The Shrunken Internet
Over a thousand words wandering around a point, eventually getting tired and staring nihilistically into the distance.
As a species, we’re undeniably blessed by the accessibility of the Internet. I mean this in a number of ways.
In 2016 43% of the world had access to the Internet1, with many countries having well over 70% of their population having access.2 Since then, the global percentage has jumped above 60%. People are accessing it via satellite, fibre optic cable, old phone lines, mobile signals. It surrounds the world with its enormous, cables sitting at the bottoms of seas. More and more, you’re in a remarkable place when you’re unable to find an Internet connection of some kind. The majority of all humans in the universe are able to get access to Wikipedia.
It’s not only getting access to the Internet that’s so impressive, but how darned easy it is to be on the Internet. Cost is barely a factor anymore, if you’re not picky about your domain name. Head to Github, sign up, and create a Pages repo and hey you have a website. All through the web UI you can create an ‘index.html’ and you don’t even need to type valid HTML to get your words on the screen. Just type any words. (That’s very close to how this website is hosted.)
The most common websites I remember from my youth were ‘home directory’ websites. These were hosted by universities or, in my case, I remember my ISP giving me an FTP folder I could pop files in and they’d appear over at telewest-user.co.uk/~spreece (or something similar). Those websites were so wonderful: one person might use their space to document their nearby church, or list their most adored knots, or make a fan site for their Neopet. This was the way you’d share family photos, because who else would find them? The internet was sprawling and entirely chaotic.
Wonderfully though, everyone had their own corner.
Those corners have all but gone now. They’d been replaced by single, massive websites for better or worse. It’s lovely having everything on Wikipedia, of course. Less lovely that Twitter is a key source of news, and Facebook is the only place where people can make a space for themselves. Even MySpace allowed a much more personalised place to make your corner.
Reject the algorithm
There are still blogs, of course, but the way you find them are through Twitter or Google surfacing them to you, if they fancy doing so. To trick them into doing that, you need to bend your content to what they want (and indeed how they want it).
The idea of SEO didn’t used to matter. The chief search engines weren’t doing anything smart. You could submit your website to Yahoo, along with some keywords (they would eventually check the special tags on the page to collect these keywords) but your predominant sources of traffic were totally alien from today’s Internet: one website would link to another, or someone would bookmark the link and return every once in a while to check for updates.
There was no keyword cramming, worshipping algorithms, or adding an entirely unrelated image to your content (because Twitter and Wordpress.com prefer to show links to posts with images). The author was free to write what they wanted to write, without the constant concern of pleasing the algorithm.
And that lead to whacky, ultra-niche, and thoroughly interesting websites. The audience you were going to attract was small enough that the idea of creating a click-baiting, content farm was never on the table. You wrote for fun, for your future self, and for the twelve people who had bookmarked your website.
The frustration with Facebook, Twitter, and other algorithm-based content surfacing is that they aren’t designed to show you things related to your interests, but rather things which will increase interaction – not with the content, but with the system. That’s going to be short, attention grabbing, emotionally charged content.
Don’t Become A Data Mine
“If you’re not paying for the product, you are the product” is a cliché which is becoming dangerous more true every day. Until recently this meant that a) the company was hoping you’d see adverts, and b) they were hoping to sell your data to others.
This evolved recently with Notion and Github both releasing products which take your content, aggregate it somehow, shove it into a machine, and ask that to spit out something unique based on what you’ve entered. We’ve so far seen Github mistakenly outputting working API keys (which it clearly lifted from someone’s repository).3 Notion’s AI is currently behind a beta flag, but I wonder what will happen when you ask it to generate “a table of high value customers”.
You can be certain that there’s a machine learning department of Facebook and Twitter who through all your content into a fuzzy search database and using it in some very surprising ways.
We recently heard the story of the Twitter mobile developer who was asked to build a system so a third party company could monitor when a customer left a competitor’s store.
These are the things that happen when you make your home on the Internet in someone else’s home.
When you’re sharing your home with so many other people, it’s very difficult to get comfortable. I’ve talked about twitter brain before.4 It’s not possible to form community when you’re sharing the space with detractors. Healthy debate is wonderful, but not possible on the twitter and facebook’s of the web.
Our best discourse comes from much more siloed places: commentary in newspapers, on blog posts, around a lunch table. The uniting thing around all of those is that there are a limited people who can speak to the topic. Community is as much about who is not a part of it as who is.
Response to that discourse can absolutely happen in other places. The problem arises when everyone is in the same place. That’s when no one can ever be anything but defensive.
This isn’t gatekeeping. Your readers aren’t exclusively¬ reading your website. They have others, and they’ll be different for each of those readers. Heck, they’ll have their own. Cross pollination of ideas will still happen.
When you have your own corner of the Internet, your community becomes those few people that have the link to your website saved and they’re the only ones you have to write for.
Getting your own corner
Quick fire round of problems people bring up:
But I don’t want to spend any money on any of this stuff. That’s fair, but remember what we talked about above. You’re selling your content and behavioural metrics with no idea what’s being done with them. Also, it isn’t fair. None of this stuff is free. You have to pay for things. That’s just how things work. The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was making the world believe stuff online was free.
But it’s too complicated and too much hassle to set up and maintain. So pay someone to do it. Digital Ocean has a single click start-up of a WordPress installation, and that can keep itself up to date. Do that. Masto.host will give you a Mastodon server for $6 a month.
But I like Twitter and Facebook? That’s fine. And you know, maybe that’s enough for most people. It’s just a shame that we’re all alive in a time when we have access to the most wonderful technology available in history, and we’re trying to close it off by pooling into the same four websites.