Wednesday, January 3, 2024

The Web is broken

Happy New year! The Web is Dead!

No but really, have you noticed how the web kind of sucks nowadays? Search is broken, social media is people screaming at each other, the web is full of useless sites that all seem to copy each other, and it's full of intrusive, noisy, bad ads everywhere. I used to love the web. But it's really no fun any more. Cory Doctorow calls this process "enshittification", and he describes the whole thing much better than I can. Go read that, please.

At First

The pre-web internet content was all created by individuals, who skewed very male, very white and very nerdy (an old joke is that "On the Internet the men are men, the women are also men, and the 13-year olds are FBI agents"). "Content" was mailing list messages and Usenet forum posts.

The early web was primitive and bad, but still a major improvement. Regular people soon picked it up and the web filled up with information about, well, everything. If you wanted to know about an old TV-series or the history of a defunct camera company, somewhere somebody probably had a page about that. Perhaps it wasn't well-written, correct or well designed, but it was earnest - somebody's pet project or deep interest, put out there for you to find, often through the magic of Google search.

Companies and organizations soon joined the web, and by and large they've mostly enriched the web with more information and new services. News, travel bookings, shopping, online gaming, banking, even doing your taxes — this has been a good thing.

The Web was a new wave of communication. OK, that's a bit strained.

Things Change

But things changed. Google bought Doubleclick and transformed from a search company to the largest ad-tech company on earth. Search began to favour company web sites that ran advertising and made them money, over blogs and private sites that did not.

Large-scale social media took over. You no longer made a web page or wrote a blog; you posted on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram or Reddit. The social networks are as dependent on advertising revenue as Google, and so they push you toward staying on their sites, and toward posts that increase "engagement" — by making you upset and argumentative — so they can expose you to more ads and make them more money.

Social media users fishing for comments.


By now the net is a full-on garbage fire. It's the chaos of fifty clowns in a clown car, except the clowns all have fangs and rabies, and their fake flowers squirt burning napalm. Any real information is drowned out by millions of machine-generated fake SEO sites with badly copied content and dozens or hundreds of ads. Social media is full of right-wing bots screaming hate and bile into the void.

How the web feels today.

I did a small experiment
recently. I searched for a specific phrase that appears in an older blog post of mine. Google returned two pages worth of SEO garbage sites before my own blog post appeared somewhere on the third page. None of the garbage sites even had the phrase anywhere on their page.

Google is probably OK with this — they make money each time you visit any ad-laden site after all, and the more sites you have to visit the more money they make. But for the rest of us search is becoming unusably bad.


So who is to blame? The giant online companies that control the web come to mind - Google, Meta/Facebook, Microsoft, Amazon and Apple, as well as regional companies such as Rakuten, Yahoo Japan and so on. They all make money from ads, and their incentives are all pointed towards more SEO garbage and less individual content. Towards removing competition and silencing anything and anybody that don't make them even more money. If that means inciting genocide or promoting racist garbage then that's just the externalized cost of doing business.

Regulators aren't blameless. They allowed these companies to take control over the web in the first place — to buy or kill smaller companies and create impenetrable moats against competition. Yes, the EU is moving in the right direction, but it is very little and very late.

To be clear, I don't believe there's much evil intent on the part of most companies. CEOs are not by and large twirling their moustaches while tying maidens to railway tracks. But their income depends on inciting anger and violence, promoting garbage, discourage civil discourse and suppressing any alternatives to the big tech behemots themselves. As Upton Sinclair put it, "It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it."

We also must blame ourselves. Me, I'm personally to blame. It's partially my fault. And probably yours too.

Over time we have stopped putting stuff online. We stopped making web pages and posting on forums and writing blogs in favour of Facebook, Twitter and other siloed social media. And now, as public social media is becoming increasingly shrill, competitive and nasty, we have started to withdraw from the public internet altogether.

We write less. We post less. And when we do, we increasingly do it in private spaces - in private chats on Whatsapp, Line, iMessage, Slack or Discord. When only you and your friends can see your conversations you won't get harassed by fake followers, far-right bots or some reply-guy high on painkillers and resentment towards your race, gender, political stance or opinion on superhero movies.

But when only you and your friends can see what you write, nobody else can. When you share your neat trick for getting lint out of the washing machine, or a surprising fact about the db V65 diesel locomotive, or explain a new paper your research group published, or that you've discovered that the Kalevala mythos is really cool, or that you have trouble doing a consistent cross-stitch, then nobody else will learn from it and nobody else will give you feedback. Like with open source software, sharing information makes everybody just a little richer. And when we don't share, we all get just a little poorer.

Moving Forward

Over the past ten years my regular blogging has gradually dropped, and a year ago I gave up. It felt pointless to keep writing here, shouting into an uncaring void with only spam comments to keep me company.

I also started using Mastodon. It is, for once, a social media network that doesn't promote "engagement" — that is, make people upset for money. It is a slower experience but, also, I think, a much healthier one. I feel comfortable there in a way I haven't been elsewhere. There certainly are assholes there as anywhere, but it is much easier to avoid them; nobody is pushing posts on to you that you don't want to see. It's easy to block people and filter out subjects.


Looking forward towards the future. Or something like that.

And it is there that I realized that the death of the common web is not inevitable. It was our collective choice to give in to the big tech companies that is killing the web. And it's ultimately our choice to start ignoring those companies that can revive it.

I thought I was writing into the void, but everything I've written is read by quite a few people. I got inspired to search a bit, and found many other blogs and web pages that refer to some old post of mine (especially posts about old cameras). I just never heard about it. I should have realized that's a thing — I read and use other peoples' blog posts in the exact same way.

So what am I arguing for? Not a revolution — nobody can touch the big corporations running the web. Instead, perhaps, an escape. We can't do anything about the dissolution of the web at large; but hiding in private chats is not our only way out either.

What we can do is simple: Start writing stuff again. And recording stuff. And filming stuff. And put it out in public ­- not on the corporate social media, but in your own blog, in your own web page, on Mastodon, on Peertube and wherever; put it where anybody can find it and react to it and link to it. Anil Dash has a great piece in Rolling Stone about this.

And link to other people's stuff. Tell your readers, listeners or viewers where you got your ideas. Where they can go for more information. Where they could get inspired. Could be individuals, could be companies' sites. Yes, it could still be on Youtube or other corporate social media — not everybody is on board with this and it's still really valuable.

Me, I'm going to start writing here again.  How, exactly, I don't yet know. I will probably take some pointers from the idea of a digital garden and start treating this space as more of an ongoing notebook, not a set of essays. That's how this blog began almost 20 years ago after all, and I think it's time I returned to that.