WHEN I FIRST started exploring the Web, the sites I liked the best were those with a distinct point of view. I still have my favorites (like E! Online and The Onion), but the novelty of having access to every opinion on any subject in the world has worn off. These days when I surf, I'm not looking for opinions, or spin, or slant--or for that matter, that all-too-plentiful (and annoying) "attitude." What I seek now is raw data. The following sites--some entertaining, some useful--are all noteworthy for being generous enough to give you the world, and decent enough to keep their mouths shut while doing so.
Decent real-time video on the Internet is probably a ways off, but real-time audio has already arrived and it can be a real treat. AudioNet is a clean, well-organized website thoroughly stocked with live radio broadcasts, more than 1,000 CDs in an online jukebox, and original programming. With a RealAudio player you can listen to live sports from around the country, hook into college radio stations from places like Lawrence, Kansas, and check out not just a sample of a Wu Tang Clan album, but the whole thing, albeit in lo-lo-fi. The best part: You don't have to stay at the website to stayed tuned into AudioNet. The sound chops in and out occasionally, but otherwise you can continue browsing (or work in other applications) while your computer pumps out a world of sounds.
Waiting for an application to download from the Internet can be a tedious and ungratifying chore, but there are times when the shareware you receive is worth the wait. Shareware.com specializes in such programs, and like AudioNet, it's a site that manages to carry an incredible volume of information and resources without being confusing and frustrating. Go to the "popular" section to find out which applications are being downloaded most frequently. Or if you're looking for something specific, use the search engine to find what you need (I recently used it to bag a nifty program that saves screen images as GIF files). As an added bonus, Shareware.com rates the reliability of the software so you know what you're getting is as friendly as it is useful.
The Internet is brimming with know-it-alls, but the Ask an Expert site is devoted to helping you, not proving it's superior to you. Rather than numb your senses with trivia, Ask an Expert provides links to websites to answer serious questions on everything from housing to hydrology. The links are well-researched and current, but what makes this site even better is the access they provide to volunteer experts--people who will actually answer your questions personally, via e-mail. And if you don't agree with what they tell you, sign up online to become a resident smarty-pants yourself.
Entertainment sites like E! Online and entertainment CD-ROMs like Microsoft's Cinemania abound, but when you want nothing but movie information--and as much of it as possible--the Internet Movie Database is the place to visit. In addition to doing familiar actor/director/title searches, you can also go deep into the end credits of movies to search for crew members' names. You probably don't care that Donah Bassett was the negative cutter on Raging Bull, but if you did and wanted to see more of his work, the IMDb will tell you where to go. "Fuzzy search" capabilities compensate for butchered spelling and gaps in knowledge, so that the next time you wonder "Who was that guy in that thing?", you'll soon have the answer.
The Writer's Guild of America is another useful site, whose links pages alone are a marvel: Almost every major search engine, research database, and news organization can be reached from this page. Plus, you get access to slang dictionaries, thesauruses, translation dictionaries, and so forth. Combined with Ask an Expert, the WGA site makes you a fact-finding machine. On top of which, if you're still operating under the delusion that writing for film and television is glamorous and rewarding, the WGA also features advice from top screenwriters on how to break into Hollywood.