Glass on the floor of the Internet

I saw this tweet today:


For posterity:

Sarah Drasner @sarah_edo: I miss the useless web. I miss your grandpa’s blog. I miss weird web art projects that trolled me. I miss fan pages for things like hippos. I wish I didn’t feel like the web was collapsing into just a few sites plus a thousand resumes.

I was using dial-up as a kid at the time the “useless web” last existed in a meaningful way. I don’t remember it well. I suspect I would have liked it.

She’s right that it doesn’t exist anymore, at any real scale. That got me thinking back to an interview between MSNBC’s Chris Hayes and the tech/media guru Tim Wu, talking about why the Internet is now bad:

TIM WU: And you know, the old days, links were seen as treasures. Imagine that.


TIM WU: So like, someone, Yahoo, its basic idea is, here are some good links to go to. You know, a whole business was built on that premise. It was like, we’re a bunch of guys who hang on the internet and here are the coolest links.

CHRIS HAYES: [laughs] Here are some links.

TIM WU: Yeah, so now, so that’s the experience back then. Today, you wander off the safe paths of the internet and it’s like a trap. You know, you click on the wrong thing, suddenly fifty pop-ups come up, something says, hey, you’ve been infected with a virus, click here to fix it, which of course, if you do click on it, it does infect you with a virus, it’s teeming with weird listicles and crazy things like, reason number four and how you can increase your sperm count or something, and you have to kind of constantly control yourself. You have to be on guard, it’s worse than, it’s a mixture of being in a bad neighborhood and a used car sales place and a casino and a infectious disease ward, all combined into one, and that is not relaxing. Yeah, let’s just put it that way.

I’ve thought about that exchange a lot.

For a regular user of the Internet, and even for someone like me with a comparatively huge advantage in privilege, education, access to technology, and skills, the Internet is a dangerous place to be. Yes you can get to just about anything you want to, but the journey is perilous. It’s like a mirror was shattered and you have to walk across the glass to get to your bookshelf, or desk, or couch. It’ll be great, if your feet don’t get punctured.

Wu traces the problem back to (I think) the correct source: consolidation of power on the Internet that broadly reflects similar consolidations in radio and television. My inference is that it goes something like this: talent flocks to the places that can pay a lot. Smaller places can’t afford the talent, so they aren’t able to handle security as well, or to defend their IP against copycats or knockoffs, or to ensure that the public knows they can be trusted where another site can’t. Aggregation theory takes over because the major players can provide a better (in this case read: safer) experience to users. Smaller players shrivel and disappear so that scammers (and personal resumes, as Sarah Drasner mentioned) overwhelm other small players left on the web. And you get the bad Internet.

There are ways that individuals, companies, and organizations can mitigate the problem. But the fundamental structure and incentives drain smaller sites of the resources needed to make and share good stuff online.

This is why, like many people, I don’t feel comfortable trusting some random link to a site I’ve never heard of. I mostly ignore those links and stay within the “safe paths of the Internet.” I’m sure I miss good stuff, but I also miss a ton of bad stuff.

I want more useless things online. I want to see Rule of Fun apply to more of what circulates online. I want the open web to work. Making that happen in a sustainable way is as much a political project as an individual one.

If you want a small taste of what the useless web might look like, check out Inspiring Online, a great source for a grab bag of delightful Internet miscellany in its purest form.

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