Back in February of 2023 I did a little experiment. I decided to stop looking at and participating in comment sections on the Internet. I made two exceptions, my fediverse instance, and my LinkedIn page. The fediverse instance because it hasn't yet been engineered to trick me into staying 'engaged' against my wishes, and LinkedIn because my current employer has decided to pay for me to have access to LinkedIn Learning. I discovered a few things, first that LinkedIn's newsfeed would have to improve considerably to be called garbage, and second is that when I started to remove comments and comment sections from my online life I didn't feel that much different. But when my self-imposed comment timeout expired, going back into comment sections felt weird and unnatural.
In the ten(!) months since then, I've eased my way back into some comment sections, but it's not the same. Even the idea that I (or anyone) is expected to bleat an immediate reaction to the thing I just watched or listened to or read now feels weird. On one hand I get it, if you enjoy something you might want to let the creator know somehow, but leaving a comment that's just a quote of the work and a smile emoji is a weird way to do it.
But it's not just comments. I barely recognize the Web any more. At one time in the dim and distant past, most of the people I interacted with online had their own websites (well, their own is a little misleading, most of my friends who learned enough HTML to cobble together a few pages did so via a few megabytes provided by their ISP. It was a big deal when you could tell someone your website's URL and it didn't have a '~' in it). The ones who didn't bother with their own sites made do with forums. Those things are almost all gone now. Instead, megacorporations provide clubhouses where everyone is secretly in competition with everyone else on the planet to see who can provide the platform with the most ad revenue. Score is kept with likes and follows. You're encouraged to do everything in the clubhouse. Why would you ever leave? All of your friends are there.
Nearly everyone I know hangs out in these clubhouses and think that it's weird that I don't want to hang out in there with them because, sure, the companies that provide the clubhouses are evil, but the clubhouses are so convenient. I have no response to that.
But it's not just the handful of online platforms that nearly everyone has self-funnelled themselves into. It's also the unimaginably-vast amount of junk that has engulfed the Web. Some amount was inevitable, but there is so much chaff now that it overwhelms everything. It's impossible to find anything useful on purpose. Search engines no longer help unless you enjoy searching for something and not finding it because the search engine rewrote your query to what it thought you meant to searh for and there's no way for you to correct it. Bottomless oceans of trash are being produced every day where context and attribution has been stripped so you can never know where anything came from. You don't need to know. You just need to laugh because the guy fell down and click the like button. It's all empty calories.
It's impossible to surf the web now. Assuming that you can find someone's personal page (almost everyone just posts directly to their corporate overlord's clubhouse instead), the waves are gone. The blogrolls are gone. The links pages are gone (except for this one). Very few people that run personal websites expect you to actually visit their website. They expect that you're going to come in via some corporate clubhouse (or, very rarely, via RSS), read the one linked article, and never come back. The sites are designed with this in mind. They're not meant to be taken as a whole, they're meant to be broken apart and the pieces submitted elsewhere for scrutiny.
I recognized all of this a long time ago, but I persevered. I wanted to believe that I could still get use out of whatever the Web is now. That I could somehow resist the algorithms that have been designed to subvert my will and maximize my engagement. That's one of the reasons this site exists at all, so I can prove to myself and to anyone that cares to listen that they don't have to be on corporate megaplatforms to exist on the Internet. But knowing this is not enough. Too many people are convinced that they can't not have a presence in those places because that's where everyone else is. I'm not here to judge them. Network effects are strong and, I, too like hanging out with my friends. I also recognize that everyone has to make their own decisions that they're comfortable with.
I decided a while ago that I no longer wanted to be a part of Facebook or Twitter (I never wanted to be a part of LinkedIn, but it's currently part of a work requirement). I still haven't made a decision on the fediverse. Earlier this year I decided that I didn't want to be a part of comment sections. I've backslid on some of these decisions, I'm not perfect. But I've spent the last few months since I last blogged thinking about the Internet, how I interact with it, and what value it provides to me. I don't have any good answers.
In the last few months, it's become clear to me that the Web is nearly lost. Information has become overwhelming and unreliable. Search engines return results are flooded with SEO spam that's been scraped, run through a word filter, reposted, re-scraped, run through a different word filter, and re-posted. Anything older than a few months is no longer findable via a search engine. AI that isn't really AI is being used to endlessly remix existing incomprehensible garbage and turn it into different incomprehensible garbage, or just automate plagiarism. Or they'll use whatever they're calling AI regurgitate press releases and hope that nobody notices. Almost nobody does. I've recently started seeing that were wrong in subtle ways that I only picked up on because I already knew something about the material being discussed. That's a lot harder to spot when I've never encountered a topic before. Secretly using not-really-AI to automate chum that other 'news' sites just pick up and run with means that mistakes get distributed at the speed of failure. I can't know how much subtly erroneous information that I believe as fact, and that concerns me. I have no way to measure how my perceptions have been altered. I have no way to know how much I've been manipulated.
More than once this year I've seriously considered just uninstalling my web browser and abandoning the World Wide Web entirely. I probably won't do that, there are a few things that I pay for that I'd probably want to keep using, and I do keep track of a couple of sites that are real pages of people I want to keep up with, but the rest of it? I have some decisions to make.
So what will my Web use look like in 2024? It will be different. I'll be making a lot of small changes that, over time, will build new habits (making too many big changes too quickly is a great way to fail at something). I have a few goals that I'm going to work toward. Nothing here is going to be set in stone, and I will almost certainly find newer or better ways to do things. I'm putting them here so I can check up on them from time to time.
- Disengage (again) from comment sections
- Use my RSS reader more
- Curate my RSS list, add more, delete the ones that are gone
- Get back into things that are on the Internet, but not the web
- Small forums that might be left