Get in, loser, we’re going back to Web 1.0. We have the opportunity to get out from under the algorithms. So maybe it’s time to think about what a web of people looks like now.
I’ve been thinking about this for a while now — the decay of Google Search and, with it, the findability of archive material; the destruction of Twitter by the coward Elon Musk; the AI glurge polluting the open web; the needless login prompts. The era of Web 2.0 is ending.
One of the key markers of Web 2.0, in retrospect, was not the adoption of mobile, though that is certainly part of it. It was, instead, the intermediation of most interactions by algorithm. Before social media, going viral was much harder; actual people had to pass your site or video along, via email or chat usually. Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, and — later —TikTok made it child’s play to suddenly become famous, so much so that people started filming strangers in public for clout. At first, the algorithms made things findable! That was Google’s original purpose.
Suddenly, being online was more accessible than it had ever been
There were, in the beginning, a lot of upsides to Web 2.0. It made a lot of the internet more usable for the average person — and phones helped with that, too. Sites like Facebook (and MySpace and Friendster and Diaryland and LiveJournal) took off because it meant you no longer needed rudimentary coding skills to make your own website. Suddenly, being online was more accessible than it had ever been.
At first, it was fun! Because most of these sites were more concerned with scaling than monetization, there were few ads. And that made it feel better than the regular web, where pop-ups and pop-unders were a scourge, and banner ads were everywhere. But then, of course, things began to change.
As social media undergoes convulsions, I want to address my fellow Too Online sickos. The web looks like a Blade Runner hellscape, but we already know how to build our communities because we’ve been doing it for a long fucking time. We know how to moderate our communities, too, because we aren’t doing it at scale and because we’ve Seen Some Shit in every online community we’ve joined. More people than ever are online and have the kinds of rudimentary skills they didn’t at the beginning of Web 2.0. Maybe it’s time we scaled.
Google’s rotting? Bring back the webring. Broadcasting to the entire world sucks? Fuck it, group chat. Facebook? Baby doll, it is easier than ever to build your own website, and you don’t even need to know the basics required to rip someone else’s code.
There is certainly a shift happening, and it’s not yet clear how this is going to play out
One of the big things the platforms offered was an audience. That is genuinely an advantage if you are trying to build a business as a content creator. The problem, as every creator knows by now, is how beholden they are to the algorithm. Take the YouTubers, who have over the years had to adapt their content to the whims of Google, or Instagrammers, who have had to dance to whatever new tune Mark Zuckerberg is playing. The problem with building your business on a platform you don’t own is that the foundation is never stable; you have to be able to constantly move with the new currents of whatever’s going on there. And what’s good for Google or Facebook is not necessarily what’s good for you.
There is certainly a shift happening, and it’s not yet clear how this is going to play out. The retreat to group chats (Discord, iMessage, Telegram, WhatsApp) looks — from where I’m standing — like a return to messaging and ye old-fashioned chat room (RIP Firefly). Mastodon and Bluesky are pretty niche, Threads is probably DOA, and it looks like Reddit is pushing its own exodus.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned from observing Silicon Valley, it’s that you don’t have to be smart to be a programmer; anyone can learn how to code. There are plenty of free online resources now, and if you’re not using social media as much anymore, I bet you have lots of new free time.
In the old cyberpunk novels, the outside world itself rots as online becomes an endless spectacle you can vanish into. But if you look around, the world itself is still pretty vibrant, while the web seems to look like the set of Blade Runner. Outside of our little bastions of humans, it’s tumbleweeds and garbage. Forget VR headsets. If you want to make the internet good again, it’s time to go rogue, and a bunch of us already know how. (There are, of course, people who would suggest we move on to Web3, which is crypto. I don’t really think that’s a solution, not least because of the usability problems and general regulatory upheaval. I don’t begrudge people their hobbies, but I don’t think crypto solves this.)
What does the web look like if we decide to erase everything we’ve done since the dot-com crash? What kinds of communities can we build with the people who’ve come online since then? It’s certainly possible — even delightful — to teach them the old ways. But more and more, I think I don’t want an intermediated experience; I’m not interested in your algorithm. I’ve loved online because there are people there.
Companies took over the web, but that doesn’t mean they get to keep it. Sure, there will always be some casuals who will never look deeper, but for the truly sick freaks of online, well, you can make the thing you want. Maybe now’s the time to do it. Plenty of you have done it already — I know because you oldheads keep emailing me. Now’s the time to teach the children of the algorithm the old magic because you were there when it was written.