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December 2019 Weblog: I Hope Next Year Goes Better

This decade was not great for the web…

There’s more than a few decade retrospective think-pieces making the rounds right now, but here’s a real kicker from Clio Chang, The Decade the Internet Lost Its Joy. Chang’s essential argument is that over the last ten years the web has gotten worse in every conceivable way. It’s a point that’s difficult to argue with. I was fortunate enough to work at Sesame Workshop in the early 2010’s and even though things were never perfect (it’s important to remember that’s a nostalgic fiction), the Internet felt invigorated or, as Chang puts it, full of joy. Every day there was a new fun trend or experiment bursting with creativity and a quick collaborative remix cycle, both silly things like the day of Llamas and the dress, and profound connections erupting all over the world. Working at Sesame Street gave me a ground floor view of that spirit, and to play off some truly incredible trends with talented and creative individuals during a period of time when optimism for and with the web was on the rise. That feels as if it’s been flattened out by uniformity, cash grabs, and the most toxic, insidious, and abusive tendencies of human nature. And it doesn’t appear to be better.

I find myself returning to the same piece from a few years ago whenever I’m trying to make sense of at least part of the problem. It’s called P.C. Culture Vs. The Big Joke by Film Crit Hulk and it’s had an enormous impact on how I think about the web and what it’s become. It describes the way in which trolls have squared off against the better side of the Internet and won by eschewing reason in favor of weaponized irony. It’s a bit of a long read, but if you have the time, well worth it and still very true today.

…communities are splintering…

On another note, this month was Blue Beanie Day, an annual celebration of web standards orchestrated by Jeffrey Zeldman. In his recap post, Zeldman hits us with another downer, noting that enthusiasm both for the day and for web standards generally has been in steep decline for a while now, as the web development community has fractured into increasingly isolated bubbles of insular complexity. Chris Coyier has some thoughts too over at CSS Tricks.

…and the attention merchants had it all wrong…

The Correspondent published a groundbreaking story this month about the effectiveness, or lack thereof, of online advertising. We’ve made the baseline assumption for years that better tracking, better targeting led to better advertising and more revenue. We’ve assumed that all of this invasion of privacy was done for profit. But as the report concludes, numbers have been manipulated and subject to implicit biases that, once removed, leaves the truth about advertising. It isn’t all that effective, and nine times out of ten, that sale you followed some around the entire Internet with would have been made anyway. So all this selling of our personal data and manipulation of our privacy was for, essentially, nothing. If that’s not bleak, I don’t know what is.

…but still, there is hope

I want to end this year, and this decade, with a bit of hope, if only because I love the web. It’s been an essential part of who I am for almost two decades now, and I want it to be better. I want us all to do better. And speaking of advertising, creator of the pop-up ad (he’s done better since then, I promise) Ethan Zuckerman wrote an op-ed recently in the Columbia Journalism Review that calls for an Internet not motivated by financial greed, but by public service. He cites examples from other forms of media, such as NPR and PBS, as examples of times when public service media has helped to create a better world. He draws a connection to Wikipedia, which he cites as an example of a public service media company that exists on the Internet. I agree with the sentiment, but I believe he’s missing a fundamental point about his analogous examples. They are funded, at least in part, by our government, and in their most revolutionary and creative times they have had the most backing.

I don’t think government regulation will be our panacea, but a sector of the web that exists solely to serve the public good and not not to fuel profit margins is sorely needed. And the government has a role to play there. I’d recall a similar op-ed from Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes from earlier this year with similar ideas. Thankfully, these are conversations are happening, and every single one of us has a place in that discussion. Cause here’s the the thing. If we want a better web, we’re going to have to fight for it.

And hey, at least The Far Side has a website now.