A New Dream of the Old Web

I grew up on the internet, and I’ve watched it change in so many ways. I hear the soothsayers cry out about its impending death. If I’m being entirely honest, I share most of the underlying concerns being expressed—except for one. I don’t believe the internet is dying. It’s just going through adolescence.

In Defense of Screens

Growing up online doesn’t strike me as dramatically different from most coming-of-age cliches. There was awkward flirting, telling all my friends about a new favorite band on a monthly basis, and hours of conversations that felt like the deepest and most serious things in the world; it’s just that mine were mostly captured in AIM chat logs1. I’d bounce around random websites I found, read blogs, or fall into a wiki black hole. The internet represented pure freedom—not just because the content was free, but because it felt like the space belonged to us.

As I got older, it wasn’t just a space to hang out with my IRL friends. I met people on web forums, IRC channels, and MUDs. I wrote and shared stories, and got feedback from people who were writers in real life. I asked questions about how computers worked and got answers from professional software engineers2. I met people my own age who lived in different states and countries. Alongside all these friends I designed entire worlds, shared music videos and funny animations I enjoyed, and played games, and most of all, just chatted.

The modern consensus is that screens are supposed to be bad for us. The internet is ruining our attention spans, causing constant FOMO, and making kids anti-social. Everywhere I look, I see signs that this is correct, but I don’t buy that it’s an inherent consequence of being online. The internet of the mid-2000s did none of this to me. I had deep conversations online that took my entire focus3. I wasn’t missing out, I was finding new things to experience. Socializing was the point.

So what went wrong?

Dark Patterns

The internet we have today appears superficially similar, but a lot has changed. Facebook is like MySpace except there’s no custom HTML or CSS so all the content looks exactly the same. Messaging apps are like AIM except without fun away messages or font colors, and you can’t use an external client. Slack and Discord are like IRC except there’s always history from when you weren’t online making it hard not to spend tons of time trying to “catch up” instead of just dropping in on the current conversations. Reddit is like…well, early Reddit, except more of the content seems to be self-posts, imgur hosted images, and giphy hosted gifs that keep you browsing on Reddit.

In the meantime, dark patterns and a drive to improve metrics has corrupted what we once had. Facebook and Twitter’s content distribution algorithms have replaced the serendipity of real-time updates. Google’s ads are increasingly trying to blend in with native search results and now frequently take up more than half of the first page of results. Wikia/Fandom has actively murdered niche content wikis, often against their will4, and no one seems to care.

And then there’s the things that are just gone. I don’t really think there’s a good modern alternative to StumbleUpon for just wasting time. Google Reader was shuttered despite Google’s practically infinite pool of resources. We celebrated as Flash (and Shockwave before it) were killed off by Apple’s stubbornness, but I have yet to see an HTML5 driven site that has a depth and quality of content that holds up to Homestar Runner.

I agree with what Dan Nosowitz wrote in his article: “I Don’t Know How to Waste Time on the Internet Anymore." This place feels less fun. It feels less social. Among all the polish something massive has been lost, and I refuse to believe it’s just that I’ve gotten older. Something has clearly changed.

Take blogging on Medium. They’re currently in an identity crisis as to whether they’re a platform like Blogger that just lets people post things or a more full-fledged publisher like The New York Times that has a consistent style and reviews and promotes their writers’ content. The end result is a mess. One one hand, individual article authors are depersonalized like you’d expect from a full-fledged publisher, restricted to a byline and an end-of-article blurb with limited options for content customization. On the other, their review process is extremely lax, with no real attention given to article content beyond a passing glance5.

I don’t feel like I own the articles I publish on Medium. When I read other people’s articles, I don’t really register them as being theirs. It’s just another Medium article. In exchange for being distributed on a platform that might give me exposure, I give up that exposure actually being mine at all. The same thing happens with tweets, or reddit posts, or pretty much any shared content—the content becomes “this thing I saw on Twitter” and not “this thing Sarah shared.” We’re losing the individuality of the web6.

It doesn’t have to be like this7.

Transforming the Web

Chris Ferdinandi is right: the web is not dying8. It’s changing in many ways—and so are we. I think it would be a huge mistake to look at everything exactly as it is now and assume it’s a good predictor for where we’ll be in ten years. If we’d done that in 2004, we’d have expected more animation effects that follow our cursors and longer shitty flash intros, but in 2004, we didn’t even have a billion people online, and now we have over half the world’s population9.

Serving a few hundred people is effectively free, serving a few million costs quite a bit of money, especially when you’ve got a huge engineering team trying out new features and venture capital investors pressuring you to grow even more. So the platforms that serve millions or billions of people have to monetize, and as they race each other to the bottom to squeeze out a bit more ad revenue, they’re dragging us down too.

The last fifteen years haven’t just seen the rise of massive platforms, though. We’ve also seen it get increasingly easier to make content of our own. There are tools like Squarespace and Wix for making websites without knowledge of HTML and CSS. If you want to learn those, tons of well written tutorials and documentation exists, from sites like MDN and W3Schools10 to developer blogs. You can host for free with services like GitHub Pages or Netlify11.

What if the solution isn’t for Twitter and Facebook to find new avenues of revenue but for us to stop leaning so heavily on them? Discord servers can capture the feel of old IRC servers and channels. Web forums still exist; the specialized ones have managed to survive. People are still running their own blogs, and some of the best writing on the internet is happening on them12.

I’m trying to participate more in this side of the internet. I’m going back to RSS readers and exploring alternatives to them—I’ve seen several people using email subscriptions to good effect. I’m forcing myself not to engage with the days-long backlog of unread messages on my Slacks and Discords and just stay in the moment. I’m seeking out smaller communities organized around a purpose.

I made this website to be something of the antithesis of the major websites: static HTML and CSS, mostly written from scratch, works without JavaScript, no advertising, and absolutely no user tracking whatsoever. For me, that’s entirely worth the small amount of additional effort13. Maybe less people overall will read my words14, but if those people get more out of them, it will have been worth it.

As I explore all of this, I find that I’m not alone, not even a little bit. There is so much great content out there. The internet I’m dreaming of doesn’t seem like an ambition anymore, but an inevitability. I hope you’ll join me on it.

  1. Mercifully, those have been lost to time. ↩︎

  2. It was through these conversations that I learned that “Computer Science” was a thing I could major in at college and that programming was a job I could have as an adult. ↩︎

  3. There’s a scene in the video game Emily is Away Too that captures this feeling perfectly, where you’re in two intense conversations at once and are eventually forced to abandon one to focus on the other. ↩︎

  4. OK this one really bothers me. Most wikis have an open license allowing their content to be freely used; this is kind of necessary since other people are going to edit it. This also allowed Wikia (or Wikia users) to effectively clone wikis like The Vault, a Fallout wiki, WikiHack, a NetHack wiki, or The Unofficial Elder Scrolls Pages, an Elder Scrolls wiki. Combined with Wikia’s better SEO, new users would find the Wikia version, and the niche but loved versions of these wikis eventually died off for lack of users, replaced by the autoplaying video ad nightmare hellscape that is “Fandom.” I do not say this lightly: Fuck Wikia. ↩︎

  5. My highly technical, many sources cited, “22 minute read” Chernobyl article was selected as a featured article within an hour of publication, which was on a weekend afternoon. It wasn’t so much reviewed or edited as spot-checked. Medium also doesn’t claim the curation process is an editorial process at all. ↩︎

  6. It’s easier to associate content with people we already know, but that’s not the only thing I’m talking about. ↩︎

  7. Killer Whales ↩︎

  8. I’ll cop to being a little frustrated when I read Chris’s article, as I’d already started drafting mine and Chris says a lot of what I’m trying to say way better than I do. ↩︎

  9. The sources I looked at to confirm this was somewhat accurate sounding are https://www.internetworldstats.com/emarketing.htm, https://www.itu.int/en/ITU-D/Statistics/Pages/stat/default.aspx, and a handful of Wikipedia pages. I couldn’t find a really solid source, and I find it hilarious that my article about the internet of the ‘90’s is citing a source that looks like it’s from then, but it’s a vague enough claim as presented here that I’m comfortable with its accuracy, if not its precision. Still, if you have a better source, please send it along! ↩︎

  10. W3Schools has improved a lot; as recently as 2011 it was so bad that a bunch of developers made the website W3Fools to point out all the serious errors on the site. ↩︎

  11. This website is built with Hugo and hosted for free through Netlify. The only fee associated with this site is the $12/year I pay for the domain name. ↩︎

  12. I can’t imagine the Jepsen series or Julia Evan’s zines having the same feel on Medium. ↩︎

  13. Plus the effort is fun! ↩︎

  14. Without user tracking, I have no way of even knowing how many people are reading. I’m starting to think that’s healthy. ↩︎