chowderless random hacks and pointless shenanigans

Yours for the Making

A Manifesto On And For The Internet

The Internet kinda sucks right now. It’s always sucked, in different ways, but the current era we live in feels particularly galling. This piece was inspired by two things that happend on the 29th of May:

  • Firstly, an episode of Chris Hayes’ podcast, Why is This Happening? came out with a fascinating and excellent discussion about why the Internet currently sucks, featuring Tim Wu. It’s excellent reading, and I also can’t recommend Wu’s books enough.
  • Secondly, I had conversation with a friend about blogs, of all things, and the current state of the Internet. During the course of this, I pointed out that it’s probably never been easier to own a little corner of the Internet and put whatever you want on there, and that “it’s yours for the taking”. I’m a sucker for a well-used idiom, but I’ve been mulling it over, and it’s not quite as accurate as I’d like.

I’ll come back for the idiom later. Until then, please enjoy this long rambling collection of my thoughts on the matter.

Algorithims Rule Everything Around Us (If You Let Them)

The World Wide Web as we know it was originally perceived as a particpatory medium. For many, this promise wasn’t fully realised until the advent of social media platforms. These platforms are also the source of the Internet’s current structural flaws and foundational problems. At the same time, the very same platforms are enablers for much of the good that comes out of this stupid network of computers. We’d probably be better off as a society if Facebook was broken up into its constituent parts, but we’d be worse off if the functionality was lost forever.

The rise of algorithmic timelines is a menace. On some sites, it just can’t be avoided – Instagram is very unlikely to bring back the chronologically-ordered feed of posts. For your general web browsing, however, it is possible to escape the algorithmic feed of whatever Facebook wants you to read: just go visit websites. Foster Kamer wrote an excellent piece last year about this very topic.

Interent users of a certain vintage, your humble author included, remember the glory days of Google Reader fondly. We mourn its passing, but it’s still possible to get that experience and create your own newsfeed, from just the websites you’re interested in. RSS readers are still alive and well for computers, phones, and tablets. I’ve been using an open-source project called CommaFeed to bring back that Reader feeling, and if you’ve got a bit of server space, locally or out on the Internet, it’s a great service.

This Too Shall Pass

This isn’t the first time someone’s written this kind of thought. Marco Arment said it better all the way back in 2011:

If you care about your online presence, you must own it.

Everything on the Internet feels permanent, right until the moment it doesn’t. It’s not the solution for everyone, but if you really care about the things you create or how you appear, hosting your own website is the best way to preserve it. Web services come and go. Medium didn’t exist 5 years ago, and in 5 years it may not exist anymore. The Internet Archive, blessed and comptetent as they are, is not a valid backup or recovery strategy for catastrophic platform existence failure.

The Point I’m Trying To Get To Here

A better, kinder, and more open Internet is possible. It’s within our grasp – but we have to make it. This is the same guiding principle behind free/open-source software development: everyone’s able to contribute and make improvements according to their needs. Wikipedia would never work without these principles of openness and creativity, and its success is a testament to the fact that it can work.

With a few exceptions, blogs started to die out around the time Facebook really started to gain in popularity. The primary metric by which a website’s success is judged has become the length of time spent on the site, but the length of the content keeps getting smaller. Catchy videos took the place of long text diatraibes, and gargantuan multi-hundred-megabyte web pages became the norm. Website bloat is a known and serious issue, and nearly all of it can be attributed to useless bullshit.1

You might assume, at this point, that I’m feeling pretty bleak and hopeless about the future of the Web. This is a safe assumption to make, but I’m not fully despondent yet. There is still good out there, even if it’s a little more hard to find than it perhaps once was. Even better, you can make meaningful changes to your Internet experience and start rediscovering the joy in an afternoon or two.

Five steps to a better Internet:

  • Run a good ad blocker. You might even notice that your computer’s running better without the weight of all those ads.
  • Support people who make things you like. Patreon, flaws and all, is probably one of the best things to have happened for people who create things online. Some of the best journalism out there is behind a paywall. In the current political climate, supporting a free press has never been more important.2
  • Be intentional. Visit websites and services you find interesting, and make a point to consciously go there instead of being led somewhere by the whims of an algorithim-based recommendation. While you’re at it, stop reading comment sections. With very rare exceptions, a public forum for people to tack their thoughts on to the end of other people’s content will inevitably result in unpleasnatries.3
  • Consider renting a server. Virtual servers can be had for $5 a month, and although they’re not powerful, it’s more than enough to host a website like this one. A small server is an excellent starting point, but once you’ve discovered the possibilites opened up by having your own server, you may end up wanting an upgrade to something more powerful. This isn’t a prequisite, but you may find it useful if you decide to…
  • Make something! Record a song, learn to code, take some photos, write a shitty blog like this one. If you feel like something’s missing from the Internet, you could be the one to put it there.

No great work or human endeavour was accomplished without at least a little effort. The computing revolution offered hope that the level of effort required would be drastically reduced and made accessible to everyone. The dream is murky, but it’s still out there. I wrote this pompous-ass manifesto because I felt inspired to start doing something with this blog I set up and that I’ve been trying to do something meaningful with. My hope for myself is that I’ll keep writing and keep sharing it.

In conclusion, here’s that idiom from earlier that I’ve been thinking about:

The Internet is yours for the taking, but it is also yours for the making.

  1. At the time of writing, European Union privacy regulations are helping me prove my point. USA Today created a version of their website that lacks advertiser tracking scripts, and it reduced their front page's loading time from 45 seconds to under 5.
  2. This assumes, of course, that your local newspaper hasn't been purchased by a hedge fund or some other nefarious force. Spend your money wisely.
  3. Long and angry Twitter reply threads are definitely included here. Twitter is a double-edged word -- I'm personally fond of it and it can be fantastic, but it's entirely too easy to become embroiled in pointless drama.