Categories
general

The Death of the Good Internet

I’ve been meaning to write a post about this forever, but someone else at The Ringer did such a great job of it. Check it:

The Day the Good Internet Died

The one thing I find interesting about this article is the thought that maybe it wasn’t that the death of Google Reader killed off blogging, but that the death of blogging killed off Google Reader. It’s true that we all devolved into social media doom-scrolling instead of actually reading, but another factor is that Google was pushing people into Google Plus, and the asinine assumption that people would rather find what they wanted to read by scrolling through eleventy million messages rather than going to a list of exactly what they wanted to read. (What Google actually meant was that they wanted you to scroll through eleventy billion messages, with every fourth message being an ad someone paid them to run.)

I’m old enough to remember the first wave of blogs and interesting/time-wasting web sites, because I spent a lot of the late 90s and early 00s paging through them while I was at work or sitting at home without cable TV. But in that pre-Reader era, I did it by having folders of bookmarks. I’d go to my “daily” folder and sequentially click through each bookmark, trying to remember where I left off the day before. This was a great way to waste time, but not user-friendly, and it required me to remember where I left off. (I still had a memory then, which did help.)

Compared to this, Google Reader was amazing. I could keep track of everything in one place, and read the things in order, with counts of unread articles, and indications of what I already did see. All of this was possible because of RSS, which was a perfect example of the interoperable web. The closely-related iGoogle also had the ability to make a widget based on a web page’s RSS feed, and RSS was very integral to the advent of the podcast. It was so mind-blowing and vital at the time, that I hacked together a script that would output RSS for the pre-WordPress version of this blog, which was hacked together with a bunch of homebrew shell scripts, emacs extensions, PHP, and gaffer’s tape.

After the death of GR, I went on to Feedly, but every blog I read either died a high-profile death, or stagnated with no new posts. I keep hearing about these revival of blogging things and people saying Medium or or Longreads or Substack or whatever the hell else is the next big thing. And no matter what it is, it devolves into people selling Tony Robbins-esque bullshit classes on how to get rich in real estate. There are still a ton of people blogging, but “blogs” are now the things hanging off the side of dentists’ web sites and posting daily listicles about proper gum care to increase their SEO.

I used to bitch about how the money people and con men would fuck up the web long before the web even existed. I started throwing letters into this void (ala usenet) before AOL’s Eternal September started. In 1995, at my first real job. I was writing docs for one of the first web browsers that added SSL, while a marketing drone stood in front of my desk barking about how they needed to ship this immediately so they could sell fifty-dollar t-shirts on the web for the first time ever, and I thought this is not going to end well. And it didn’t.

And now, every time Google drops a vital service or Facebook decides they want me to look at stuff in a new inconvenient way, I always have a first thought: maybe I’m just too old for this stuff, and when I lose my shit because I’m forced to watch a TikTok video to figure out how to change my refrigerator’s water filter, I’m doing the same thing my parents did in 1987 when they had an aneurysm and started screaming about the Japanese taking over because channel 16 suddenly moved to channel 34. But then I always remember: follow the money. Google Reader got killed so we could be forced to watch more ads. The Facebook algorithm is set up to force us to watch more ads. Amazon stopped putting the names of products in their receipts because Google was using them to sell more ads. Everything is because of money. I was right. The money people ruin everything.

Baker’s article brings up an old Alex Balk article, which says the following:

Here I will impart to you Balk’s Third Law: “If you think The Internet is terrible now, just wait a while.” The moment you were just in was as good as it got. The stuff you shake your head about now will seem like fucking Shakespeare in 2016.

This is so fucking true it hurts. I blogged almost every day in 2010-2011, frequently wishing blogging was as good as it was in 2004, which is when I was bitching about how much better personal journals (the predecessor to blogs) were back when I started this stupid site in 1996. Now I wish things were as good as 2011.

I always wonder if there will be another era of Good Internet, or if we’re in the middle of it and I don’t realize it. All I know is blogging is still important to me, because I know as long as I keep paying my bills, I can still keep my stuff here, even if nobody can find it anymore.

 

Categories
general

Searching for distraction

I know people lament how much time people waste on the internet. But as a person who has been here since the beginning, I disagree. I remember being able to really get lost in the internet, and it seems like the quick-twitch, low-effort content currently populating the social media-driven internet doesn’t do much for me. I think there’s value in getting lost on the internet. You just have to get the right kind of lost.

I remember in the late Nineties and early Zeroes, wasting serious time swimming through long-form internet sites. When blogs were journals and weren’t commercialized or commoditized, a small group of people were doing interesting things, endless experiments with actual writing. I know I’ve bitched about this before, in my endless “blogging is dead”/”is blogging dead” diatribes. But I really miss reading things like these, that would compulsively suck me in for hours. There was nothing like finding someone’s crazy travel site, or a project blog about restoring an old car or building a weird house, then spending hours plowing through the entries from start to finish.

Maybe this is still going on, but the problem is I can’t find it. And maybe that’s part of the problem. This article describes this struggle well: Searching the creative internet.

I’ve noticed that searching is pretty much dead these days. I mean, I use google constantly, but something is fundamentally weird in its algorithm. And I’m not just complaining about the fact that I have a million words of text on this site that draws zero heat from search engines these days. (That could also be for a lot of other reasons, like it stretches back twenty years, or that I’m boring and inconsistent in what I write about, and not cool.) But there’s also the issue that most searches bring up nothing but corporate crap, and anything interesting, independent, or worthwhile is buried.

The linked article mentions Disney, but here’s another example. I had a Camaro as a kid. I wish I could rebuild one now, but the boomers have driven up prices, I don’t own a garage, and I’m lazy. But, I could see burning an evening reading a long-form blog about someone else restoring a Camaro. So, enter “Camaro” in google search, and what do you get? Page after page of official GM spam landing pages, car dealerships, third-party “Used Camaro Near Me” sites that just redirect you to car dealership pages (after opening a thousand pop-ups), and Chevy press releases dumped on big car magazines. Searching on “camaro project” gets less of the corporate media, but mostly just sale sites and eBay listings. (Not even real listings – just links that go to ebay and search on “camaro project.”)

And sure, the first problem is I don’t know how to use google, and I’m supposed to be searching on some gigantic regular expression that excludes corporate sites and blah blah blah. That’s not the point. I want to find cool stuff about my search term, and 80% of the web has become robot zombie garbage that automated scripts and SEO wonks have spun up to sell affiliate ads.

I guess the solution to this is to read blogs that point to this stuff, but that gets into the “blogs are dead” thing. I think Facebook and Twitter are supposed to have replaced blogs, but they aren’t aggregating the kind of content I want to see. I think the commercialization of things drives what we see, and this is what we now get: divisive news stories and click-bait advertisement disguised as stories.

I’m not sure what the solution is. I’m trying to dig deeper to find things of interest, and investing more time going off the beaten path. And I’d like to blog more about it, and encourage others to do the same. But something’s missing here, and I’m not sure what, or how to fix it.

 

Categories
general

LiveJournal

screen-shot-2017-01-14-at-10-09-35-amIn the quest to find some better way of doing all of this, I started thinking about LiveJournal. (I actually have been thinking about a lot of the mid-00s web stuff I used to use, because sitting on FaceBook all day is probably a dead end, or I feel that I’m not reading or writing enough. Like, did reading Slashdot, Fark, and an armada of blogs in Google Reader help entertain me any better than seeing the same four news stories posted a hundred times a day?)

I wasn’t a heavy LiveJournal writer; I had a fake account (username: unabomber) I started in 2000 just to comment on other peoples’ stuff, then started one as jkonrath in 2004. I’d post updates, but I had an earlier pre-WordPress iteration of this blog as my main home. But I would hit my friends feed constantly, and comment a lot.

LJ seemed to be “the place” to go to be social online for a while, like pre-MySpace, pre-Facebook, pre-Twitter. I was trying to think of exactly why though. The site’s still there, as is my account, so I poked around a bit and tried to remember. What did it offer that my blog did not? What was the draw?

Plusses:

  • It was dead simple (and free) to open an account. It was invite-only until 2003, but after that, anyone could get in.
  • Posting was not hard. It gave you a box and a subject line, and you typed and clicked “Post” and that was it.
  • There were fun little things you could add to posts, like what you were listening to, and what your mood was.
  • You had a certain number of profile pictures, and it was always fun finding new little pictures, or swapping to a different one based on your mood that day.
  • You could theme your page to some extent, changing colors and styles. Some people got really into the design of their pages, although when you’re reading your friends feed, you don’t see those customizations, and I basically didn’t give a shit about having flaming red text on a black background with pictures of wolves and fire and ninjas and shit all over.
  • Basic privacy settings could lock posts and accounts to be friends-only.
  • Communities, where permitted users could post to a feed. These were great for interests (I was in a baseball one for a while) or areas (lots of people had groups for their towns or home towns.)
  • You could (if you had a paid account) host a feed to your external blog, so the posts would show up on LJ.
  • It was locked in. You could sit and spin on your friends feed, and read all the posts (in chronological order, too) and in the mid-00s, a lot of people were posting, so there was some good conversation to be had.
  • There weren’t ads during the heyday, although that changed later.
  • It encouraged long-form posts. Or maybe people just typed more back then, before we were all programmed with horrible ADHD.
  • The feed was chronological only. No Fuckerberging of the order and appearance weighting of posts.
  • There was post commenting, and that got used a fair amount. Commenting was more streamlined than other blogs, because you had the single system for everyone, whereas it seems like every free-standing blog has a different commenting system, or they use something like Disqus, and people get all pissy about having to sign up for it. If you were using LJ, you were signed up for commenting, so it was a no-brainer.

Minuses:

  • The UX is horrible. Log in to livejournal.com and then try to find anything, and it takes ten clicks. It also started to look a bit dated and clunky going into the late 00s.
  • There was no “like.” I think that was the big killer versus Facebook. When you post on FB, there’s this little micro-validation you get in your brain when other people like your post. LJ didn’t have this, so the motivation wasn’t there. I think the little crack hit of likes is one of the main drivers for FB, and it’s also its downfall. The discovery of this gamification around the end of the 00s is the reason casual gaming now exists (well, that plus touchscreen devices with good graphics) but it’s also a big part of our dumbing-down as a culture.
  • The long-form thing meant good content, but it also may have been a reason people dropped out.
  • Images and image hosting were always an issue. You could add external links to flickr or elsewhere for your images, but the two-step process was messy. They now offer image hosting for paid accounts, but it’s a limited amount, and mostly a feature to entice people to pay. It’s nowhere near as nice as the FB interface for photo uploading.
  • No fine-grained security. You could not be friends with someone and not see their content. You could not hide a single post from your friends feed, like when you got sick of seeing the same thing pop up on every time. (I use the FB hide post constantly these days.)
  • No post sharing. This was a plus, though. Imagine FB without the ability to share stupid political posts or mom memes.
  • No (real) mobile stuff. I think they have an app, but it’s a piece of shit. So many people post on-the-go now in FB/Twitter, and LJ never had any of that. That may have been one of the reasons it focused more on long-form stuff, because everyone was sitting on a PC while composing their stuff.
  • Various business decisions slowly sank the ship. The company was sold in 2005, and then Brad Fitzpatrick left in 2007, and it was sold to some crazy Russians, who continued to run it into the ground.

Other:

  • I remember a lot of shit-storms over privacy issues, like people having to lock out exes and then said exes getting a different fake account to read their stuff, etc. Now, blocking and banning is simple in FB, but there was a lot of drama back in the day.
  • I also vaguely remember some moderation issues, with people or posts getting censored, and a bunch of outrage.

I always wonder if something could replace LJ and FB. Would some technical balance between the two work, or would some perfect storm have to happen to lure enough people to the community to make it viable? I think the biggest feature of LJ was that it had a community, and it had a critical mass of enough users to make it interesting and fun. But when that went away, so did its usefulness.

How do you create that again? I guess that’s the question every attempt at community tries to answer. I futz around with posting here, but it’s an isolated island in the middle of nowhere, with no community, no connection to the outside world. I post on Facebook, but it’s Facebook, and it is becoming a dead end. As I find Facebook more and more intolerable, I try to think of a replacement, but that lack of critical mass, of community, is the huge problem.

Categories
general

blog death freefall

So many blogs are shutting down. I just heard The Toast is shuttering on July 1. Bookslut has published their last issue. And it seems like I have a hundred blogs all added on my feedly account that haven’t done anything in months, years. It seems like every “blogging is back” article is matched with a dozen soft closings, the authors moving on to whatever the next scheme is.

We’re five and a half months in, and I’ve only posted a dozen times here. I did the back-of-envelope math, and based on number of published posts (1175) divided by number of years (19) divided by 52 times weeks in 2016, I should have like double that. But average in the dead weeks and months of the past, and whatever whatever (shut up about the math Larry, this isn’t a deposition) I should be posting much more.

The reason for all the high-profile shutterings is those are businesses, with a business model and ads and serious attempts at engagement and community and all of the bullshit I do not care about. I was blogging before there was blogging, and in the early/mid 00s when blogging was Serious Business and every single-focus blog was getting book deals, I was still posting about what I ate or read or wanted to write. And most of those blogs died when the ad revenue died, and all of these “veterans” who started in 2010 are now falling away, and I’m still here. Except I haven’t been here. What’s my reason?

I hate blogging now because when I sit down at the wp-admin console and look at the blank screen, I always feel a need to write an “article,” like a full-on Esquire piece. I feel like writing a hundred words about the Lebanese meatballs I had for lunch is somehow “off-brand” or not becoming enough to be a blog post. But when I go back through posts from 2004 or 1996, I realize that’s all I did, and I enjoy going back to see them. I have this feeling that when it’s 2025 and I go back and look at 2016’s entries, I’ll wonder what the hell happened to me.

Is it because of WordPress? I wonder if it is the tool. It’s not the best writing experience anymore; I really dislike the little text editor window on the web page. I bought a copy of Desk and it was interesting, but kept fucking up formatting and could not sync correctly. But aside from authoring tools themselves, there was something different in how doing this by hand in emacs framed things. Like I never had to enter titles before, and I loved that. Just that little difference made spontaneous blogging easier.

I’ve thought about either opening some microblog or switching tools here. That launches me into a spiral of indecision. I don’t like the idea of moving to Tumblr and getting sucked into the politics of the teenagers there; I don’t feel like going to Medium and competing with the New Yorker-wannabe writers there. I want to own my content, and not have to deal with an insane migration path when whatever hosted service gets acquired and then shut down.

I should just get in the habit of coming here, posting something short, and not giving a fuck about the blogosphere or the business of the web, because ultimately, I don’t. But I guess at some level I do, and that’s the rub.