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Peace on Earth, Ill Will to Web Pests

By Amey Stone As much as I love the Internet and appreciate its many conveniences, it sure has room for improvement. In the past few weeks, as holiday fever mounts -- along with my personal stress levels -- Web hassles seem to be gaining ground on cyberspace amenities.

Both spammers and mainstream marketers have new tricks up their sleeves, and some Internet entrepreneurs have come up with new services that I, for one, find annoying -- even though they seem to be catching on like wildfire with users.

So, in the spirit of TV talk-show host David Letterman's nightly countdown, with a little Grinch-like grouchiness thrown in, here's one woman's rant against the Web:

The Top 10 Things I Hate about the Internet in the Last Two Weeks

10. Instant-message spam. I ignore instant messages from people I don't know. (Doesn't everyone?) But it still bugs me when the ping on my desktop distracts me from a task at hand and signals a message that turns out to be from -- not a co-worker or a friend -- but "EvaH" -- to name a recent example. I'm receiving such "spim" with increasing frequency these days. Is nothing on the Net sacred?

9. Contact list update software. One company's slogan is "Plaxo takes the hassle out of keeping your contact list up to date." Yes, it does -- by making your contacts do the work for you. Somehow this doesn't seem fair.

Lately I've received requests to supply all my contact information from friends as well as several people I don't even know (I assume they're public relations professionals). I often don't have time for all that typing at the moment I receive the e-mail -- even for people I want to be able to reach me -- and quickly forget the request.

Apparently, however, many people are a lot more accommodating than I am. As of late November, Plaxo boasted that it had signed up more than 800,000 members to use its software and that 10 million people had supplied their information in response.

8. "Share the Love" programs. That's what Amazon (AMZN) calls its program that allows customers to send discounts to friends who might want to buy the same items they just bought. If anyone actually does buy the item, the original shopper gets some shopping credits. Many retail sites have their own versions.

The problem: Basically, online retailers are bribing users to hand over their friends' e-mail addresses in return for discounts on future sales. I love a good discount as much as the next person, but given the value of a fresh e-mail address to an online retailer, these deals stink.

7. Free shipping deals that aren't. Nine times out of 10, when I do my part and fill up my shopping cart with more items than I really want in order to rack up a bill big enough to qualify for free shipping, it turns out that I don't qualify. I've got the wrong type of item, gone to the wrong place, in the wrong time frame. Or maybe I just forgot to check the right box. It shouldn't be that hard.

6. Sites that get me to give them my e-mail address and then fill my mailbox with endless spam. Shame on me for this one. I made this mistake with a site that promised a recent list of foreclosed properties (for a story I was working on). Now, several times a day I'm alerted to new ways to make millions in real estate and opportunities for guaranteed low-interest home loans. Apparently I'm doomed to remain on these lists for the working life of this e-mail address.

5. Tricky spam subject heads. Is it just me, or is spam getting smarter? I've been tripped up a couple of times lately by subject heads that seem to come from human resources or a company I do business with. I'm finding myself increasingly opening e-mails labeled simply "question" or "response" because I think it may be from a reader, only to find that it's a pitch for Viagra.

I used to put simple subject heads like "hi" or "lunch plans" on most of my e-mails. Not anymore. Now, writing subject lines so e-mails won't be instantly deleted has become a new art form. It's taking up way too much of my time.

4. The Bill Gates hoax that won't die. Once and for all, can we get this straight? Microsoft (MSFT) will not pay people for forwarding e-mail as a way to test its software. Microsoft officially refuted this scam back in 1999. But I got it again from a friend just last week. At this stage of the Internet era, I would have thought most people would be able to recognize a hoax or realize it was impolite to forward a chain letter that threatens bad karma if I don't send it on to a bunch more people.

3. RSVP-management software. Evite is the big name in this business. Hosts get to set up a special Web site, which publicly tracks responses from invitees. Call me a Scrooge, but I think such close monitoring of party-attendance plans has something not quite in the spirit of party-giving. Face it, part of the fun (or nightmare, depending on your perspective) of going to a party is that you don't know who'll be there until you show up.

Truth be told, I doubt these services really provide much accurate information to users since whether people say they will come often has little bearing on if they actually show up. So better to skip the Evites, e-mail your friends directly, and let the party cards fall where they may.

2. Nasty e-mails from readers. I get lots of great responses from readers who I'm thankful take the time to share their insights and expertise on the companies and issues I cover. If a story contains a mistake, I want to know about it. And I'm happy to know if a lot of readers disagree with opinions I've expressed in a column. But please spare me the e-mails filled with expletives and personal insults. Evite fans, this means you.

And the No. 1 thing I hate about the Internet in the past two weeks: Anything to do with Paris Hilton. Stone, who's taking a turn as a guest Nothing But Net columnist, is senior writer for BusinessWeek Online in New York

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