams), which are for the most part images, and which are kind of become the de facto slang of the Internet.

Maybe you’ve seen it on social media, or maybe someone sent it to you in a message. It’s an animated GIF of a man turning his head and blinking rapidly as he stares at something. There’s not usually a caption, but you understand what the GIF means; someone is confused about something. Congratulations, you have interacted with a meme: “blinking white guy.”


Memes are visual items — sometimes GIFs, sometimes just static images — that express an emotion, a state of mind, or a situation. GIF memes are sometimes called “reaction GIFs,” as they tend to express a feeling about or reaction to something without words. Then there are static images, sometimes called “image macros,” that rely on captions to make the meme. For example, a popular meme right now is an image of a woman who appears to be yelling at a white cat.

Meme of women yelling at annoyed cat

The woman is very upset, and the cat looks like it’s being sarcastic. This meme is usually called “Woman yelling at a cat,” but it’s not complete until there’s a caption. The caption for this is the woman asserting something and the cat refuting it. For example, this meme shows the woman insisting that pizza leftovers are called “pizza crusts,” while the cat calls them “pizza bones.”

Meme of women yelling at annoyed cat
imgflip / TA-BELLY

Another meme is actually a stock photo of a man and woman walking together. The man is distracted by another woman, while the woman he’s with gets upset. I’m sure you’ve seen this meme many times; it’s called “distracted boyfriend.”

This picture is funny, but like the lady yelling at the cat, it doesn’t make much sense until you see a caption. And speaking of the lady yelling at the cat meme…

Guy checking out a woman as she passes by, much to his girlfriend's chagrin.


So some memes must be customized to make sense, and some of them are standalone. I’m going to show you how to learn about memes you may come across on social media, and also how to make your own.

Do a Quick Google

Memes tend to spontaneously generate from various parts of the Internet, or when social media appropriates something from popular culture. And when this happens with any prominence, a small raft of articles are written about the new meme. That’s why a Google search works. Describe the image generally and then add the words meme explainer. Often that’s enough to point you to some information about a meme.

For example, there’s a meme that’s floating around on social media featuring what looks like a screenshot from an animated series. It’s a man and a butterfly. Just glancing at it will not help you; it’s bewildering without context.

Image from anime Taiyou no Yuusha Fighbird (Brave of the Sun Fighbird)
Image from anime Taiyou no Yuusha Fighbird (Brave of the Sun Fighbird)

Simply describing it, I’ll search for man butterfly meme explainer.

Screenshot of Google search results for “man butterfly mem explainer”
Screenshot of Google search results for “man butterfly meme explainer”

Google includes image results in the search, so you’ll immediately know you’re on the right track. Multiple articles on the front page offer to explain the meme to you. But sometimes this doesn’t work, maybe because you can’t describe the meme. In that case check out Know Your Meme.

Know Your Meme

Know Your Meme is if anything too exhaustive when it comes to memes. In addition to memes you might see on social media all the time, it lets people submit memes, so when you search for memes you’ll see that some are labeled “Confirmed” while others are labeled “Submission.” Memes that are NSFW (Not Safe for Work) get an additional label.

When I did a search for butterfly I got plenty of results, with the man and butterfly meme showing up in the middle. Clicking on that result brought me to an extensive explainer complete with examples, context, and variants.

Screenshot of explanation of Man-Butterfly meme on “Know Your Meme”
Screenshot of explanation of Man-Butterfly meme on “Know Your Meme”

If you’re looking for a meme you’ve seen on social media, it’s probably in here, but this site can be overwhelming. I like to try a simple Google search first, and then refer to this site if I can’t easily find what I’m looking for.

Meme Generators

As I’ve noted already, there are some memes that stand alone, while others require captions to make sense. And where do you think those captions come from? People all over the Internet. That’s why there are meme generators — sites that give you images from memes and let you put your own captions on them.


You may have noticed that memes tend to be sort of standard. Often they use the same font for captions (Impact, but memes sometimes use other fonts as well.) The captions tend to be in the same place. That’s because the placement and font helps us recognize a meme, and because of sites like Imgflip. Search for a meme and you’ll get a template for placing captions and even drawing or adding little graphic stickers to the meme. Once you’ve customized it, you can download it or share it to social media.

Creating a meme with imgflip
Creating a meme with imgflip

Meme Better Meme Generator

Still not 100% on how to make a meme? Try the Meme Better meme generator.

Meme Better is much smaller than Imgflip — I can’t find the distracted boyfriend meme, for example — but it’s simpler to use and has what I think of as meme “training wheels.” When you visit the site you’ll be greeted with a list of memes. Click one and the meme will appear at the top of the page for you to customize. If the meme is known for a particular tagline, that will appear on the meme automatically. Once you’ve made your meme, clicking Save Image downloads it automatically. If you want to play with making memes, this is a good option for exploring some older ones and getting your feet wet.

Creating a meme with Meme Better
Creating a meme with Meme Better

Be Kind

Some parting advice: I have noticed that sometimes people will turn into memes things that they wouldn’t say out loud. In other words, they might have a meme express a viewpoint they might not express directly because of the reaction. Don’t do that. No matter where the viewpoint goes, the person expressing it is responsible, not the meme. Memes can be funny, thought-provoking, informative, snarky, sarcastic, and sometimes a little shady. They should not be unkind.


Featured image: imgflip

No Sweat Tech: Finding Old Instruction Manuals for Free Online

I am a nerd, no doubt about it — messing around with computers since I was young, the go-to person in my family when you’ve got a computer problem – that’s me. One of the things that comes with being a nerd is having crates and boxes full of cables and equipment. Unfortunately, I don’t always manage to save the manual.

That doesn’t mean I have to throw anything away. If I’ve got some old hardware that’s causing me confusion, I can usually find the missing instructions using Google. And if that doesn’t work, there are several free resources that’ll hook me up with old manuals.

Manuals for Everybody

Finding missing manuals online isn’t just for computer nerds. It’s for pretty much everything. Cooking stuff, gardening equipment, power tools, even musical instruments — if it had a manual at one point, you’ve got a good chance of finding it online. Let me show you how.

A Word of Warning: Before you go looking for a manual, check to see if the product you want to get a manual for is listed on the Consumer Product Safety Commission’s Recall List. This searchable list has product recalls going back to 1973, so if you’ve got a recalled item, there’s a good chance it will be on this list. And recalls aren’t just for electronics or power equipment — things like bicycles and even dog leashes get recalled too!

Also, just because a product has a manual available online, do not assume that it’s safe to use! Always check the recall database.

Using Google to Find Manuals

When searching for manuals in a general search engine, your best bet is to use the company name, model of the item as specifically as you can get, and the word manual. Let me grab some old hardware out of a crate to use an example. Here we go, a bit of hardware that says NETGEAR on the front. That’s just a brand name and it’s not enough. We want what’s on the back:

The serial number, MAC address, and the model number of a Netgear WiFi internet adaptor
(Photo by Tara Calishain)

You’re looking for the model number and name of the item, in this case Universal WiFi Internet Adapter, WNCE2001. (If you ever find print on a computer electronics device too hard to read — it can really be tiny sometimes — take a picture of the item with your phone and then zoom in on it that way. No need to strain your eyeballs.) I’m going to do a search for NETGEAR Universal WiFi Internet Adapter, WNCE2001 manual on Google. And it pops right up.

Google search results for the query "NETGEAR Universal WiFi Internet Adapter, WNCE2001 manual"
Google search result page for a “NETGEAR Universal WiFi Internet Adapter, WNCE2001 manual” (Screenshot by Tara Calishain)

The nice thing about searching Google for manuals is that you also get links to video tutorials when they’re available. But sometimes you won’t get any results at all, or the page has disappeared, or the results are wrong. What then? It’s time to use a specialty Web site.

Manuals Online

When you first open the Manuals Online website, you might be tempted to just jump into the search engine. Don’t give in. See that box in the upper left that reads Categories? Keep scrolling down so you can browse instead of search.

ManualsOnline (Screenshot by Tara Calishain)

Categories range from Baby Care to Video Games, with subcategories for each (baby toys, handheld systems, etc.) I’ve got a Lasko space heater on my desk so I clicked on the Household Appliance category and the Electric Heater category. Devices are listed alphabetically by company, so skipping to the L’s takes me right to the Lasko category.

There are two links here, one for support — which looks like an online support forum and for Lasko products was not busy at all — and one for prices, which appear to be Amazon links. But you’re here for the manuals, so just click on Lasko Electric Heater Manuals. And there they are, a list of manuals for over five dozen Lasko electric heater products. But despite the fact that there are over five dozen manuals there, my Lasko product is not included. (Good old Lasko 5424, with an emphasis on the “old.”) I’ll pretend for a moment I have a Lasko 5429. Clicking on that item takes me to some thumbnail images of the manual and a scaled-down version to read through, but I’m more interested in the Open as PDF link. Click on that to read the manual in your browser, or right-click on the link to save the manual to your desktop as a PDF to read later, print out, or email to somebody.

There are plenty of manuals on this site but I can’t find one for my Lasko. Time to try somewhere else.


ManualsLib also starts off with a search engine, but instead of having categories below that it lists companies. It has over 77,000 companies listed! Lasko is not a major company so it’s not on the front page of companies. I know the model number of the heater I’m looking for, so I’ll just search Lasko 5424.

Wow, I don’t even get a list of search results. Instead I am taken right to the manual page. And I like this page a lot — in addition to the manual itself, there are quick links to share and/or bookmark the information. There are a couple of hoops you have to jump through, but you can download a PDF of the manual as well. If you’re a member of the site (which is free) you can also add items to your “collections” if you’re building a library of manuals.

ManualsLib (Screenshot by Tara Calishain)

I’m impressed with how quickly this site loads and how many tools are packed into the page for the manual, but that’s not going to help you if it doesn’t have your manual. There are still a couple more places for you to try.


The first thing I notice about SafeManuals is that the English is a little off. I dosome poking around and I think this site is from Estonia (an Estonian legal term, Osaühing, is used in the site’s FAQ). But as long as the site has manuals, I don’t care where it originates.

The front page of SafeManuals has a search box and lists product brands instead of product categories on the front page. It also has lists of the most popular manuals and the most recently-added manuals. (The site encourages you to upload manuals if you have them.) According to the stats on the front page, SafeManuals has 880,000 manuals across 6,000 different brands.

I do a search for my Lasko 5424 and find the manual almost instantly. The manual is embedded on the page, but you can also download a PDF version.

The page for a Lasko 5424 manual on SafeManuals.com; includes both the embedded manual, and a PDF download link.
The 5424 Lasko space heater manual page on SafeManuals (Screenshot by Tara Calishain)

The page also has a place for you to send a question via the form and a place for comments. I look at the most popular manuals and even they only have a comment or two. Probably not the place for you if you’re looking for online discussion.

Within the three sites I’ve mentioned here you’ll find hundreds of thousands if not millions of manuals. If you still can’t find what you’re looking for, there’s one more free resource for you to check. The only thing is it’s not a manuals site. Well… not just a manuals site.

Internet Archive

Do you know about the Internet Archive? It was started in 1996 with the intention of archiving Web pages via a mechanism called The Wayback Machine. It soon expanded to archiving a number of other things, including books, magazines, video — and manuals! The Internet Archive has had its own manuals collection since 2012.

Screenshot of the homepage for the Internet Archive's online manual library
The Internet Archive’s Manual Library (Screenshot by Tara Calishain)

You may notice from the screenshot that this collection is much, much smaller than the dedicated manual sites we looked at earlier in this article. But I love browsing it because it’s organized by category, and the categories are so out of the mainstream.

There’s a category for vending machines. Arcade machines. Tractors. Firearms. Radio Shack devices. And there are several categories for various types of music synthesizers. Lasko is probably too pedestrian for this archive — I find only one manual, and that is for a fan. But if you need a manual for something a little off the beaten path — especially vintage electronics — give this collection a try.

Manuals are readable online, but the Internet Archive also makes them available in formats that go way beyond a simple PDF. You can download in Kindle format, or EPUB, or even plain text.

A screenshot of the Hammond Organ Service manual on The Internet Archive.
The page for a Hammond Organ service manual on The Internet Archive (Screenshot by Tara Calishain)

Just because you’ve got a device without a manual doesn’t mean you need to throw it away. There are plenty of places on the Internet that can help you find its instructions — just be sure to first check that it hasn’t been recalled!

Featured image: Cover by Stevan Dohanos from the January 14, 1956 issue of The Saturday Evening Post

I Was an Internet Meme

The meerkat was the mob’s sentry. His job was to scout the horizon for hawks and other threats to his fellow meerkats, and to do that he wanted a high point for a good vantage. They move on four paws but stand on their hind ones. I wanted a picture of a meerkat on my head. Without exchanging a word, each side knew what he was getting from the relationship.

I got down on one knee and kept still. I could hear the patter of his steps — I say “his” though I can’t say for sure he was a he — and then felt a quick thrilling and alarming movement, the weight of him climbing aboard. Meerkats are adorable in photographs and from a distance. When one climbs on your head, you realize they’re 10 inches of solid muscle sheathed in bristly golden hair. And claws. That’s the feature I didn’t see but couldn’t miss as I felt him on the top of my cranium, and the warm wonder evoked by their adorability was replaced by wondering if the next sensation of warmth would be of blood running in patterns down my face. Now that would be a picture.

Well, I’d come this far. I handed my camera to my mate, who was already shooting his own photos. I neither grimaced nor smiled. Once, in Baghdad, a guard had handed me his AK-47 and a photographer took a shot of me smiling, which under the circumstances made me look idiotic, whereas with just a serious face I looked merely homicidal. In any event, I sensed the appropriate move here was deadpan. I held my reporter’s notebook.

Back home, my son, Jeremy, asked if he could post it on Reddit. “If it gets on the top 10, I’ll buy you dinner,” he said.

I didn’t know what Reddit was. “Go for it,” I said.

A meerkat perches on top of Todd Pitock's head as he takes notes in Botswana.
Head-scratcher? “When a meerkat climbs on your head, you realize they’re 10 inches of solid muscle sheathed in bristly golden hair. And claws.” (Courtesy of Todd Pitock)

Meerkats are a type of mongoose indigenous to southern Africa, and here in Botswana there were colonies of them in a salt pan. They have a particular appeal that goes way beyond Africa, or even social norms. I don’t know if it started with Timon in The Lion King, but it’s global now. When Jeremy got a position doing research in a lab in Korea, we met in Seoul. Even in Asia, far from southern Africa, there was a fascination with meerkats, including a place called the Meerkat Café, where someone had imported and bred them, and guests could come into a pen to play with them. I assume they were declawed but don’t know because I only looked on from outside the pen, where guests seated in a circle with blankets on their laps communed with them. One young man cuddled a meerkat in his lap, and kissed him, mouth to mouth. The meerkat was a willing partner, though it seemed that first base was a means to getting to second, which in the meerkat world meant investigating his nostrils, pressing its mouth high enough into the nasal cavity to distort his face, and this did not prevent the young man from resuming kissing him.

Leaving the Meerkat Café, Jeremy said, “I have to admit, it wasn’t as interesting as I thought it was going to be.”

Reddit, on the other hand, was a lot more interesting than I could have imagined.

Within a short time, Jeremy reported that my meerkat photo had made the top 100. And then it started getting interesting. Its ranking, and viewer comments, took over my morning, and by lunchtime or thereabout, it broke the top 10 on its way to becoming No. 1. It spread to other sites. A Facebook page devoted to pop science garnered 64,000 likes. I did very little but bask in volumes of likes, and images of thumbs and arrows generally pointed up.

My son, Jeremy, asked if he could post it on Reddit. “If it gets on the top 10, I’ll buy you dinner,” he said.

Some of the two million unique viewers had something to say. They compared my looks to Hank Schrader in Breaking Bad, though a few were kind enough to note he appeared to have lost weight. A lot of people didn’t care for my green trail-running shoes; one warned that walking around in the bush with them put me at risk of plantar fasciitis, which seemed a little off-topic. One thread debated the picture’s authenticity. A few explained how they could tell the photo was photoshopped or otherwise faked, and I must admit, if I hadn’t been there when the photo was taken, I may well have been convinced they were right.

I posted an explanation: “I’m the guy in the meerkat photo,” I began, to which some wit with the handle Apocalypse__Meow almost instantly responded, “I’m the meerkat in the photo. I was walking around my yard looking for my keys, I dropped them other night by mistake. It was bright daylight so I thought I would spot them easy because of the metallic reflection. Suddenly a human with the ugliest shoes I’ve ever seen was just kneeling there frozen immobile. … —Murphey the meerkat.”

Some outside-the-box thinker enlarged the meerkat, shrank me, and placed me on top of its head. Most just added captions to the original image: “I have still yet to see a meerkat,” read one. “Day 20,” wrote someone called Schateenteufel. “The meerkat continues to evade my observations. I know it exists, as the food I put out for it disappears at night, yet I have not yet seen the creature in person.” And, “… day 40. Human still thinks I’m a hat.”

It was a peculiarly 21st century kind of notoriety: witnessed but doubted. Random, unintended. Though seen by millions, nonetheless anonymous. Even I identified myself in relation to a 10-inch desert animal whose name people believed they knew — Timon, a character from The Lion King.

That my proverbial 15 minutes of fame was global was assumed. What was ironic and more surprising was that it was also local. At my regular café outside of Philadelphia, the barista pointed at me as I came in. “Hey,” he said, “I saw you on Reddit.” And then he noted the true measure of what had been achieved: “Dude,” he added, so it wasn’t lost on me, “you’re a meme!”

Todd Pitock’s last piece for the Post, “Cold Comfort at the Ice Hotel” (Nov/Dec 2018), won an honorable mention in the American Society of Journalists and Authors annual writing awards.

This article is featured in the July/August 2019 issue of The Saturday Evening Post. Subscribe to the magazine for more art, inspiring stories, fiction, humor, and features from our archives.

No Sweat Tech: 9 Easy Ways to Create an Avatar

The Internet’s weird. On one hand, we’re supposed to be very careful about our privacy and what we post online. On the other hand, every social media site expects us to post pictures of ourselves as our account avatars.

So what if you don’t want a bunch of pictures of yourself on the Internet because you’re concerned about privacy? Or what if, like me, you’re camera-shy and don’t like having your picture taken?

A standard solution is to let a picture of something else take your place — one of your pets, or a logo, or maybe a favorite flower. But you don’t have to skip out on representing yourself just because you don’t want to put up a picture. You can make an avatar.

What’s an Avatar?

An avatar is a visual representation of you. It can be serious, or cartoony, or funny, or whatever. There’s one avatar app called Bitmoji that lets you make a character and then do all kinds of poses and messages with it. We won’t be talking about that one in this article, because it’s for smartphones only. Instead we’ll be looking at Web-based applications — nine of them — that allow you to make a picture of yourself to use on social media. There are three non-silly ones, one mostly-non-silly one, and five pop culture / silly ones. Hey, it’s the Internet: we’re into cats pounding on pianos and pugs rolling down hills. You’ve got to make plenty of room for silly.

A note about image formats: most of the sites allow you to download your completed avatars as PNG files, which is a common image format file and should work on any social network. Some offer JPG, which is also fine. Don’t choose the SVG format unless you know what you’re doing.

Non-Silly Avatars

Avatar Maker

Screen capture of the avatar creation page on avatarmaker.com. A cartoon head is being edited, with a selection of face shapes and skin color swatches.

Avatar Maker isn’t the most complicated or feature-packed site on this list, but it’s simple and quick. Start by specifying whether you want to build a male or female avatar, and you’ll get basic options for face, eyes, hair, and clothes, with some subcategories of options for things like glasses, eye shape, nose, eyebrows, etc. There’s also a selection of abstract backgrounds if you want something a little more snazzy than a solid color.

Once you’ve designed the avatar to your satisfaction, you can download it as a PNG image file in one of two sizes, or download it as an SVG file. I had some fun playing around with Avatar Maker’s “Random” function, which does just what it sounds like and generates avatars randomly. It helped me learn more about some of Avatar Maker’s functions.

Get Avataaars

Screen capture of an avatar generator page from getavataaars.com. The avatar seen has been generated by a number of factors, chosen through a form seen below it. Options include hair, accessories, and eye type.

Get Avataaars is even simpler than Avatar Maker in that it you don’t have to specify male or female before you start making your avatar. And that’s why I think this is the best choice for non-binary or genderfluid users: you have a lot of choices here. Want to have a Mia Wallace-style bangs-‘n’-bob with a moustache? No problem. I’m not sure it’s intentional, but the developers have done a pretty good job making this gender-neutral.

It’s simple to use, too; there’s a series of drop-down menus you use to specify each of your avatar’s features. Sometimes how the feature is described is a little confusing (there’s no “hair” option; instead there’s “top,” as in top-of-head) but as your choices are reflected instantly on the avatar it’s not difficult to figure out. You can download your images as PNG or SVG.

Character Creator

Screen capture of the character creation page from charactercreator.org. A full body figure of a character can be seen, as well as the different options a user could pick to change its appearance.

Generally social media avatars only show your face, or perhaps your head and shoulders. But maybe you want a full-length avatar? That’s where Character Creator comes in. Here you can choose a full-body male or female and then customize them with a clothing selection that’s all over the place (there are only a few styles of top for a female character, but you can have epaulets) and a bewildering array of facial expressions (most of which seem to reflect negative emotions).

There doesn’t seem to be a way to customize the default-athletic body style; you can’t be short or overweight, for example. I suspect users who are Patreon patrons of the site get far more options; regular site users can only download the resulting avatar in SVG format. This site is lots of fun to play with, but you may discover it doesn’t have enough options to generate an avatar you like.


Screenshot of hexatar.com, featuring an avatar's face and the different options that can be used to alter its appearance.

Hexatar is like a middle ground between serious avatars and the funnier pop culture ones. If you want something that’s a little different and unusual, but you don’t want to go as far as making a manga or South Park version of yourself, this is a good choice.

The avatars here are more angular and hex-based than the first few choices, but there are still lots of options for building your character. There are tons of eyes, eyebrows, ears (you want square ears? Go for it) and even face shapes. Like Avatar Maker, you can also choose a different background.

Downloading your avatar from this site is a little confusing. On the menu bar all the way to the right is the download icon, but if you click it nothing will happen. You have to click on the download icon, then click on the “Download” text above it. When you do that Hexatar will generate a PNG image file for you to download.

Funny and Popular Culture Avatars

The first four avatar makers will create perfectly fine avatars for your social media (well, depending on how silly you get when using them). But if you’re not overly worried about looking “professional” online, you might have more fun with an avatar maker that draws its inspiration from popular culture.

Face Your Manga

Screenshot from faceyourmanga.com, with an avatar's face and appearance options.

Face Your Manga lets you create an avatar that looks like manga, a Japanese comic book style. Manga is popular the world over — for example, Face Your Manga originates from Italy! Be warned that this site uses Flash, and some browsers block Flash content by default. Once you’ve picked the gender of your avatar, you get tons of options for customizing it. And I mean tons. This avatar maker lets you add crow’s feet, or freckles, or a third eye in the middle of your forehead. If you don’t care for that you can add earrings, or piercings, or if you’ve really had a bad day you can make your avatar “flip the bird.”

The breadth of options available with this tool means you can create a perfectly acceptable avatar that you could use for personal and work social media, or you can go the completely gonzo/weird route. (Play with the site’s random feature for a while and you’ll appreciate how crazy the looks can get.) The only thing I don’t like about this site is that you have to provide your email address to download your avatar. I wasn’t thrilled about that, but after checking the privacy policy, I went ahead and did it.

Powerpuff Yourself

Screenshot from powerpuffyourself.com, featuring a cartoon character that was made by appearance options.

Do you remember the Powerpuff Girls? It’s a cartoon series, launched in 1998, that aired on The Cartoon Network. (A series reboot was launched in 2016.) The show features the adventures of three young sisters as they use their super-powers to fight villains and make the city of Townsville safe. The art is very stylized, and that reflects in the avatar maker. The tool is not limited to girls — Powerpuff Yourself also allows for Powerpuff Boys, too (or maybe Powerpuff Dudes?). This is another avatar maker that genderfluid and non-binary folks might like.

The customization options for the avatar’s body are limited to hair (facial and top-of-head), eyes, mouth, and skin color, but there’s also a “Gear” option. There you can add clothing, glasses, shoes, and some accessories. Want your avatar to hold a taco and stand next to an admiring unicorn? No problem. Once you’ve finished your character, you take a little quiz to see what kind of Powerpuff you are, then you can download your avatar with or without a background.

Peanutize Me

Screen shot from www.peanutizeme.com. The avatar seen looks like it was from a Peanuts comic strip.

Peanutize Me was launched in conjunction with the Peanuts Movie, which came out in 2015. It’s nice to see the tool has been kept up, as generations have followed the adventures of Charlie Brown, Lucy, Linus, and everybody in the gang. It’s even been updated — if you’re not interested in making a human avatar you can also Snoopytize yourself. (Because come on — if you were in the Peanuts universe, you’d want to be the coolest character. Right?)

For Snoopy you can choose small, medium, or large, but for the kids you pick boy or girl. Instead of a list of options the site walks you through step-by-step: the skin color, the hair, the eyes and eyebrows, etc. This is another site that gives you a full-body avatar instead of just a face. The customization options are a little limited, but I really like how the avatar looks when you’re done. The site also makes it really quick to download the avatar as a JPEG image or as wallpaper for your computer desktop’s background.

SP Studio

Screenshot of sp-studio.de. South Park-like characters, with appearance options, can be seen.

Is South Park really over 20 years old? Yes — it began airing in 1997 and about 300 episodes have been broadcast. The upside to that is that most people will recognize your avatar. The downside is … well, South Park isn’t universally popular and most people will recognize your avatar.

SP Studio is not an official South Park site, but is instead a tool created by someone who based the look on South Park. And it’s very South Park. You can customize the hat, clothing, face, eyes, hands, etc. With this site you can also add text to an avatar. There’s also an option to add something to your character’s hands, but note that the options include what appear to be alcohol and drugs.

The site can be a little confusing at times, but it makes really cute avatars. The site owner is also constantly adding new material to the site. His latest addition is a set of swimming wear for your avatar to wear during the summer months. Once you’ve finished creating your avatar, you can save it in one of three styles (note the copyright disclaimer, though).

Family Guy Yourself

Screenshot from familyguyyourself.com.

Family Guy is just a little newer than South Park, first airing in 1999. If I had to choose a full-body avatar tool, it would be a close call between Family Guy Yourself and Peanutize Yourself. This would probably win because of its downloading options; more about that in a minute. This is another choose male / female setup, only you can choose from two body types: slim, or a bit overweight. There’s an average number of cartoony choices for your avatar: hair, eyes (glasses or no), shirts and pants, etc.

The avatars turn out pretty well, but what I really liked about this tool was set of the download options. You can download a full-body avatar, or just a head/shoulders image like most social media uses. And once you’ve made your choice, you can download a PNG file with one of five different background colors.

You might not feel comfortable putting your picture online, and that’s okay. With these avatar makers you’ve got plenty of different options to express yourself — seriously or not!

Featured image: Screenshot from avatar maker “Peanutize Me”

Innocent Days on the Internet

“The Internet can and will change your life.”

Readers who saw those words in a 1997 Post article might have easily dismissed them as journalistic hype. The Internet was still quite young and unexplored in those days. It gave little indication it would grow into the force that would reshape America’s economy, politics, society, education, and arts.

It had been developing slowly and quietly. While the first tests of the Internet took place in November 1969, as late as 1993, there were only 50 websites in operation. The first secure online purchase wasn’t made until August 1994 (when a Web developer bought a copy of Sting’s CD Ten Summoner’s Tales.)

Screen shot of The Saturday Evening Post home page in 1997
Screen shot of The Saturday Evening Post home page in 1997 accompanied the article “Trekking the Internet.” The caption read: “The Saturday Evening Post has joined the Net.”

Web traffic was climbing steadily, though, and the number of Internet users doubled every year. By 1997, over 70 million people around the world were online. But this was still less than 2 percent of the planet’s population. Large sections of Americans were only vaguely aware of this thing called the World Wide Web. The Post article, “Trekking the Internet,” probably introduced many readers to such terms as “HTML” and “browser” and “URL” (“pronounced ‘You Are Ell,’” the authors helpfully added).

We’re now so accustomed to the Internet that it’s amusing to read the authors’ comments on basic operations. “You can ‘save your place’ on the Web and create a list of your own favorite sites. The list of personal favorites is usually referred to in the software as the … Bookmarks section.”

Though some of the players they describe have passed from prominence — America Online’s WebCrawler and CompuServe’s NetLauncher — the Internet is still much as they described it then: “fascinating, stimulating, and thought-provoking … also silly, irreverent, and mundane.”

The biggest difference between then and now, though, is the Internet’s attitude toward commercialization. The article reported that Internet users and service providers would tolerate no advertising on the Web. When two attorneys sent a spammed advertisement to thousands of newsgroups in 1994, the Internet “responded swiftly and with considerable ferocity. All messages originating from [the lawyers] were intercepted and destroyed. Their fax machine was swamped by a flood of dummy calls, effectively disabling their machine. Their service provider was also deluged and cut off [the lawyers’] service. … They went to another service provider who offered them the same discourtesy.”

Perhaps it was naive to think the Web could remain commercial-free. Back in the 1920s, many Americans had expected radio would remain free of advertising, and America’s airwaves unsullied by singing jingles for scouring powder and deodorant. But radio went commercial, as did the Internet.

Unlike radio, however, the Internet allows users to intercept and block the advertising sent at them. Ad blockers are becoming so efficient that advertisers are starting to worry.

It’s likely that ad blocking will change the amount and type of advertising we see on the Web. But then, change is perhaps the only constant in the digital world.

The Internet Has Failed Us

Andrew Keen is a British-American tech entrepreneur and CNN commentator. His new book, The Internet Is Not the Answer, acknowledges many benefits of technology but argues that we ignore the darker side of the digital world at our peril.

The Saturday Evening Post: You write that the Internet has failed to live up to its early utopian promise. Since we all have such short attention spans nowadays — in large part thanks to the Internet — can you remind us what exactly that early promise was?

Andrew Keen: The original idea, as described by its many evangelists, was that the Internet would democratize the good and disrupt the bad. It would get rid of the gatekeepers, do away with national boundaries — and all this would radically change society for the better.

SEP: But it hasn’t happened?

AK: No. Rather than promoting economic fairness, it is the central reason for the growing gulf between rich and poor and the hollowing out of the middle class. Rather than making us wealthier, the so-called sharing economy is making us poorer. Rather than creating more jobs, automation is destroying jobs. And rather than increasing competition, it has created immensely powerful new global monopolies like Google
and Facebook.

SEP: But from the perspective of the average consumer, one could argue that the Internet has also given us a lot. My email service is free; Facebook is free; classified ads are free now, thanks to Craigslist. But you’ve made the case that none of this is truly free. Can you explain?

AK: Ethan Zuckerman, director of the MIT Center for Civic Media and one of the early Internet idealists, describes the concept of free services as the Internet’s original sin — in my view, that’s an appropriately biblical reference. The reality is we, the consumers, are the ones doing the manual labor; we’re the ones putting up our photographs; we’re sharing our stories and our personal data. In Silicon Valley, venture capitalists refer to ordinary citizens as “data factories.” So, to put it bluntly, in the Internet economy, we’re the product. It’s exploitative. We’re on the verge of an increasingly ubiquitous data economy. And the business model of collecting all that data and essentially giving us stuff for free, that business model depends on surveillance. That’s the trap. The service is free, but corporations will be observing your every move: what you do, what you say, even what you think. Free is never really free.

SEP: The sharing economy — using the Internet as a tool for matching products and services to consumer needs such as renting out a room in your house through Airbnb or driving a cab for Uber whenever you want — has been promoted as a great benefit to society. Can’t it be argued that the Internet empowers those who’ve struggled financially to now be able to find a way to make a living?

AK: Sure Uber allows anyone to drive a cab, but now there’s a single cab company in the whole world that takes 30-40 percent of every single taxi fare. I don’t want my children to inherit a world where everyone is basically selling their labor on these monopolistic platforms where huge companies are growing fatter off their labor, where they have no security, where what they do is not even treated as a “job.” The sharing economy is systematically destroying the hard-won protections built up since the Industrial Revolution — such as unions, pensions, the minimum wage, laws about child labor. As a result, the working poor have to work harder and harder just to survive. It’s just more work, more struggle, less security — more of a dog-eat-dog kind of economy.

SEP: But isn’t some pain always the price of progress? The Industrial Revolution destroyed several types of jobs, but didn’t it create many more new ones?

AK: Technology has created some new jobs, but it’s destroying far more. In the not-too-distant future, machines will be able to diagnose our diseases, figure out complicated law cases. So, even doctors and lawyers will be unemployed. The reality is that we have an increasing inequality of power and wealth in this world. Every industry is being radically transformed, undermined, restructured by the digital revolution — education, health care, taxicabs, hospitality.

SEP: Is that why you say consumers need to consider their roles as citizens, not just shoppers in the Internet bazaar? You say we mistakenly think of the Internet culture as “one of rights, not responsibilities.” What are our responsibilities?

AK: Let’s use the example of Amazon. You can shop any time. And the pricing is too good to be true. You can buy my book at a bookstore for $25; on Amazon it’s $15. But if you do have a nice local bookstore that you like, where you get service, where the bookseller knows your taste and can recommend titles, maybe it’s worth paying the extra $10 to help keep them in business. People need to make the connection. If you care about your local retail business surviving, then you have a responsibility not to focus only on the immediate cost of an item. You have to consider the longer-range cost to you and your community.In Silicon Valley, venture capitalists refer to ordinary citizens as 'data factories.' So, to put it bluntly, in the Internet economy, we're the product.

SEP: Another cost of today’s Web-based existence that you describe is its so-called rage, or shaming, culture. Some people feel free to trash others for the slightest provocation or politically incorrect thought. There is a disconnect between how we talk to each other online and how we speak face to face.

AK: That’s true. Minorities, women in particular, are subject to rape threats and threats of violence, just for expressing themselves. The Internet was supposed to have created a civil environment for discussion. Ironically, it has become one of the great engines of intolerance. It’s created an echo chamber culture — a more parochial, narrow, selfie-centric universe. Thanks to the Internet, we live in the perpetual present. We stumble from one outrage to the next. I call this the tyranny of the now. We go from someone saying something stupid to the next person’s sexual scandal to some political scandal, and then, you know, after about an hour, we’ve forgotten what the last one was. All these stories acquire such importance while they’re happening, and disappear once they’re over. It’s like fast food.

SEP: Are there rules or guidelines that might help to curb some of this?

AK: James Madison said, “If men were angels we wouldn’t need government,” which is why the Founding Fathers built checks and balances into the American Constitution. Well, we need the same checks and balances on the Internet. Without them, we’ve opened the door to state-sponsored or corporate-sponsored dishonesty, such as when companies seed Wikipedia with marketing material or trump up information on consumer review networks such as Yelp. We need an accountable, strong government able to stand up to Silicon Valley big data companies. As economist Richard Sennett said, if Theodore Roosevelt were alive today “I believe [he’d] concentrate his [trust-busting] firepower on Google, Microsoft, and Apple. We need modern politicians who will be similarly bold.”