No Place Else Has Sites Like These

Three years after the content revolution hit the Israeli Internet, one can state that we have well-tended, serious and interesting Web sites. What a pity that when you look at them, what you see is the ugly face of Israel - aggressive and money-hungry.

In the mid-1990s, the first Internet sites that would eventually go commercial opened in Israel. The Web did not yet interest the big companies, which did not see how it was possible to make money off this endearing hobby. This changed in the middle of 2000, when large, wealthy corporations entered the Internet and players already active in the field upgraded their activities.

After three years of learning, Israeli Web sites finally grasped the rationale that lies at the basis of every site - to attract as many surfers as possible and make as much money as possible. And as soon as these lessons were internalized, the Israeli sites severed all ties with the trends and processes that characterized other Internet sites worldwide and embarked on a path completely cut off from what was going on around them. The result is enthralling.

Anthropologists of the Web will find many parallels between the sweaty Israeliness of Tel Aviv, the traffic jams on the coastal highway and the yelling and screaming on political talk shows, and the on-line Israeliness. As in other cases, Israeli reality has taken an international phenomenon and inflated it until one can no longer remember what the original looks like.

Take, for example, advertising on these sites. Advertising is one of a Web site's main sources of income, and the fact that almost no Israeli sites are profitable pushes them to increase advertising space at the expense of content space. There is nothing new in that. Internet sites abroad are also far from making huge profits and they also want to increase revenues. Nevertheless, what is happening in Israel bears no relationship to what is happening on foreign sites.

Pop-ups (windows that appear on top of the content page), pop-unders (windows that appear beneath the content page), jump-slides (ads that move down the page from top to bottom), moving banners (which go up and down the page as the user scrolls up or down) and other ads that hide the content - all appearing together on a single page or a single site - are nothing unusual for Israeli sites. The Israeli surfer has known for some time that when he enters a local site, he is entering a cybernetic battlefield, a jungle full of kamikaze windows that leap at him from every direction, threatening to drown him in vulgar advertising slogans that in any case will merely feed his feelings of hatred for the product and the advertiser.

The British also like money; but in Britain, it seems, they like the surfers more. Out of 35 portals and news sites tested, only four use pop-up ads - and in three of the four, the ads publicize the site itself. For instance, the pop-up on The Financial Times site urges the reader to subscribe to the paper.

Another Israeli invention is the ability to post responses - "talkback" - on the main media sites. Yedioth Ahronoth (via Ynet), Ma'ariv, Haaretz (via Walla! and TheMarker) and Globes, as well as the portals Walla!, Nana, MSN and Tapuz, all allow the reader to post responses - some filtered, some unfiltered - alongside the news items and opinion pieces. By way of comparison, we checked every news site in England and dozens of others in France, Germany and the United States. Not only did not a single one of the most prestigious papers, such as The New York Times and The Washington Post in America, the Times and The Guardian in Britain and Le Monde in France, allow surfers to spout off alongside the site's own content; but neither did a single one of the yellowest rags one can find on the supermarket shelf or a single one of the major television stations.

Ladies and gentlemen, you are witnessing an exclusive Israeli invention without parallel anywhere else in the world.

Why is it that what seems so natural in Israel is unacceptable in countries where capitalism is a way of life and where the term "freedom of expression" is not a mere punchline but part of a civil tradition that goes back hundreds of years?

The factors that made the Israeli Internet look like a Middle Eastern bazaar are almost banal. The site managers tell surfers not to complain about the ads, because "someone needs to pay for our work and for the fact that you view the content for free." As a result, they unblushingly fire every type of advertisement ever invented at the surfer, no matter how aggressive, crude or off-putting (what, are they suckers?). And the surfers react like every Israeli who ever leaves his house, whether for a barbecue in a public park or a holiday in a luxury hotel: They litter and pollute and refuse to waive their right to make it clear to the manager that they paid, and therefore they can do whatever they please - and if they are not allowed to continue littering, they will not come back (what, are they suckers?).

Three years after the content revolution hit the Israeli Internet, one can state with pride that we have well-tended, serious and interesting Web sites. What a pity that when you look at them, what you see is the ugly face of Israel - aggressive and money-hungry.