Most interesting websites of 2003

'Tis the season for year-end reviews. Between Christmas and new year, media of all types make a habit of revisiting the previous 12 months, each in their own specific way. Whether it be assessing the top news/weather/sports stories of the year, ranking the biggest film and music releases, or holding video and radio countdowns, it can be almost impossible to completely avoid retrospectives in late December.

So if you came here looking for refuge, you're out of luck. But if it's any consolation, this article won't actually take the form of a countdown - it will simply suggest a handful of sites that are worth a second look. So, in no particular order...

One of the last sites reviewed this year and potentially one of the most interesting to follow through the next is Their Circular Life. Using a bit of Flash wizardry, Circular Life allows surfers to sit in one spot as a 24 hour period passes before their eyes and ears - with the option to pause or reverse time at the viewer's discretion. To date there are only two locations that have been given the Circular Life treatment, but the webmasters have made an open call for submissions from around the world, and posted the software necessary to create a contribution. If the invitation gets a significant response, Their Circular Life could become a virtual traveller's dream.

In an even more impressive case of, "you've never seen anything like this before," the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation's Home Deliveryapproached the file size vs. bandwidth battle by creating complete multi-media 'magazines' that could be downloaded in a single -large- piece to the user's hard drive, and then viewed without interruption. (The 500MB files still meant inordinately long download times for dial-up users -as much as 24 hours- but an application built into the files allowed the computer to transparently download the data while your Internet connection wasn't being used for other things.) A self-declared experiment that was originally to end after 10 'issues,' but which carried on for an additional 23, Home Delivery is -at least for the moment- mothballed. Fortunately all 33 issues are still available through an online archive (though not in the 'smart download' version), and with luck this trial period might be declared enough of a success to resume production in the future.

Reviewed in May, the X Prize website has been resurfacing in the general online consciousness due to several recent events. An international competition dedicated to the privatization of space, the X Prize has been getting mentions alongside news about the Chinese space program, the centenary of the Wright Brothers' first flight, and the eventual return of the space shuttle to active service. And making its own headlines, the competition reached a significant milestone recently as Burt Rutan's SpaceShipOne broke the sound barrier and achieved an altitude of 68,000 feet during a December 17 test flight. With separate pages for each of the 26 ventures currently in the competition, additional Images, FAQs and links to competitors' home pages, the X Prize site has also recently added a PDF downloadable summary of the teams' progress during 2003.

While there are any number of websites inviting visitors into virtual museum exhibits, the Smithsonian's HistoryWired allows them to poke around the storerooms. By taking 450 artifacts from the 95 percent of the Smithsonian's collections that isn't on public display and putting them on the Web, the museum shares treasures that would normally only be seen by a handful of employees. And with an interface that encourages chance discoveries, and objects that range from the first Apple computer to Kermit the Frog, History Wired takes the theory of 'Internet equals access' and applies it in a uniquely imaginative way.

Access of another kind is available through a fairly recent evolution of Frontline's website. In addition to the standard content for a television series' online presence, the PBS production has been in the process of making entire programs available over the Web via streaming video. To date there are 29 episodes online, dating as far back as 1985, and ranging in subject matter from "Inside the Teenage Brain" to "The Man Who Knew" - a frustrating account of how politics prevented the FBI's 'go-to guy' on Bin Laden from doing his job in the lead-up to 9/11.

The last two selections are both products of the British Broadcasting Corporation - a venerable organization, and one which embraced the Web early, wholeheartedly, and with impressive ingenuity. WW2 People's War uses that ingenuity to create a history of Worl War Two from the personal perspective - a history of the people, written by the people, and posted for the people.

A shining example of the kind of project that could only exist online, People's War ignores the learned texts of historians in favor of the personal stories of anyone who wishes to become an online contributor. 'Read only' visitors are also more than welcome, and though the site is still young, stories cover an impressive range of both military and civilian experiences - from a childhood reminiscence of watching a bombing raid, to the story of a regiment of native Canadians who swam a river and engaged Germans on the other side with nothing but bayonets while Allied engineers were building a bridge.

The second BBC site is included because of a significant personal bias for British comedy. The latest addition to the Beeb's stable of radio networks, BBC7 spotlights the spoken word with drama, children's programming, and best of all, more than seven hours of classic British comedy every day. BBC7's lineup includes such touchstones of British humor as "The Goon Show," "I'm Sorry, I'll Read That Again" (with a cast that includes a pre-Python John Cleese), and "Just A Minute" (in which various comedic luminaries must ad-lib a one minute speech about an assigned subject - without repetition, hesitation, or deviation). Dramas include everything from "War and Peace" and "Les Miserables" to Mark Twain and classic episodes of the "Twilight Zone." You may never listen to high-rotation, Top 20 radio again.

Finally, as a post-script to my own 'year in review' collection, let me recommend two others. Google's Zeitgeist has been automatically tracking the changing frequency of search requests since January of 2001, and the annual version of the search engine's online snapshots will probably be available by the time you read this. Zeitgeist's statistics have the advantage of being completely unbiased, and the disadvantage of being compiled from data that exclusively uses Web surfers as the sample population. (Where else but the web would Anna Kournikova rank above both the Williams sisters in the Top Female Athlete category?) Still, as a purely pop-culture snapshot, this is probably a more accurate picture than most - and if the concept lasts long enough, it should be interesting to look back ten years down the road, and see what we were so desperate to learn about way back in 2003.

(But what will we think of ourselves, when we learn the answer is, 'Britney Spears?')

And for the ultimate list of 2003 lists, Fimoculous.com has gathered more than 300 year-enders into 23 categories and placed them all on a single page. Examples include the "Top 25 Censored Media Stories" from Project Censored, "Words of the Year" from Merriam Webster.com, "50 Best Albums of 2003" from Rolling Stone, the "Worst Technology" from Fortune magazine, the "Ninth Annual PR Blunders" from Fineman Public Relations, and the "Least Essential Albums of 2003" from The Onion.

It's enough to keep you going until the 2004 lists start coming out.

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