Let’s acknowledge something up front: Choosing the “50 best” Web sites is absurd. There are millions of them – tens of millions – that we’ve never even looked at. New ones go up every minute.

The interests of the journalists and our associates who were our primary sources for this collection are not what you’d call a cross-section of society. Our list leans toward matters of media and technology, arts and information. If there’s a slam-bang entomology site out there, we wouldn’t have a clue.

That said, happy surfing.

The arts and culture

• Metacritic (www.metacritic.com): This site had the brilliant idea of aggregating what the critics have said about music, movies, TV, games and books and presenting both a total average review, snippets from the originals and links to them.

• Public libraries (various): A librarian we know points out something wonderful: Many public libraries’ Web sites have free, downloadable audio books. We tested this in our own town (Oak Park, Ill., www.oppl.org) and found it to be true.

• PostSecret (www.postsecret.blogspot.com): As the site says, it’s “an ongoing community art project where people mail-in their secrets anonymously on one side of a homemade postcard.” They range from the banal to the terrifying, the profane to the profound. “I killed Cupid in self-defense,” says one.

• Chowhound (www.chowhound.com): A popular foodies board that offers some well thought out reviews of different cities’ finer and less impressive eating establishments.

• McSweeney’s (www.mcsweeneys.net): The Web home to Dave Eggers and posse is a cornucopia of writing and the writerly, along with miscellaning and the miscellany.

• Pitchfork Media (www.pitchforkmedia.com): Based in Chicago and billing itself as the “home of the gratuitously in-depth record review,” this site is manna to indie music junkies, even as one of them labels it “insufferably snotty but very informative/up-to-date/comprehensive.”

• The Gramophone (www.gramophone.co.uk): A classical music version of Pitchfork, or, more properly, what Pitchfork may someday aspire to. The Gramophone magazine, more than 75 years old, has been running reviews of every darn classical music record and CD and now DVD that is released pretty much anywhere in the world. The reviews are all here, and they are searchable. Plus, there are podcasts, music downloads, message boards and more.

• Guardian Unlimited Film (film.guardian.co.uk): People can argue like Roger Ebert and that other guy about the best film site, but we like this one for its generally fine writing, its range of materials, from reviews to interviews to news and its British perspective on our culture. The listings aren’t much good to Chicagoans, of course, but you’ve got to love the title for the site’s collection of film previews: Trailer Park. (The rest of the Guardian site is first-rate, as well.)

• Epicurious (www.epicurious.com): Food food food food food food recipes food food. Who wants to join us for to lunch?

• Television Without Pity (www.televisionwithoutpity.com): In a universe littered with TV-related sites, this one stands out for its snappy episode recaps of popular shows and the most lively message boards out there.

• Defamer (www.defamer.com): The Internet is awash in snarky celebrity gossip sites, most of them managing to build up exactly the thing they think they’re tearing down. Defamer just tears down, with a savage wit. Here’s the headline on its item about Tom Cruise taking his fiancee to a closed FAO Schwartz for her birthday: “Katie Holmes Turns 27 Amongst Other Imprisoned Playthings.”

• Go Fug Yourself (gofugyourself.typepad.com): Possibly even better than Defamer because it limits itself to making fun of celebrity outfits, and if there’s anything more vapid than celebrity in America, it’s fashion thereon. Here’s Fug on favorite target Chloe Sevigny at the Golden Globes: She looks “as though she simply twirled around slowly while somebody wrapped her in purple cellophane.”

• The Smoking Gun (www.thesmokinggun.com): The place to go for mugshots of and court documents on celebrities in trouble — and much else. Just recently, they played a key role in exposing the James Frey fictions.
Information, please

• Reference Desk (www.refdesk.com): An amazing aggregation of free reference sources, from dictionaries to encyclopedias to news stories. The archive of it’s well-chosen “Site of the Day” would make a great Best of the Web list all by itself.

• Reporter’s Desktop (www.reporter.org/desktop): Built by investigative reporter Duff Wilson, this site collects a lot of the tools reporters use for finding information on the Web, from a range of phone directories to links to government documents. Some of the services charge a fee.

• Wikipedia (en.wikipedia.org): Yes, as news events last year proved, this free encyclopedia composed entirely by volunteers is not perfect. But it’s darned good (a Nature magazine test found it nearly matched Britannica for accuracy on a selection of science articles), it’s quick and it’s a great first stop for information.

• The Mayo Clinic (www.mayoclinic.com): The site of the famed Minnesota health outfit, this is great for hypochondriacs or anyone else who’s ill or just needs to know more about any affliction, from the common cold to Alzheimer’s. There’s also information on drugs and supplements and much, much more.

• Motley Fool (www.motleyfool.com): While most people associate this site with stock investment advice, there’s a lot of other good personal finance information on it, too, such as a primer on mortgages and home-buying. All the info is conveyed in comprehensible language and often with dry wit. Warning: After a trial period, the site will cost you.

• Census FactFinder (factfinder.census.gov/home/saff/main.html?-langen): Loyola University demographer Kenneth Johnson calls this American FactFinder site at the U.S. Census Bureau “a data junkie’s delight.” It’s got links to new Census Bureau reports and another link to data from several recent censuses; you can construct your own tables and make your own comparisons.

• Docuticker (www.docuticker.com): My goodness, a lot of documents are produced in the world. As if to prove it, there is this strange and sometimes wonderful link collection, “a daily update of new reports from government agencies, NGOs, think tanks, and other groups . . . compiled by the librarians who bring you 1/8the also worthwhile 3/8 ResourceShelf.com.”

Kids (and their adults)

• Fun Brain (www.funbrain.com): Recommended to one of our kids by a teacher, this is a straightforward but engaging collection of (mostly) educational games, quizzes, comics and more for grades K-8. Run by Pearson, a leading education publisher, it’s not groundbreaking, but it feels safe to leave kids alone with and it’s wondrously free of commercial tie-ins.

• Boohbah Zone (www.boohbah.com/zone.html): An amazing kids’ site derived from the TV show, a relative of “Teletubbies.” But it’s better on the Web, a blend of intuition, exploration, surprise and psychedelia.

• Homestar Runner (www.homestar runner.com): Somewhere between Japanese anime, old video games and an anarchic sitcom lurks this deliriously inventive and funny site, a sort of loose chronicle of the life of the childlike title character and his nemesis, StrongBad. You’ll go with your kids, but you’ll come back on your own.

Buying and selling

• Tech Bargains (www.techbargains.com): Frequently updated and well-fed with tips from its community of users, this site keeps you posted on the best deals available both online and, increasingly, in stores.

• Threadless (www.threadless.com): Cool, consumer-designed, limited-edition T-shirts with ever-changing stock from this Chicago company. People submit designs and what gets printed and sold is decided by vote.

• Craig’s List (www.craigslist.org): Craig Newmark drives other Internet entrepreneurs crazy, because his e-mail list of San Francisco events turned into a worldwide free classified-ad phenomenon, and he isn’t milking it for every single dollar he can get. What’s wrong with this guy (genuine altruism) is good news for the rest of us, whether we’re subletting an apartment, trying to buy a used mixer or hopeful that the eye contact on the bus meant something.

• Consumer Reports (www.consumerreports.org): You’ve got to pay for the site’s best content, but it’s worth it for its even-keeled, commercial-free advice, pitched at the average user.

• Peapod (www.peapod.com): Yes, this grocery-delivery business from the first Internet boom is still hanging in there. Yes, it’s about as sexy as those big-box trucks that lumber around town and only slightly more high-tech than paying $5 to the neighbor kid to run down to the store. But it meets a need, and it seems to satisfy our several friends who rely on it for saving time in a busy week.

• iTunes Music Store (www.itunes.com): Granted, it’s part of Apple’s well-executed conspiracy to link you into the iPod forever. But it’s the best organized, most easily used and most feature-rich online music service going. And now it’s leading the way in video purchasing, too.

News and media

• Crooks & Liars (www.crooksandliars.com): Video links to all the cable news nonsense that goes on during the day. Usually has clips of politicians embarrassing themselves.

• NPR (www.npr.org): Great audio archives, solid search function, and easy listening to old and recent stuff on the Web site of National Public Radio.

• Newseum (www.newseum.org): The “today’s front pages” feature shows the covers of more that 500 papers in more than 40 countries.

• The Onion (www.onion.com): Well-known, to be sure. Even old hat. But it’s a funny, funny, funny old hat, the best parody of current events and, especially, the news media going.

• Romenesko (http://www.poynter.org/column.asp?id45): Where journalists spend so much time reading about the decline of their business that they actually contribute to it. The well-culled digest of news about news is put together by Jim Romenesko.

• Fark (www.fark.com): The anti-Google News, this site is a simple little digest of funny (funny ha-ha or funny strange) news stories, most of them seemingly true.


• Bloglines (www.bloglines.com): You’ve heard of an RSS feed and sort of vaguely understand that it’s a way to have fresh material from sites that interest you collected automatically? Bloglines is the service that’ll do it all for you, relatively painlessly. Despite the name, it’s not limited to blogs. Warning: You can easily get overwhelmed by the number of “feeds” you subscribe to.

• Google Maps (maps.google.com): The best free mapping service going, especially when you choose the “hybrid view” that layers street names atop actual aerial images.

• Find Articles (www.findarticles.com): Want to see what’s been written about a certain topic, but don’t have a subscription to Nexis? This is the next best thing, a well-organized collection of a claimed 10 million articles.

• Flickr (www.flickr.com): Both useful, for storage, organization and sharing purposes and intriguing is this massive searchable database of private-made-public photo albums. You can also keep your pics private, but don’t you know there’s not really any privacy on the Net?

• Technorati (www.technorati.com): Want to know who is blogging about you or, for instance, about eggplant parmesan? This site searches more than 25 million of them, and can also tell you the Internet buzz by measuring what’s being most blogged on.


• Wired (www.wired.com): The Web home of Wired magazine is the place to go for big-picture thinking on the Internet and its implications, plus breaking news and a whole lot of more immediately useful stuff, like a way-cooler-than-this-one list: Of the 50. Best. Robots. Ever.

• C/Net (www.cnet.com): This one reports tech news and writes product reviews with a more consumer-friendly feel than rival zdnet.com.

• The Wayback Machine (www.archive.org/web/web.php): The Internet Archive’s enormous collection of Web pages. See what Amazon.com used to look like. Find a very early Google page (it used to be “Google!”). It’s valuable for researchers, historians and lawyers, to be sure, but also for the curious. What it won’t do is let you buy Google stock in the past.

• Digg (www.digg.com): Where C/Net is hierarchical, Digg emphatically isn’t, possibly a model for other “citizen journalism” on the Web. Users submit stories to a temporary holding area where everyone can read them. If you read something you like, “digg” it by clicking a button. Stories that get enough clicks get promoted to the home page.

• Engadget (www.engadget.com): Our favorite of the approximately 32,000 gadget blogs, for its timeliness, concision and good sources.


• Stuff on My Cat (www.Stuffonmycat.com): For sheer inspired absurdity, not to mention for practicing truth in advertising, it’s hard to beat this determined effort to tear down the dignity of the creature that wants to be man’s most dignified house pet.

• The Kevin F. Sherry Sweater Project (www.badsweaterguy.com): Teen works at an Ohio Marshalls in the late 1980s. He acquires a larger collection of aggressive sweaters than you saw at even a Jordan-era Bulls game. Much closer to the present day, he develops more refined, adult tastes and decides to get rid of the over-garments. But first he takes a picture of himself in each and allows witty friends to write some achingly funny captions.

• The Flying Spaghetti Monster Letter (www.venganza.org): It began as a sharp satire of creationism, cast as a letter to the Kansas State Board of Education and seeking, in classrooms, “one third time for Intelligent Design, one third time for Flying Spaghetti Monsterism, and one third time for logical conjecture based on overwhelming observable evidence.” It turned into an Internet phenomenon.

• Boing Boing (www.boingboing.net): This site collects what’s new, weird, fascinating, important, whatever on the Web and presents it to readers. It’s one of many meta sites out there, but it’s one of the best known.

• Ask Metafilter (ask.metafilter.com). Here, users of the popular (and fascinating) Web community tackle one another’s questions, such as, “What short stories or novels have been written in 2nd person perspective?” And, “Should I violate this non-compete agreement? If I do, what’s the worst that could happen?”

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