We are entering yet another new era for the Internet -- a very sad pessimistic one. You don’t have to take my word for it at all, but you should at least think about it and consider what I am about to discuss. A crop of new ideas have been coming out, and it paints a picture of the current state of the web: it sucks.
Let’s start with web pages. They are so bloated. Ads are causing the download sizes to keep getting more and more ridiculous. Ads are now running through ad networks, and thus publishers -- the people making the content -- don’t have control over their own monetization anymore. Of course, if you have even a tiny bit of tech savvy you already have AdBlock installed, which cost publishers $22 billion in 2015. I imagine this only makes the problem worse, since they keep needing more ads to compensate for their lose.
Safari is the new Internet Explorer
The web browsers on phones are terrible. They are an abomination of bad user experience, poor performance, and overall disdain for the open web that kicked off the modern tech revolution.
We all know that we can blame Apple for this one. They dominate the mobile browsing market, but their product is not even close to be anywhere near Google Chrome or FireFox. The struggle to build highly functional web apps has led more developers to turn and to use native app ecosystems. Which may be the cause of the web’s biggest problem: the web is getting dominated by platform wastelands.
Lately, all we really use the Internet is to read an article and like it. Content is no longer distributed across many independent nodes connected via a hyperlink or reference. Instead we have Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Medium, Reddit. We scroll through a constantly regenerating list of content — view, like, share, repeat. As a consequence, content is going the exact same way of the fast food franchises. The simplest, shortest, most LOL/OMG/WTF content succeeds and content which makes a person think, falls to the bottom of an endless pit.
The Web has become the Stream
A site can barely persist on longform content and a devoted readership alone anymore. Social media is turning every content provider into a syndicator. The majority of success hinges on the clicks and shares from Facebook, Twitter, and other content sharing platforms.
Therefore, the audience is no longer just everyone that visits a particular website, it’s become to the point of everyone on the Internet. To win the short attention span of this increasingly large audience, sites are producing more and more soft material and losing their voices. For every aspiring good read or essay there are a thousand hot takes and stupid lists. That same publisher becomes just another voice in the overbearing crowd, clamoring for your attention and that like on their content:
Like us on Facebook! Like us, please like us!
Meanwhile, the Facebook Articles and Apple News may force publishers to hopefully simplify and standardize their content to maintain consistency across all of the platforms, turning the web into something like close to a wire service. Even that seems a kind act when you consider the looming terrors that wait for us when a few very powerful players like Apple and Facebook fully takes over the reigns of the Internet.
Facebook is no longer just satisfied to link to outside websites, helping to driving traffic away from their page. They officially have became the middleman now. You create and share your content for them. You are now playing by their rules on content.
I can see why these news sites are tempted by the offer, but I think they’re going to regret it. It’s like Lando’s deal with Vader in The Empire Strikes Back.
— John Gruber, Daring Fireball
Websites are now becoming brands, brands are migrating to platforms, and in time the original website is going to wither away into the web. These type of Brands are just following the dollar signs of today, and those dollar signs on the Internet are the commercial product of peoples' eyeballs.
If you’re not paying for the product, you are the product.
Right now, the eyeballs are going native. They’re spending time in a platforms and distribution systems. The websites aren’t social enough, so why bother with them? In the near future, brands will push out their content through SnapChat and YikYak and Facebook and Instagram and a dozen new, interesting platforms that haven’t been invented yet.
The Internet will be ever more like television, not just in how we consume it, but in how it’s produced also.
What does this all mean?
Desktop web browsing sucks because of ad networks. Mobile web browsing sucks because of Safari. Together, these browsers have caused the rise of the mobile platform to grow, which we are using primarily to view a stream bite-size amounts of content. This is driving the publishers to simplify their product to compete in the social media sphere, which is producing less and less good reading content.
Meanwhile, the newly emboldened platforms are making Hail Mary Play to conquer the entire distribution structure and nest all other publishers in an ecosystem of their own creation, thus destroying the democratic or anarchist dream of an Internet that is a tool for the equal opportunity benefit of all.
Let's take a deep breath now.
This feeling of negativity seems... kinda new.
For so long, the Internet has taken and seemed the subject of Utopian optimism. The Internet will set you free! You can work from the beach, take classes online in a cafe, get everything you need delivered to your home. Until now the growth had kept pace with that optimism view, but we’re beginning to see that it isn’t enough just to create what is right for everyone. There has to be a larger vision, a better vision of how we should interact with the web.
I know that I don’t have all of the answers, or maybe any of the answers to begin with. But I do have a lot questions which needs to be asked.
What is the web for? How do we use it? How should the different aspects of the web relate to each other? Who should make those decisions? Is it a matter of competition -- Google vs. Apple, Amazon vs. Publishers, Marketers vs. Consumers -- or do we need something a bit more intentional, way more democratic? How do we ensure that the future of the web is being handled by forces that are both benevolent and competent? Is it even possible to make that kind of change? Are we too late? Is the future of the Internet a brutal dystopia?
Only time can tell us these answers, I think.