James Gallagher

what has happened to the web

Published on June 3, 2020 in old web

It's hard to believe that the internet was only invented in the early 1990s, given how ubiquitous it has become today. The web is everywhere. The web powers the smart light that is currently on in my room. It provides the technologies that allow me to work from home. The web allows me to stay in touch with my co-workers both synchronously and asynchronously. All of the tech to support these functions has been developed in the last three decades.

The web is a wonderful place. It's a place where you can go to share your ideas. It's a place where you can escape many of the limitations of the rest of the world. If you don't know anyone who shares your interests, there's a good chance you can find them on the web. I can attest to this because without the web, I wouldn't be where I am today. That's both because I work on the internet, but also because the internet helped me find the tribe of people with whom I wanted to spend time.

While the web has largely changed for the better -- you'll never hear me say that Slack was not a positive improvement to my life -- there are myriad ways in which the web has lost its touch. It's a shame, because the web could be so much more. We are losing sight of many of the core principles upon which the web was built, and if we don't act, it will become even harder to go back to the web that I want to use.

The fundamental principle upon which the web was built was to promote free and open access to information. Before Sir Berners-Lee and CERN open-sourced the protocols that powered the web, Berners-Lee knew that it should be open. Open access to information over computers would mean that anyone who used the protocols he developed could access information. There were no limitations, other than your access to the technology (which is now barely even a barrier, considering how many people can access the internet, and how many more people are going to be able to soon).

The early days of the web promoted this value. People from around the world created niche websites not because they wanted to make money, but because they had information they wanted to share with the world. I could create a website about my favorite West Wing character if I wanted to. (Yes, I like the West Wing. You should check it out!) I could create a website about my favorite teas. (There was one point in my life when I wanted to become a professional tea taster. Clearly that didn't work out!)

I can still do these things today, although I'm not sure I would want to do so. I can still publish on my blog every day, which I love doing. The trouble is that content discovery has changed, and not for the better.

Algorithms now heavily influence how we discover content on the web. There are people whose job it is to make minor changes to web articles to make them rank higher on Google. Search Engine Optimization is not only a way for companies to boost their brand; it's a massive earning opportunity. Google has become all about competing for prominence on various different terms.

If I want to find out about the top restaurants in New York City, I could go to Google. The first things I'll see are a number of curated directories of top restaurants. Where are the small blog entries of people who have had a positive experience eating at NYC restaurants? They are relegated further down the rankings, because they haven't optimized for SEO, or because they don't include as many "keywords" as other posts.

The modern web has become more centralized. I can technically find small blogs on NYC restaurants if I want to, but I would have to have that inclination. The information will not just be there; I would have to go find it deliberately. That's because Google has so much influence on how we discover content today, and so if I don't actively look for a specific piece of content, I'll end up with some generic response on Google, something that's supposed to satisfy the "user's intent." But what if my intent is to hear honest accounts of people who have dined in top restaurants in NYC, instead of crowdsourced directories with one-paragraph descriptions of each eatery?

Another problem with the modern web is how bulky it has become. Did you know that all you need to power a webpage is HTML? Yeah, you don't even need CSS or JavaScript. At its core, the web is built up using HTML. With that said, many of the websites we visit today don't just use HTML. They use CSS, and that's fine. They use JavaScript, and that's fine too. What isn't fine is how much data they are sending out to other businesses.

If you go to a site like the New York Times, you'll be tracked. Cookies will be stored on your computer that track you. Data will ping to dozens of servers about everything from your location to how long you are on the page. This may allow them to offer me a more personalized experience or whatever, but it makes the page load slower, and compromises my privacy in the first place. If I were not technically literate, I wouldn't know this was happening.

Does this sound like the values the old web had? Did big, centralized platforms have a massive influence over how you discovered content? Did visiting the typical website result in a number of trackers being placed on your computer? Things weren't perfect -- the old web was more open to exploitation because it was less secure -- but at least the original values of the web were preserved. The web was about free and open access to information. It was not about tracking or monetization or anything like that.

The minute that the internet became profitable was the minute that things changed. When advertising companies saw the web as a new method of reaching customers, massive amounts of dollars were invested in new online advertisements. That backing validated the small companies who started to build advertising technology, and fueled a massive industry. Indeed, money changed the way that the internet operates.

What can I do about this? Unfortunately, not much. It's not as if I can flick a switch and restore the web to the way it was in the '90s. I'm not sure if I would want to either. As I mentioned, there have been a lot of positive developments on the web that should not be forgotten.

There are a few things I can do. The first thing I am going to do is frequent indie businesses a bit more. I am going to try to find less centralized platforms, and use them. I am also going to do more to defend my privacy. I moved to Firefox yesterday and set it up with a number of privacy-focused extensions. These changes may seem small -- and they may make my internet experience less fluid -- but they do allow me to preach the values that matter most to me. If enough people change, then big companies will be forced to acknowledge that their practices are not acceptable.

Let's bring back the old web. The one where information was truly decentralized. The one where it didn't take megabytes to load a page because the web page you are loading includes advertising trackers.

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