I doubt it, and having been on this evolving beast we call “the internet” since the early 1990s, I can pretty convincingly assert that it has been a mixed bag from the very beginning. But I will also claim that it used to be better. I think this article hits the nail on the head.
Wil Wheaton just published a great opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal with the title “The Internet Used to be Smaller and Nicer. Let’s Get It Back.” I’ll get to the content of the article in moment, but first I want to discuss the choice of publication. By publishing in the WSJ, the piece is behind a paywall, though it does seem to randomly allow people to get in (often seems to work if you click through via Twitter). In some ways, the fact that Wil chose to publish in the WSJ is a microcosm of the issue that he’s discussing in the piece: you publish in the WSJ because it’s likely to attract a larger audience than publishing on your own site (and Wil does maintain and regularly publish his own independent blog which is full of great content).
I haven’t read Wheaton’s article, and it’s unlikely that I will. It’s behind a paywall, and do I look like the kind of guy who would subscribe to the WSJ? That’s the problem — that we constantly cede access to information to wealthy corporations. Elon Musk, with his arbitrary, capricious, small-minded limiting of the privilege of posting on Twitter is not a new phenomenon. That’s been a problem for the last decade, when Google killed the independent web.
But, there are always tradeoffs. Relying on someone else’s platform is often just much easier. It doesn’t involve having to maintain your own site, and it’s also often where the audience is. The issue with blogs is that you had to attract — and then keep — an audience. Tools like RSS acted as a method for keeping people coming back, but… then Google became the de facto provider of RSS reading tools, and then killed it. To this day, that move is still considered one of the defining moments in the shift from a more distributed, independent web to one that is controlled by a few large companies.
If you don’t remember the heyday of RSS, it was…different. You had to customize your access a little bit — when you stumbled across an interesting article, you’d click a button and tell your reader to check this site out in the future and let you know when something new appeared there. It wasn’t hard to do at all, but it did require that you personally flag sites of interest. Then, you’d have a page in your web browser that would automatically list all the recently updated sites.
You had to do your own curation, rather than the current situation, where Google and Facebook and Twitter do all the work and tell you what you want to read. You know all this algorithm nonsense? That’s all that it is, big companies thinking for you and telling you what you want to look at…and buy. And it all happened in 2013, when Google decided it wasn’t going to let you make your own decisions anymore.
We were all at fault, though. It’s so much easier to let capitalism control what you see. I’m guilty, too — there’s a list of blog links to the left on this page that are a vestige of when I tried to replace Google Reader’s functionality with my own list of cool things on the web. I haven’t updated it in years! It’s just there, mostly ignored, because it’s easier to be distracted by “trending” pages and the stuff that pours in as soon as I open Google.
I have a New Year’s resolution, for a change, and that is to clean that stuff up and make it more of a habit to use my RSS reader (it’s Feedly, by the way, easy to use and free, although I’m open to other recommendations). You should try it too — you’ll get a more varied diet of information and escape out from under the corporate thumb, a little bit.