It's Never Been Easier to Build Online, It's Never Been Harder to Find It

Hot take: R.E.M. is an enigma.

They are simultaneously beloved (or at least their catalog of hits are) and forgotten. This is perhaps because the members of the band are reclusive or inaccessible. When a band’s front man is Michael Stipe, entering the zeitgeist of popular culture is an uphill battle. However, their discography is chock full of seminal songs of the 80s and 90s.

Anyway, this is not a post about R.E.M., but about another enigma: the internet.

I don’t have an RSS reader anymore. When Google Reader shut down, I briefly tried to incorporate Feedly as my daily RSS driver, but it never stuck. Instead, I’ve turned to a compilation of Substack publications, independent blogs, and curated newsletters. My inbox has become my RSS reader, which it was never designed to be (that’s a conversation for another day).

In my inbox and in conversations with other friends of mine who are also internet denizens, I’m noticing a trend: It’s the end of the internet as we know it, and it has been for a while.

The reason R.E.M. came to mind is because my conversations began with a former co-worker, who wrote It’s the end of Search as We Know It on his blog. Garry has long felt that search is broken, and he’s right. There’s too much content and the incentives between consumer, producer, and gatekeeper are misaligned.

How does our writing, which in many cases, has helped build these models, get surfaced in this brave new world? As a reference link? Would anyone ever click through? How will the content be vetted or weighted to appear? If that is all that is served up from your writing, is it even worth writing on the web? …… Unless something changes, independent bloggers are going to get squeezed out of the web completely. Which I would argue is long overdue. We are already at the whim of powerful companies making decision that are beyond our control.

If you need proof of that last point, take a look at The Man Who Killed Google Search. In it, you can watch the existential battle for Google’s soul play out between Ben Gomes, Google’s former Head of Search, and Prabhakar Raghava, a Senior VP at Google. Spoiler alert: Google has no soul and search results are a reflection of that and corporate avarice.

Cory Doctorow sums this up in Google’s enshitification memos where he rails against the company and Google’s search results:

And yet, it’s turned into a pile of shit. Google search is so bad you might as well ask Jeeves. The company’s big plan to fix it? Replace links to webpages with florid paragraphs of chatbot nonsense filled with a supremely confident lies

In some of the posts that have come across my virtual desk, the fingers have turned toward AI generated content as the culprit. Take The Internet is Full of AI Dogshit from Gita Jackson:

The internet has been broken in a fundamental way. It is no longer a repository of people communicating with people; increasingly, it is just a series of machines communicating with machines…. The once ubiquitous phrase “let me Google that for you” is now meaningless. You are as likely to return incorrect information as you are complete fabrications, and the people who put this content on the Internet do not care.

I agree with the sentiment, and the future of the web is likely this tale, but it’s the same tale with another set of characters. Before Generative AI, it was humans turning out the SEO dogshit that we so willingly ate.

And yet, as a builder on the web, I’ve never felt more empowered, and this is the odd dichotomy of the day. I have access to immensely powerful machines, technologies, and systems, all thanks to the internet. The combination of software (Python and JavaScript packages as far as the eye can see! APIs for services everywhere!) and tools that make hardware accessible and scalable (Docker! K8s! The public cloud!) boggles the mind.

It’s never been easier to generate valuable tools and share them. It’s never been harder to find those same valuable tools. I don’t have many answers to these problems. I like building things and helping people build things; I’m unlikely to change my tactics or throw my weight behind solving this unsolvable problem.

For those that are deeply invested in figuring out a better path forward, I would say to look at the profit sharing tools and motives for content creators. I often joke with Garry that (SIR) Tim Berners-Lee is to blame for all of this. If only he had figured out a system for micropayments through hyperlinks (or something, anything! C’mon, Tim.), we might have a different internet. Obviously this is a joke, because Tim obviously had a lot on his plate, but the sentiment is the same. The internet was built without any idea of the scale of economies and markets that would be built on top of it and what we see today is a manifestation of those dynamics.