u_topn picture
rub_wc picture
Revolution 2.0

Esther Dyson wants to redesign the digital world -- or at least get the brainstorming started.

News You Can't Use

The art of the parody is alive and well.

A Prairie Home-Page Companion

Don't know what socks to wear? Ask Garrison Keillor.

The Witch's Voice

Coming out of the broom closet.

Chess on the Net

An online community where those with the best moves always mate.

In the Valley of the Kings

Breaking new ground in Egypt -- and on the Web.

Autumn Tapestry

The traditional art of weaving -- in code.

For more, see the complete Web Citations Index.
October 22, 1997

IRS The IRS has lately been trying very hard to make itself more friendly and responsive. The agency's Web site certainly reflects these efforts: it is an incredibly useful resource, providing comprehensive tax information in an intuitively easy-to-navigate format. Visitors can download almost any tax form, read about recent changes to tax laws, find answers to frequently asked questions, and fill out interactive questionnaires that help determine whether one is eligible for various exemptions and credits. There's even a page for those wishing to file complaints about the difficulties they've had in dealing with the IRS. And in the unlikely event that one can't find the information one seeks, questions can be e-mailed to IRS staff members.

IRS Message Unfortunately, however, this site has a personality problem: it is perky and ingratiating to the extreme. Everywhere are coy puns (a promise not to "mix you up" next to a photo of a blender), campy pictures (a pencil spearing a chile pepper next to a big red "Yow!" on the "What's Hot" page), and a grating tone of cozying-up informality: the World Wide Web is "the info highway," users are not to include any "personal stuff" in their Web site feedback forms, the "What's Hot" page is "cool," visitors are continually exhorted to "check out" various features, and IRS staff members and taxpayers are all "folks." Exclamation points are everywhere ("Yes, there are times we don't want to know everything!", "Remember, no question is stupid, unless you never ask it!"). The level of manic enthusiasm is exhausting.

Chile pepper pencil

Perhaps this is what happens when an institution that is universally despised (and knows it) tries too hard to make itself appealing. Nothing on the IRS Web site is egregiously offensive, of course, but the total effect is such that browsing the site becomes somewhat akin to being dogged by an unctuous salesperson who's just a little too friendly and responsive. Though irritating, there's also something pitiably sweet about such a desperate effort to be liked -- even on the part of an institution that really only wants your money.

Copyright © 1997 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
Cover Atlantic Unbound The Atlantic Monthly Post & Riposte Atlantic Store Search

Click here