Art Kavanagh

Criticism, fiction and other writing

The good old days of the web may be just around the corner

I argued in Advertising and the future of surveillance capitalism that Google and Facebook are in a rather paradoxical position. They’re both dependent on online advertising, a source of revenue which seems at once precarious and stable. It’s stable because it’s a well established model which is supported a lot of vested interests (such as advertising departments) and it’s precarious because, as Jesse Frederik and Maurits Martijn have shown in an enlightening article in The Correspondent, online advertising is a kind of “bubble” that must be expected to burst sooner or later. And, as is often the case, “sooner or later” probably means “sooner than we expect”. What will the web look like, if and when Google and Facebook find that the advertising budgets of the world’s major companies are no longer flowing without obstruction directly into their bank accounts?

Frankly, I don’t know. I’m not a futurologist and my previous attempts at prediction have tended to be ignominiously wrong. But I’d like to suggest that, in trying to imagine where the web is going, we need to take a much longer view than we’re often inclined or accustomed to do.

How long do you expect the web to last? If you’re anything like me, your answer flickers rapidly between “thousands of years” and “it’s already at death’s door, though there’s an outside chance that we can revive it”. Even if we believe that the second possibility is the more likely, it makes sense to behave as if the first were true, because it might well be. But if the web really does have a long future ahead of it, it follows that it’s barely out of its infancy. Almost nobody I know has been using it for longer than 25 years. (I first accessed it in late 1997, just 22 years ago.) Notwithstanding the great changes that have come about since then, it would be fanciful to describe the web as “mature”. As I complained recently, we don’t even have a robust, reliable way to search the web, relying instead on heuristics and algorithms whose workings are (to say the least) opaque.

It might be worthwhile, rather than spend a lot of intellectual effort and energy attempting to foresee the shape and details of a postfacebook web, simply to remind ourselves regularly that a postfacebook web will come to pass, and (in relative terms) very soon.

A few short years ago, it was being widely assumed that Facebook had irrevocably and permanently supplanted the open web and that Twitter had taken over the role formerly filled by your RSS feed reader. After a number of scandals like Cambridge Analytica and Russiagate, we’ve come to see that the grip of these “social” networks on our online lives is not as secure as we so recently thought, and have turned our attention to divining what is to replace them. A recent opinion piece by Annalee Newitz in the New York Times begins:

Social media is broken … Though we talk about reforming and regulating it, “fixing” it, those of us who grew up on the internet know there’s no such thing as a social network that lasts forever. Facebook and Twitter are slowly imploding. And before they’re finally dead, we need to think about what the future will be like after social media so we can prepare for what comes next.

One assumption that underpins this quest for the next biggish thing is the conviction that there’s no going back. Blogs and RSS feeds were significant in the 2000s. They’ve had their time in the sun and now it’s the turn of something else. If you find yourself sympathetic to this point of view, consider the current revival in popularity of the email newsletter.

If, on the other hand, we take the kind of long view I’m proposing, instead of seeing Facebook and surveillance capitalism as the culmination of the internet’s short history, we can view them instead as an early experiment that is in the course of failing (or at least of having its parameters changed). From this point of view, it’s easier to see the web of the 2000s, not as a developmental stage that has now been surpassed, but rather as a set of possibilities which still have plenty of potential to be realized. Maybe it’s possible to go back after all.

One of the things Anil Dash would like to go back to is the widespread use of the hyperlink: “‘Link in bio’ is a slow knife”. The link, after all, is the feature that put the “hyper” into hypertext: it’s precisely what was meant to be weblike about the web. And it’s been clear for some time that the link has been on the wane. Facebook and Twitter effectively permit only one link per post; and Dash makes much of the fact that in Instagram you get just one link per account! One of the things that used to frustrate me about Google+ was that, while it was possible for a post to include multiple links, all but the last one (the one with the link preview) had to be bare URLs. It wasn’t possible to use a HTML-style <a href="">anchor tag</a>.

On Goodreads, where anchor tags are allowed, it seems that a lot of people don’t use them, but instead just paste the bare URL into their review or comment. I’ve often wondered if this is because people are more likely to trust links if they can see the target address there in the text, without having to hover the pointer over the link to reveal where it’s leading. What hadn’t really occurred to me before I read Dash’s piece is that the social media pursue a strategy of making links scarce, as a way of keeping people on their site or in their app.

So, it’s not simply the case that people avoid links because they don’t trust them. On the contrary, Dash insists, “people like links”. I hope he’s right. If he is, there’s a good chance that the web that comes after the reign of Facebook will be recognizably the offspring of the web that preceded it. We may yet live to see the web grow up.

Posted by Art on 23-Dec-2019.