Was there ever a good internet?

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.


  1. d3zd3z says

    I’m still using NewsBlur, which I moved to right as Google’s reader was being pulled. It isn’t free, but does everything I want. This is also what I’m liking about Mastodon, that I have control over what shows up on my timeline, rather than some large company.

  2. hemidactylus says

    For the internet, this is the best of times and worst of times. Streaming has eliminated a desire for cable. There’s plenty of good stuff more easily available. There’s also too much garbage and bad actors.

    I can find journal articles on various topics and save them as pdfs. The paywalling is a limitation though.

    Information flow is more two way. I’m about to post this reply for instance. Better than one way days of watching tv. CB or ham radio was never my thing.

  3. Samuel Vimes says

    Hi, PZ

    If there is an article that is behind a paywall and the article is 1-3 days old (it varies), then this archiving page will very likely have taken a snapshot of it which can be perused sans paywall at your leisure:

    Put the URL of whatever you want to read into the second field and voilà! For example, here’s the link to Wil Wheaton’s WSJ article:

  4. nomaduk says

    Since I never, ever use a Google product in my personal life if I can avoid it (Maps is probably the only thing I don’t mind using too much — I always give Apple Maps a try first — and I only ever use Chrome in the case where I need to get to a website that simply won’t work except in Chrome), I don’t run into the problem of having Google tell me what to read (except, of course, as a side-effect of reading the blog of someone who does). I use Reeder as an RSS reader, not my browser (which is Safari), and I don’t do Apple News, either, though I’d use that over anything coming out of Google if I had to make a choice.

    Wheaton’s right (well, I assume he’s right, because of the excerpts above, because I simply will not read the Wall Street Journal), the Internet used to be better. But that was before we let the masses onto it, and, frankly, once that happens, you’re done: average people simply will not take the time to learn — or are simply incapable of learning — how to do computer stuff the hard way, or suffer any minor inconvenience that some snake-oil salesman can convince them they need to do without.

    If you work in IT, you understand this, and you realise that it’s all rather hopeless, and that the best thing that could happen would be for the entire house of cards to collapse into a smoldering pile of rubble. Well, that, or nationalise the whole damned thing and treat it as a public utility, but, as First Dog on the Moon noted just a few days ago, ahahaaaha who am I kidding it will never happen.

  5. sarah00 says

    I’ve been using Netvibes to manage my RSS feed for years. Fewer sites have the option to subscribe through RSS (though FTB is one that still updates) but it’s still my preferred way to keep up with sites I like. I find that email subscriptions lead me to feeling overwhelmed by my inbox and I end up unsubscribing even if I enjoy the content.

  6. Akira MacKenzie says

    Much like that New Hampshire town that got took over by libertarians then got overrun by bears looking for the garbage the freedom-loving residents refused to pick-up, the Internet is prime example of why individual rights and freedom are a BAD idea. Humans are greedy, selfish, racist, superstitious trash who will turn to murder, robbery, and rape when left to their own unregulated devices. Is it any wonder our unregulated, uncensored Internet became a digital cesspool of bigotry and willful ignorance?

  7. robro says

    Not that you would want to patronize a Murdoch rag, but you might have access to WSJ through your school or a public library. I started using the Internet in the wee hours of the 90s. That was primarily for work but I did visit some discussion group site, UseNet or similar, but I got shouted down almost immediately. It was one of those occasions where I started to reply and after 45 minutes of crafting my response I decided it was a waste of my time.

  8. says

    Smaller yes, nicer no. I’m thinking of Usenet back in the early 90s. The flame wars were epic. They call it trolling now but back then we were just assholes.

  9. says

    My organization and many others started developing and supporting clean, responsible, honest, substantive websites in the mid-1990’s. PLEASE, Do not foolishly advocate destroying the entire internet; because, lurking in the quieter, saner levels below all the steaming piles of billionaire and Snews crap, there are still many very valuable resources. Sites like Archive.org, Project Gutenberg.org, citizensforethics.org, http://www.rdwolff.com, robertreich.substack.com, http://www.techwontsave.us, PZ’s site here, and SO many more. If you are honest, you must abandon and avoid all the easy to find, loud, shiny piles like G00GLE, AMAZ0N, the social media crap sites, the biased incomplete mainstream snews, the rightwing freakshows, etc. ‘Seek, and ye shall find’ but don’t use G00GlE, it is NOT an honest search engine. It tracks the crap out of you and just feeds you more of what you show interest in and pushes what sells but only for G00GlE’s benefit. Use duckduckgo (it’s not perfect, but it is much less corrupt). Think clearly, stay safe – everywhere.

  10. Waydude says

    load article, right click on the paywall popup, inspect, click the 3 dots, settings, disable java script

  11. acroyear says

    I was on the verge of writing my own (I even own the domain feedmixer dot net where i planned to host it) only feedly came along and totally served my needs, so I gave up on that.

    So yeah, count me for another Feedly vote.

  12. acroyear says

    I was on the verge of writing my own (I even own the domain feedmixer dot net where i planned to host it) only feedly came along and totally served my needs, so I gave up on that.

    So yeah, count me for another Feedly vote.

  13. robro says

    According to the ACM TechNews newsletter I receive, Vint Cerf also has an article in the WSJ. I don’t have easy access to WSJ either so I haven’t tried to read it, but here’s the blurb from the newsletter:

    Vint Cerf Helped Create the Internet on the Back of an Envelope. Now He’s Calling for More Critical Thinking About How We Use It
    The Wall Street Journal
    Emily Bobrow
    December 16, 2022

    Google Chief Internet Evangelist and 2004 ACM A.M. Turing Award co-recipient Vint Cerf helped invent the Internet but acknowledges its downsides, including its use for spreading misinformation and disinformation. Cerf says addressing this “propagation problem” requires Google and similar companies to better “understand how these mechanisms influence the way people behave.” He observes that although commercialization has broadened the Internet’s scope, feedback algorithms appear to be directing people toward “more divisive and extreme stuff.” Cerf urges more critical thinking to rein in the Internet’s sociological and psychological effects, while businesses must make better efforts to contain online trolling, lying, bullying, and surveillance.

  14. Owlmirror says

    The WSJ link posted was the /amp/ link, which means the entire text is there, even if the ugly paywall frame interrupts and distracts.

    I use Firefox’s Reader mode a lot, and when you use reader mode on that page, the paywall frame disappears, and all that’s left is Wheaton’s article. (Of course, I also use NoScript and uMatrix a lot as well.( …works on my browser))

    (Looking at the HTML source of the article, I note that the WSJ site automatically takes that text, and injects links to more WSJ content on many of the terms. So for example, Will wrote “Can you imagine emailing Mark Zuckerberg any time you had a problem with Facebook?”
    and that was turned into:

    <p>Can you imagine emailing
    <a href="https://www.wsj.com/topics/person/mark-zuckerberg">Mark Zuckerberg</a>

    any time you had a problem with
    <a href="https://quotes.wsj.com/FB">Facebook</a>

    There is no escaping the bloody commodification of content.)

  15. says

    Add me to the train of people who never stopped using RSS to get my daily news and blog roll. I used TheOldReader for a time, but something about it bothered me at some point and I switched to InoReader and have stuck with it since. In fact, I read this post there before coming directly here to comment ;)

    Maybe not quite as sleek as Google Reader was back in the day, but it gets the job done. It, combined with heavily curating (and adblocking in order to not get fed anything from people I don’t follow) my Twitter feed and following a few news(/comedy) podcasts that I trust, has done a pretty good job of keeping me informed over the years. I know full well that the news and opinions get tends to have a fairly left-wing anarchist bias, but turns out I’m fine with being biased in favor of equal rights, protections, and actual justice for everyone and not just the privileged wealthy white few.

    I do entirely agree, though, about using an RSS reader to follow news and blog sources you trust to get your daily news, rather than what the corporate media and by extension social media algorithms “think” you should see. And if there’s a source or a site that you find you really like and they have a patreon or a ko-fi or something, try to throw a few bucks at them if you can, so that they can keep publishing good stuff on their own out from under corporate thumbs.

  16. says

    @21 Alex Samaras, I appreciate your discernment about avoiding ‘what the corporate media and by extension social media algorithms “think” you should see’. There are so many deceitful sites that want us to swallow their propaganda. We have, and will continue in the future to support worthy sites monetarily, but, from personal ID theft experience and that of others, we don’t trust our credit card info to online pay site. (have patience PZ, we need to get our act together so we will have something to contribute)

  17. beholder says

    Any other fans of Tiny Tiny RSS out there? It requires a web server, but it has a sleek web frontend GUI (or you can point your newsreader of choice to its local RSS feed if you don’t want the web GUI), and you can configure it to collect news feeds semi-asynchronously through Tor, anonymizing your client fingerprint from data collectors and other prying eyes.

  18. brucej says

    Count me as another fan of feedly (which is how I got here) to manage a large number of blogs I follow, even though I keep getting reliably told (on blogs) that “RSS and Blogging is dead, no one does that any more”

  19. drew says

    Wheaton, eh?

    Well, television used to be less interesting and kinder, too, back when he was part of Star Trek and the nightly news didn’t differ much from one channel to another and everyone watched more or less the same thing. Does he want the “good old days” he was part of back, too?

    The liberals want to make America some fictional version of the past just as much as the conservatives do. They’re both right wing corporatist groups whose only real source of cohesion is fantasy. Or advertising.

  20. Bruce says

    On my iPad, iPhone, and M1 Mac, I use the free Newsify app. I have the RSS feed for FreethoughtBlogs, for Only-Sky, for a few comics, etc.
    It might be good for PZ and others with a blog roll to make a copy of it that explicitly lists each of their RSS feed links, where available. That way, it’d be easy for interested people on ANY RSS app to get all the good content. At least for those with feeds.
    For some sites, it can be hard to find the feed link, which hurts spreading the content.
    By the way, I agree about searching on DuckDuckGo.com to avoid the google algorithm. It’s just a modern day fact that a google search gives different page one hits for different people, because their algorithm is jerking us around.

  21. euclide says

    Being a systems engineer and having my own private server, both as a personal testing ground (trying technologies on my own means a lot less red tape than using a corporate server) and because I have a distrust of platforms,
    For years, I’ve had my own instance of tt-rss, a web based RSS reader/aggregator, on which I just read that post (there are quite useful mobile clients too)

  22. expatlurker says

    @25 beholder
    Yes, this is what I use. I previously used TheOldReader, but I like having things under my own control. I installed it using Docker Hub and add a virtual host with NGINX so it was fairly painless.

  23. pontavedra says

    PZ: Doesn’t your university have online database access, like ProQuest or something? They’ll have the article available.