The Impersonal Web

The Internet is no longer about personal creative spaces, and is now more geared towards marketability, super-fast content aggregation/resharing, and takes control out of the hands of the user.

Translation: social media wants to use you. It’s also shaving minutes off my attention span every day. I want to talk about that.

Complaint number one: how many social media sites are implementing some variant on a "best posts first" algorithm now? It's terrible and I hate it, because it just pushes the famous people to the top and makes it near-impossible for new creatives to muscle in. It’s not the fault of people who are popular already – they’re just making content and doing their thing. But they’re the ones that tend to generate revenue/popularity for the site they’re posting on, and so they get priority – obviously!

The only problem is that if you’re just starting out as an artist/writer/videographer/musician/etc, you’re going to find it incredibly hard to get a foot in the door. People can’t see your work or your posts because there’s an algorithm putting more popular users above you, so by the time views trickle down to you, people have already got their fix of creativity and lost interest or gone to bed.

It’s not just bad for creatives, either. Even people just making casual posts about their thoughts or humour are pushed right down to the bottom. The Internet used to let me feel discovered and listened to, and as a young person with few friends, that was a huge boost to my mood and confidence. Now, search engines and social media doesn’t care about people looking to be heard unless they’re already heard and generating revenue – and I don’t doubt for one second that it’s disheartening for adults as well.

Social media sites are using algorithms to show you the 10k-views kitten videos first, and they'll invent new algorithms to mess up your timeline/dashboard even more and hide the off-switch in your settings without so much as a by-your-leave. Unpopular users stay unpopular, popular users generate revenue, new content is left in the dirt instead of being offered out for discovery.

Search engines are not on our side in this, either. Google is the rich internet monolith that it is because its interests are in pushing the big corporations to the top, and that works in both companies’ favour. The big corp sites like Facebook and Amazon go straight to the top, but if there are people still making personal websites out there, no one sees them because they're not already popular and they probably don't have the money to buy adspace at the top or the views to generate revenue to make it worth the search engine’s while.

Moving onto another complaint because I know I could talk about that particular thing all day:

The swift-reshare ethic of social media is bad for me.

I’m bolding it because it’s an important realisation I came to lately. The more I use sites like Twitter and Tumblr, which are gearing more and more towards content-resharing and making it easier and easier to reblog/retweet at the hit of a button on a 0.01-second mental whim, the less I find myself wanting to actually do any thinking or produce anything myself.

I already found it hard to focus on one thing at a time, but now I don't even think about a post for more than a second before I hit the share button and scroll on, already forgetting about it in favour of the next funny joke post or cool info graphic. I can feel myself getting into the rhythm of liking/sharing as I scroll down my timeline or dashboard and I hate it but it’s this immediate buzz and the feeling that I “shared it with my friends” without actually engaging with another human being or properly registering what I read at all.

Before I know it, I’ve been doing absolutely nothing for a whole hour and a half, because I’m deep into the infinite scroll (or 90 pages back) and millions of users are posting so much content at the speed of light so every refresh generates more Stuff to look at.

Another thing about social media these days is that with the rise of re-sharing-at-the-hit-of-a-button, it's easier and faster than ever to shame people instantly and say stuff without thinking. This applies to a lot of things, but an example of what I'm talking about here is the weird anti-feedback culture on Tumblr in particular.

Back when I used the site a lot, people would leave comments on art like they used to on DeviantArt in its hayday. People actually spoke to each other - and sometimes the comments were kind of ill-thought, like “I love this but I hate the characters” or “Pity the artist didn’t correct [X] detail!” but that's where shame culture decided it was time to step in.

People started making posts like, "ugh! we dont wanna see a mile-long post with 20000 comments on it" and "ugh! dont say stuff in the tags where artists will see it". Which on some level I agree with – it’s a lot to scroll through a post with thirty comments all reiterating the same agreement or humour, and people should think about what kind of feedback might be considered kind of unwelcome to an artist doing their best.

But nobody thought to clarify that this didn’t apply to positive or thoughtful responses. So there was this huge, noticeable decline in anyone saying anything at all. Everyone's afraid of getting on someone's nerves, so everyone just learns to shut up. No one can tell you off for being “annoying” if you just say nothing at all.

Which, again, is a disaster. I'm on the internet to connect with people from all over the world! Pushing my art out into a void and having mystery users silently hit the like button and run is still mildly encouraging, but god I miss when people opened their mouths. At this point I’d probably take a thoughtless “I like this but the leg looks like a dick” than Dead Silence Forever. (Disclaimer: don’t take this as an affirmation that all artists feel this way. I can tell you for sure that they do not. That’s just me, and how frustrated I am!) In short, I’m here to interact. I want people to interact with me. I love feedback. I like to know that someone cared enough about my work to say something, anything about it. This weird encouraged shyness and silence is killing me.

I have other complaints, too, like... Every social media site is making it harder and harder to actually personalise your page or space, and I suspect this is because that's not marketable. It’s probably harder for companies to use algorithms to read your page accurately if you've used custom HTML instead of filled in forms in a pre-determined template that’s the same for everyone.

So now we have everything looking like a soulless Facebook/Twitter clone at worst, or in the case of Tumblr, the interface is getting suspiciously more and more like a Free Site Builder that only lets you use preset looks and change the font size. Those are good for people trying to popularise their small start-up companies or whatever, but for people just interested in making an interesting space it's very dampening to creativity.

I agree that the accessibility is better (not everyone has the know-how to customise their HTML or write CSS) so I’m not really bashing that in and of itself. But I sure am glad the CSS/HTML editor is at least still there for the time being. It's still laggy and unpleasant to use, though.

So how do I feel about all this?

Lately I find myself desperately wanting to slow down and go back to when people wrote long blog posts about their lives, just so I can have something for my brain to chew on for more than 5 seconds at a time. When people built personal websites from scratch, and if they didn’t know how, they asked their friends or their peers or people they’d seen making nice sites, and those people would help them. I miss making connections on a personal level instead of silently retweeting someone’s art. I miss when you could leave a comment on a thinkpiece and someone other than a nazi would respond.

(Which is why I’m on Neocities. And if my site ever grows big enough to warrant it, I’ll get myself a domain. For now, this is enough.)

"Bug, all you're doing is complaining! Do you have anything else to add that isn't a complaint?" Actually, yes!!

(waves a cane) Back In My Day there were things called webrings. Nowadays people hear that word and glaze over because it's an old fashioned concept, but I'm rediscovering the appeal of getting nostalgic for webrings more as time goes on. Search engines aren't helping us to connect with each other any more. So it's up to us, and I think webrings can help people as frustrated as me to take back the web.

One example of a webring is ourspace, a webring of static personal sites made by individuals for their own use and experimentation and, of course, fun and creativity. People opt into webrings like this because they want their sites to be seen by other people who might be interested in what they have to say and show off. They're all interesting and unique; people worked hard on making their personal sites look how they wanted them to look, and put content on there that's interesting to read/listen to/look at/interact with.

*However! I've stricken some stuff out about webrings now (as of 13/10/2018) because someone else made a very good argument about this! After mulling it over, I find I completely agree. Go read their piece about this, and let's make our own recommendation lists instead! A much better idea. Thank you mariteaux.

That’s what Neocities is all about in the first place. If we can’t count on search engines or social media moguls to put a spotlight on us, we’ll do it for each other. That’s where webrings sitelists really shine. It’s like a show of solidarity and support for each other.

Back when I was a kid there were webrings for all sorts of things. Pokemon webrings, Sailor Moon webrings, virtual pet adoption rings, music, poetry, art, and general fansite or creativity webrings that tied them together so you could hop around and discover people's sites from all over the internet without once resorting to Google. Think about link-hopping through Wikipedia until you’re knee-deep in an article about the colourful world of deep-sea coral with no idea how you got there, except it’ll be about an interest you really care about because someone (maybe you!) set up a webring for it. Maybe that interest is coral. More power to you if it is. *But there are a lot of problems with webrings, too, which mariteaux points out. Again! Read that!

People got older and their interests changed and sites died here and there, until webrings were patchy and then almost-nonexistent. But I think the efforts of people bringing them back are beginning to solve a LOT of my grievances about the modern internet. (Go read that article I linked!)

We already have sites like like Hiveworks and Katbox (they aggregate comics and basically do the same job as webrings but with a little more social media wrangling) and people have been picking up old-school style webrings on Neocities since long before I gave this post any thought. I’ve also seen that affiliate menus and tickers are seeing a sprinkle of revival, too, and those are also great!

It’s easy enough to support your fellow online creators and posters and space-keepers. It’s easy enough to make a webring, if you have a little time and basic HTML know-how (or a savvy friend) on your hands. It’s easy to keep your own space online, too.

In conclusion… I just want to encourage people to build their own comfy and imaginative spaces online, without relying on social media companies who just want to sell popular users' info to the highest bidder.

Make a personal site, host it somewhere like Neocities. If you can't do HTML/CSS I can practically guarantee you can find a friend to help you put up something neat and basic at the absolute minimum, or find a free-use template somewhere. Make it your OWN space. Link to others. Join webrings. Talk about what other people are making.

Twitter & Tumblr & Facebook are boring and soulless and nobody's surprised any more when it turns out they're run by nazi sympathisers. Let's just take our social media elsewhere, and get creative doing it.

As an artist and long-time social media addict, this is gonna be hard for me. I have this Mighty Need to be seen and viewed and observed, and that's gonna lessen a lot when I move out of the popular social media share-o-sphere... but I think it'll be good for me. I'm gonna make the transition slowly, bit by bit, but it's a movement I do want to make, even if only one or two people are ready to follow me.

I want to feel in control of my posts again. I want to create just for myself and my friends, without having to see a Number Of Re-Posts instantly report how well received a shitpost was. I realised lately I just dont care about that, not really. I don’t WANT to keep track of reblogs or retweets or likes. It gives me a pang of uselessness or impotence or the feeling I’m not good enough when something I worked hard on shows 3 retweets next to a shitpost i made a year ago with 10k retweets. I dont want to see that comparison! I don’t wanna be aware of it. It's bad for me to look at it. I’m pretty sure by now that I want it gone.

As well as all that, I want to discover interesting sites again. I want to see the weird and wonderful stuff people talk about and make and do when they're not retweeting pictures of cats all day either.

I want to make things that people have to actively engage with and link to instead of hitting one button and never thinking about it again! Bring back effort, bring back personality, bring back webrings sitelists & affiliates & cheesy-and-goodhearted web awards. Bring back genuine heartfelt support for each other’s endeavours. I want the Internet to be interesting and I want it to have at least a little bit of heart that [blue social media site of your choice] can’t suck out of it.

Thanks for reading. I might edit again this later. If you liked it, link it. I'm hoping it might inspire someone. ;^)

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