Photo Credit: Death to Stock

The Web Sucks Now (Apparently)

We are entering a new era for the Internet — a pessimistic one. You don’t have to take my word for it. A spate of recent thinkpieces paint a picture of the current state of the web: it sucks.

Let’s start with web pages. Web pages suck. (Ben Thompson, Stratechery)

They are bloated with ads and download sizes are simply ridiculous, but publishers can’t help it. Ads are now run through ad networks, so the people making the content don’t have control over their own monetization anymore.

Of course, if you have even a tiny bit of tech savvy you already have AdBlock installed, which cost publishers $22 billion in 2015. This only makes the problem worse, since they need more ads to compensate.

Safari is the new Internet Explorer

The mobile web also sucks. (Nilay Patel, The Verge) Yes, desktop pages may be bloated, but they feel light and airy in comparison to their mobile counterparts.

“[T]he web browsers on phones are terrible. They are an abomination of bad user experience, poor performance, and overall disdain for the open web that kicked off the modern tech revolution.” Blame Apple. They dominate the mobile browsing market, but their product is potato quality.

The struggle to build functional web apps has led more developers to turn to native app ecosystems. Which may be the cause of the web’s biggest problem: the web is dominated by platform wastelands. (Hossein Derakhsan, Matter)

Lately we use the Internet to view and “like”. Content is no longer distributed across many independent nodes connected via hyperlink. Instead we have content silos — Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Medium, Reddit. We scroll through a constantly regenerating list of content — view, like, share, repeat. As a consequence, content is going the way of fast food. The simplest, shortest, most LOL/OMG/WTF content succeeds.

The Web has become the Stream.

A site can no longer persist on longform content and a devoted readership alone. “Social media has, essentially, turned every content provider into a syndicator.” (Todd VanDerWerff, Vox) Success hinges on the clicks and shares from Facebook. Therefore, the audience is no longer a website’s userbase, it’s everyone on the Internet.

To win the attention of this increasingly large and amorphous audience, sites are producing more soft material and losing their distinctive voices. For every aspiring essay there are a thousand hot takes and listicles. The publisher becomes just another voice in the crowd, clamoring for your attention. Like us on Facebook! Like us, please like us!

Meanwhile, the ascent of Facebook Articles and Apple News may force publishers to simplify and standardize their content to maintain consistency across platforms, turning the web into something like a wire service. (Ezra Klein, Vox)

Even that seems benign when you consider the looming terrors that wait for us when a few powerful players like Apple and Facebook fully take the reigns of the Internet. Facebook is no longer satisfied to link to outside websites, driving traffic away from their page. All of their recent design efforts keep you viewing content from outside sources on their platform.

They are the middleman now. You create for them. You play by their rules. (John Herman, The Awl) (Ben Thompson, Stratechery)

“I can see why these news sites are tempted by the offer, but I think they’re going to regret it. It’s like Lando’s deal with Vader in The Empire Strikes Back.”
— John Gruber, Daring Fireball

Websites become brands, brands migrate to platforms, and in time the original website withers away. (John Herman, The Awl) Brands just follow the dollar signs, and the Internet dollar signs are the product of eyeballs. (“If you’re not paying for the product, you are the product.”)

Right now, the eyeballs are going native. They’re spending time in platforms and distribution systems. Websites aren’t social, so why bother? In the future, brands will push out their content through SnapChat and YikYak and Facebook and Instagram and a dozen platforms that haven’t been invented yet. (BuzzFeed is already there with the inception of Buzzfeed Distributed.) The Internet will be ever more like television, not just in how we consume it, but in how it’s produced.

“A new generation of artists and creative people ceding the still-fresh dream of direct compensation and independence to mediated advertising arrangements with accidentally enormous middlemen apps that have no special interest in publishing beyond value extraction through advertising is the early internet utopian’s worst-case scenario…[W]hat will have been point of the last twenty years of creating things for the web?”
— John Herman, The Awl

Let’s summarize:

  • Desktop web browsing sucks because of ad networks.
  • Mobile web browsing sucks because of Safari. Together, these have caused the rise of the mobile platform, which we use primarily to view a stream of bite-size, endorphin-releasing content.
  • This drives publishers to simplify their product to compete in the social media sphere.
  • Meanwhile, newly emboldened platforms are making a play to conquer the entire distribution structure and nest all other publishers in an ecosystem of their own building…
  • Thus destroying the democratic/anarchist dream of an Internet that is a tool for the equal benefit of all. Fire and brimstone ensue.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~take a deep breath~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

This feeling of negativity seems… new.

For so long, the Internet has been the subject of Utopian optimism. The Internet will set you free! Work from the beach, take classes in a cafe, get everything delivered to your home! Until now the growth had kept pace with that optimism, but we’re beginning to see that it isn’t enough just to create wantonly. There has to be a larger vision of how we interact with the web.

I don’t have answers, but I do have questions.

What is the web for? How do we use it? How should the different aspects of the web relate to each other? Who makes those decisions? Is it a matter of competition (Google vs. Apple, Amazon vs. Publishers, Marketers vs. Consumers) or do we need something a bit more intentional, more democratic? How do we ensure that the future of the web is being handled by forces that are both benevolent and competent? Is it even possible to make that kind of change? Are we too late? Is the future of the Internet a brutal dystopia?

Who knows, maybe it will be fine. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯