Twitter is not dead (yet), but we act like it was, while the old web wants to come back from its grave.
These past weeks have been pretty interesting to me, leaving the Birdsite aside. I started using Mastodon again, and through it, I discovered how some people are devoting their time & energy to resuscitating some buried ideas from the old Web or Yesterweb.
What about Mastodon?
Mastodon is far from perfect, but it brings many interesting things with it. To be clear, I’m not talking about its federated/decentralized nature, although we can’t deny it plays a small role in why the user experience is somehow special.
The ones who lived the early years of the Web might know what I’m talking about. It might feel like plain nostalgia, but it’s not only that; it could be the feeling of experiencing the birth of something new, the thrill of discovery, but that still amounts to just a small part of it.
What else there is beyond nostalgia and the thrill of discovery? And, before going forward, why did I mention “nostalgia” in the first place if Mastodon didn’t exist in the early days of the Web? I don’t know how to distill the essence of things in a few words, so I’ll tell you about my experience instead.
A first taste
I have many fewer followers on Mastodon than on the Birdsite (40 vs 341), yet my activity has generated many more interactions than there. Not only that, among the users who decided to interact with me I counted: a co-discoverer of the Laniakea supercluster, one of the lead developers behind F#, the author of many important books on Java & JVM, plus many others. I’m a nobody, but this time there was no algorithm relying on relevance and engament metrics to decide what to present to each one of us.
On the other side, when I look at both timelines (Twitter’s & Mastodon’s), the latter seems much more interesting to me, and it took me much less effort to “curate” who I follow so I can find interesting content.
Both differences I mentioned share the same root cause: Controversial takes are not over-rewarded by any algorithm, network centrality measures are not relied upon to prioritize the content of famous people over the others’, and knowledge about users’ preferences is not abused by recommender systems to keep us in our echo chamber bubble.
The felled jungle
All of this makes it incredibly easier to discover new people and new ideas, and to pop out of our bubbles. But here’s the catch: “randomness”, and worsened searchability. That’s where some people could say that Mastodon is playing the nostalgia card, because that’s how the Web was before Google. Search engines were terrible, people relied on directories to find what they were looking for, but it was also incredibly common to discover new & interesting stuff every day. Sometimes it was rubbish, but many others it was small gems, written by other humble people like us.
Today, this is sadly uncommon. Most people don’t wander off beyond the borders of some big walled gardens, such as Google, Facebook, or Medium. Independent projects are still out there, they’re not a rarity, but it is increasingly difficult to find them.
The Indie Web & Yesterweb
While Google was blissful for users during its first years of existence (the same can be said about other hyper-centralized services), it soon fell into the temptation of abusing its position of power (again, the same can be said about others).
Nowadays, they can choose what people see and what not. They can punish their opponents, and favor whoever pours money into their advertising business. That’s the very same thing they criticized in the academic article where the PageRank algorithm was publicly described for the first time.
Other actors in the scene have also been harmful, yet in different ways. Facebook lead the way by creating a walled garden with high fences. Most contents created there were unavailable without first registering as a user. Almost everyone was there, and the more people joined, the more difficult it was to avoid them if you wanted to be connected.
Others attempted similar things, like MySpace or Friendster, but in the end, they failed to stay relevant. MySpace still lives, but with its decline, it has also dragged down the visibility and relevance of the content created in it. Friendster was directly wiped out, and with it, all its content is gone.
Free/cheap website publishing platforms such as Geocities, Tripod, or Angelfire started to fade. Angelfire & Tripod still live, but they’re a shadow of what they were, and Geocities was closed (luckily, there were some interesting archival efforts).
Blogging services such as Blogger/Blogspot started to fade in popularity after 2010. Tumblr had a great interest peak on 2013, and some time later it also steadily declined because if its highly controversial porn ban (recently revoked) plus (sometimes) requiring users to register to read its contents. Wordpress never saw steep surges or falls in its usage, because it was used by less hype-driven users, but we can also see how the trend of blogging going down caught with it as well.
The return of the blog
Going back to Twitter for a second, one of its founders (who founded Blogger as well) is also behind the creation of Medium. One might think that these platforms are in the hands of too few people, but that’s not the point I want to bring up.
Medium is a blogging platform like the previous ones, although a bit special, because it mixes content created by amateur & professional writers… and a big part of it is behind a paywall (where only a few authors get a small chunk of that money).
So, walled gardens again. I see nothing bad about making consumers pay for what they read, but I don’t find it very compelling from the perspective of amateur writers who only want to reach some readers for the sake of sharing their ideas.
It isn’t only that some of these platforms are imposing registration and/or payment requirements to access the content published in them; they are also trying to pull users away from the Web. For some reason, they are trying to make us use their mobile apps, instead of accessing their websites (Hello Reddit, please stop already, it’s annoying as fuck).
It was monetization, though, that drove Hackernoon to leave Medium and start its publishing platform. Same as Medium and other sites such as Dev.to, they honour the canonical tag (so we can publish in our own personal blog, and then re-publish there for greater visibility)… well, they did, not anymore.
In theory, Hackernoon’s business model was based on charging for branded publications. As of today, they seem to have engaged in some shady crypto bullshit, and on stealing credit for others’ work. I’m actually quite angry at them, because I wasn’t aware of their tactics and I paid the price with my previous article. Google still points to their page as the authoritative source when I search for my content, even though I manually fixed the canonical tag after the they shadily stripped it without my consent nor informing me.
Closing the circle, the return of the old
Some people are not happy with the current state of the web, and they’re fighting back with the few resources they have, working on projects such as:
- IndieWeb: they provide resources to help independent content creators to thrive outside the umbrella of big corporations’ services.
- Neocities: they try to bring back the atmosphere or our old Geocities (believe me, they achieved that goal).
- Yesterweb: It’s a community dedicated to nurture an ecosystem of old-style websites, but without the centralization aspect of Neocities. To give you an idea of how commited they are to this, they manage a webring, a links directory, and even a periodical zine like the ones that got popularized in the old Bulletin Board Systems.
- Ooh.Directory: Its name says it all, but it’s worth mentioning that, as a directory, it seems to do a better job than Yesterweb. Curiously enough, I learnt about it through Mastodon, much before it reached HackerNews’ front page.
- Blogroll: Another directory, but only with a few curated links that are appealing enough for its maintainer.
- Sadgrl.Online’s directory of directories, and… webrings directory! One can always add or an extra level of indirection, right? right?!
All of these sites are almost marginal if we consider the size of the Web and
the size of the corporations operating in it… But there must be something of
value in there when both
Yesterweb had reached the front
page of notable news aggregators and spurred so much enthusiasm.
And there must be something in the zeitgeist when these sites are rising in popularity precisely when Musk is destroying Twitter’s legacy, and when most people have finally realized that Web3 is not the way to gain sovereignty over the Web, but a carefully crafted global marketing campaing to promote crypto scams.