The web’s bloated middle

I have been thinking a lot about where the web has gone wrong and why it isn’t as fulfilling as it used to be.

I recently asked Alex why the web isn’t as good as it used to be. She amazingly summed it up in a way I hadn’t thought of:

“Because no-one is making websites like Hampster Dance any more.”

Recently Sarah Drasner published a tweet that really hit home:

A short while later, I was hit with a sudden realisation that website publishers have been incentivised to do exactly the opposite of what could have made the web so great.

When the web exploded into being, it promised to democratise publishing more than anything before. Which it did. And it was incredibly exciting. As well as the authoritative publications we had come to know and trust, for the first time ordinary people could also publish, with an incredibly low barrier to entry. Everyday you and me could contribute to a community of people exchanging ideas and sharing knowledge.

This should have been part of a healthy ecosystem. At the top would be a moderately large number of well-resourced, trustworthy publications, dedicated to producing high-quality content. You should be able count on these people to apply rigour to their work. The downside is that this section of the web is a closed shop, usually representing an elite or privileged point of view.

But supporting this would be a huge volume and diverse range of everyday people adding their point of view, with a wide range of experiences from the ground. These people — bloggers and other types of self-made web publishers — could be more likely to mislead or be biased. But the wisdom of crowds was supposed to see us through.

Vase with a heavy base, a narrow middle, and a moderately wide top

The way I see this is like a vase with a big, heavy base. The bloggers are at the bottom. The moderately wide top represents the traditional publishers. It’s a good, sturdy vase.

Slowly, over the past 20 years, things have gone wrong at both ends of the equation.

The traditional publishers have engaged in a race to the bottom. Rather than committing to quality journalism, which was their job, they have chosen to pursue clickbait headlines. We can no longer trust the traditional publications as much as we should be able to — largely because they have demonstrated they are not as trustworthy as they were meant to be.

Meanwhile, at the bottom end, everyday bloggers have largely given up. People are now most likely to publish on a platform like Facebook or Medium, where our content is algorithmically filtered and mangled. So instead of benefiting from the wisdom of crowds, we see everything through the prism of the dude who programmed the algorithm.

Even Wikipedia, which is unquestionably a force for good, has had a negative influence in this regard. Before Wikipedia, people set up their own weird fan sites because there was a plausible chance that their website could be the world’s foremost authority on [insert obscure topic here]. Nowadays, the big players are so fully entrenched that no-one bothers to try — and any that do sink without a trace.

Many of the bloggers that have successfully stuck around have had to professionalise. Feeling emboldened in the face of the media’s failure to stick to their end of our unspoken deal, many blogs now compete almost on a level playing field with their traditional counterparts.

Blogging itself represented a first step towards this move to the middle, as argued by Amy Hoy when she said the blog broke the web (via Khürt Williams):

The potato gun girl and gerbil genetics guy found they didn’t want to write updates. It didn’t make sense. Their sites should have remained a table of contents, a reference tool, an odd and slightly musty personal library… the new “posts” format simply didn’t work for what they wanted to do. It felt demanding, and oppressive.

But they’d already switched.

Meanwhile, there has been an explosion of semi-professional content farms polluting the web with low-quality churnalism thinly disguised as proper journalism.

So instead of having a wide base and a strong top, we now have everyone messily competing in the middle. This is providing us with neither the quality we need, nor the independent spirit that was supposed to be the hallmark of the blogosphere.

Vase with a narrow base, a very wide middle and a narrow top

We have a bloated middle. This vase is going to topple over. This is why the web has gone bad.

Publishers need to commit to quality journalism. And individual citizens of the web need to regain their independent spirit.



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