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The Analog Web

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Media outlets created in a post-online world have been closing up shop. RoosterTeeth, Vice, and before that, Pitchfork are just the three most recent examples. They are the latest in a string of shutdowns that show a publishing industry turning away, or growing increasingly hostile, to the web.

And there is, of course, a lot to unpack about what is happening. It’s perhaps taken up by no one better than Casey Newton writing in his own corner of the web, The Platformer. In “How platforms killed Pitchfork,” Newton has a number of incisive, prescient insights about the way in which platforms are destroying themselves in an attempt to commoditize attention.

But one thing that’s kind of sticking with me is this passing observation about the way Spotify leverages AI and algorithms to generate playlists for people that capture their tastes.

On one level it’s impressive that Spotify can perfectly capture my musical taste in a series of data points, and regurgitate it to me in a series of weekly playlists. But as good as it has gotten, I can’t remember the last time it pointed me to something I never expected I would like, but ultimately fell totally in love with.

In a sense, the machines that recommend things to us lack a human imagination. I’m not the first person to observe that a lack of genuine and human-centered discovery does seem to be a significant void in the modern web. Ironically, as we construct algorithmically-fortified communities designed to guide us towards our preferences, we become so much like automatons ourselves, steered only towards what we’ve already pre-established as our likes and dislikes. It’s not just Spotify. Platforms move us toward homogeneity because it’s convenient for them to do so.

There has been a response, a countervailing force by individuals reclaiming a smaller and more personal web that actually attempts to redefine discovery through the lens of human insights and curation. Like the Luddites spited modernism, these creators are attempting to resist the dehumanization of algorithms by creating the unexpected and the unfamiliar.

But these two sides, if you can even call them that, lack definition and cohesiveness. On one side, there is a web created by (and sometimes for), machine-driven algorithms and generated content. On the other side, we have a much less centralized web created by and for humans. The latter version has a few different names: The small web, the personal web, digital gardens. But for me, the contrast is more a conflict between analog and digital. So, I’ve come to think of this other side as the analog web.

A History of Analog

The concept of analog computing in reference to technology was developed in 1940’s, some time before digital computing became widespread. In its original use, analog computing referred to a device that relied on mechanical means and other systems of measurements to complete computing tasks rather than the bits and bytes of modern computers. Maybe the most famous example was the differential analyzer, popularized by Vanneaver Bush, who would have his own lasting impact on the mid-20th century world and eventually the web (and who was played by Matthew Modine in the Christopher Nolan film Oppenheimer).

The differential analyzer was a gigantic table with a number of levers and shafts that ultimately could be used to crunch numbers and complete various computing tasks. But it was eventually superseded by the digital computer introduced in the 1960’s which, of course, captured popular and academic imaginations.

It was only at this time that academics and researchers sought a word to distinguish these different forms of computing. They settled on analogue (shortened to “analog” in American usage) versus digital.

But as digital computing became more commonplace, it began to consume other industries and technologies. Music compression, digital film projectors and cameras, and digital watches are all artifacts of this transition to a digital world compressed into bytes.

And each time digital technology swoops in, a loosely organized community of analog practitioners and hobbyists preserved and distributed its analog counterpart as a bulwark against its erasure. Over time, the word “analog” came to include an increasingly broad set of technologies that relied on mechanical means of creation and reproduction — the record player, the tape recorder, and the film camera to name a few.

More than just a word, “analog” technologies formed the basis for a new culture. Analog’s usage in popular culture came to refer to a world that was slower and more considered, even in the face of digital technologies that were cheaper and more broadly utilitarian. Flaws in analog technology were something to be celebrated for its uniqueness rather than a wrinkle to be smoothed out. And so analog as a term is used to tether us to a mechanical framework of the world.

The Web, By Humans

The web is, by definition, a digital technology. It is grounded in the efficiency and scale of digital computing. But there is and always has been a tension at the center of it, between commercial interests in a global network comprised of billions and a fractured community of creators building things for their own sake.

For instance, in the much earlier days of the web, a group of artists and writers found each other out amongst the nodes of the network. They began creating websites unified only by a shared interest in what could be achieved on the web. After a while, they gathered under the banner of Internet Art, or for short. Their online creations ranged from hypertext poetry and avant garde stories to websites that extended performances into the real world or challenged the idea of what a website even was.

I refer, as I have before, to Rachel Greene in reference to her book about and the importance of the movement:

I refuse to let commercial interests dominate the history and perception of the net because I think they would exclude the most important and dynamic internal content – the aesthetic, creative, radical, political ideas and experiments

Much like the analog practitioners in the wake of digital, the glitches and flaws and stutters and stops of the web medium were interesting to net artists. They tried to slow the whole thing down and understand what makes the interactive web, as a medium, unique. And their experiments were incredibly important in finding that out.

They weren’t the only ones to try. Every so often, a new group shows up on the web’s fringes, hidden below the view of commercial scale, and tries stuff out. We’ve seen this manifest in other movements like Silicon Alley, the Antiweb, and the IndieWeb, or in technologies like webrings and federation. These movements have been big and small, but they have all made some impact as a collective force.

The Analog Web

The other side of the web has leaned into, as Greene calls it, commercial interests. It is the side of the web that driven by a quest for optimization — or the walled gardens in a race to the bottom of the enshittification cycle.

There is even an increasingly large part of the web caught up in eating its own tail. Content is generated by machine-driven AI meant to capture the attention of machine-driven algorithms in an attempt to monetize programmatically inserted adverts that are optimized (and in some cases only ever really viewed by) more machines. With each new turn around the algorithmic web, we get a version that is more and more stripped of its humanity.

Radical, creative experiments have never stopped. Owning your own piece of the Internet (to borrow a recent phrase from Anil Dash) is itself a radical act. Linking to others at will is subversive all on its own. Or as Jeremy Keith once put it, “it sounds positively disruptive to even suggest that you should have your own website.” The web still exists for everyone. And beneath this increasingly desiccated surface, there is plenty of creators still simply creating.

People create these sites simply so that they exist. They are not fed to an algorithm, or informed by any trends. It is quieter and slower, meant to tether us to a more mechanical framework of the web.

This is the analog web.

There is no strict definition for the analog web, and it’s not tied to a single methodology or technology. But there is a culture that exists beneath the commercial web that is motivated by the same goal; to create a bulkwark against the erasure of a more human web.

We can find some definitions for the analog web in the early days of blogging. Writing about the then brief history of blogs in 2001, Rebecca Blood defined them as “fragments, pieced together over months […], an unexpectedly intimate view of what it is to be a particular individual in a particular place at a particular time.”

But this “intimate view” goes well beyond blogs. As Ana Rodrigues recently put it, “you don’t have to be a content creator to have a website.” A personal website need only be personal and a website to fit the definition. Everything else is additive. To attach yourself to the analog web requires some space on a server and a bit of free time — and many have taken the time to do just that.

These websites don’t exist with any necessary agenda. They are handmade, and at times, even a bit weird. But they represent a person in some way; an interest, an ideology, a hobby, or nothing more bold than a point of view. Because they are distinct and imperfect, these sites can resist the wave of generated content heading our way. Not to mention, there is an actual joy to creating sites on the analog web:

For me, the joy of personal websites lies in their distinctive viewpoints and creativity.

I’ll leave you with a quote from the late Dean Allen, who used his usual wit and voice to describe his own website. This is just an excerpt, and I encourage you to read the piece in full:

This site is made of PHP and MySQL, hyper-text markup, cascading stylesheets and content. This site is ambitious: it has hopes and dreams arching far beyond its current form. When it was younger this site exuded confidence; now it commands a room […].

[…] once this site was so drunk that, entering a club, the path to the dance floor looked exactly like the rotating tunnel portal thing from the Six Million Dollar Man. This site is terrible with money. While it has no problem with actors, this site simply would rather not know one. Most everything is funny, to this site.

What you create on the web, in other words, can be whatever it is that you want it to be. That is the analog web.

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