An Argument for a Return to Web 1.0

The web was established with the best of intentions. The basic idea was that if everyone could share their thoughts and ideas with the world, the best ones would be vetted and float to the top. The bad ones would be ignored and pushed to the bottom.

But human nature has a tendency to corrupt the best of intentions. Unfortunately when it comes to the web, the best ideas are not the ones floating to the top, but the loudest. In addition, large corporations use manipulative tactics to maximize audiences for advertisements and data collection. Social media sites turn a blind eye to bad behavior on their platforms because toxicity breeds engagement, and that keeps users glued to their devices. It’s a perfect storm of the worst humanity has to offer.

The ideals of the web have failed, and the users are to blame. We gave away our thoughts and ideas to corporations who became fat and greedy, gorging themselves on the content that we shared for free. But even that wasn't enough food them, as they started taking all kinds of data from us, compiling it into massive databases and selling it out advertisers for massive profits.

To understand how we got here, you have to understand how things used to be, so let me tell you a story...

How Things Were

The web used to be a quieter place. There was no such thing as social media. Even blogs were several years away. I started working with the web in high school, learning to hand code HTML (which I still do). Its a time consuming and labor intensive process. Google hadn't even been launched yet, and web sites weren't always listed on every search engine. So it was sometimes difficult to find specific content you were looking for.

But that's what made each search an adventure!

Every site you found was usually lovingly crafted (and usually by hand) by an amateur web enthusiast. We assumed the title of "webmaster" with a sense of pride. We were the early adopters, the pioneers. We were on the cutting edge. Most of the sites on the web, and almost all of the amateur sites, were static pages. Dynamically generated pages were still in their infancy, and only big commercial pages used those techniques.

But it didn't matter. We were having fun. We used code snippets to set up rudimentary visitor counters and guestbooks. We linked our site to others with similar topics with link pages and webrings. We emailed each other our feedback, and got to know each other. This is how we built our communities, formed our own social networks. Naturally, these networks were just a small circle of people who shared an interest for a particular topic and web design, not the sprawling mass of connections that social media would bring in later. We were like tiny little island communities, and it was a great time.

In the early days of the web, if you wanted to have any kind of voice on the web, you had to have a web page. Sure, you could hop into a chat room and talk all day long, but that was only temporary. Once your comment scrolled past, it was pretty much gone. Nobody was going to see it. If you wanted more reach more people and have your words last more than a few minutes, a web site was a necessity.

That meant that you were going to have to get your hands dirty a bit. You either had to know how to code HTML, know somebody who did, or know how to use one of the early WYSIWYG editors that were available. There were advantages and drawbacks to each of them, but most of the people I knew were hand coding their sites in Microsoft Notepad. It wasn’t fancy, but it certainly got the job done. All the layout and most of the content (text, for the most part) was done this way. Any graphics you had were either borrowed from the web, or you made them yourself. I got my start with graphics with a copy of Paint Shop Pro that my college had on their systems, and later moved on to Photoshop.

It was a lot of work getting those early sites ready. They had to be pretty small, because the most common storage device available was the 3.5” diskette, able to hold a staggering 1.44 megabytes of data. Zip drives able to hold 100 megabytes were available, but they were rare and expensive. USB and flash drives were still years away, so we had to make do with what we had.

The next hurdle was finding a place to host out creations. In those days, since everybody I knew was an amateur hobbyist webmaster without a lot of money to spend, the only real option was a free hosting solution like Angelfire or Tripod (which interestingly are still around, albeit owned by the same company).

Those sites would host yours in exchange for putting ads on each of your pages, but they were mostly just a nuisance. The ads were usually a banner ad at the top of the page that you weren’t allowed to try and get rid of. They were simple jobs, just a link and an image, sometimes animated, but usually not. There was no such thing as ad targeting, so they were pretty much randomly chosen from a pool of ads, and it wasn’t uncommon to see the same ads several times a day. They were easy to ignore, and we were very happy to put up with them.

Data gathering just wasn't a thing back then. To set up an online presence, you didn't even need to give your real name. Nobody gave their real name. We all went by handles and other fictitious names. We were told - by teachers, parents, and other authority figures - not to give out personal information over the internet because you never knew for sure who you were talking to. So by and large, we didn’t. We invented online personas, sometimes wildly different from our real life identities. It was all part of the adventure of being online for the first time. You had to really get to know somebody before you told them your real name, if you ever did.

Another reason that data wasn’t widely collected was that bandwidth was storage were both limited. Most consumer internet speeds back then were topping out at 56 kilobits per second. If a website wasn't optimized to load in a few seconds, you weren't going to have to worry about collecting data on visitors, because they were going to bounce and go to a different site.

But in all honesty, the real reason nobody was collecting massive amounts of data on users was that nobody had thought to do it yet. Nobody had foreseen that compiling a massive database of individual users likes, dislikes, and habits would be valuable to advertisers. For most amateur webmasters, the only data we were interested in was how many visitors we got, and we counted them with a simple page counter that we copied from somewhere else into our code.

Now, not everything in those early days was perfect. Even back then, there was misinformation and toxic content. The difference was that you had to actively seek out that content; it didn't generally leak out into the general population. Yes, there were racists and misogynists and conspiracy theory kooks, and the made their opinions known loudly. But if you weren't looking for it, those sites pretty much kept to themselves. And if you did happen to stumble onto that content, it was no big deal to just hit the back button, get out of there, and never go back. You didn't have to share the space with someone you didn't want to listen to.

How Things Are

Now the web has become a cesspool of toxic content. Hidden behind a veil of anonymity, users are emboldened to spew all manner of truly vile comments without fear of consequence. On most large sites this can be mitigated by blocking of toxic users, but often the damage had already been done. Youth are especially susceptible to toxic content, and online bullying and cyberstalking have become so common that the topics routinely make the nightly news. All too often, this toxic content leads to depression, self harm, and even suicide. Even when the user isn't particularly susceptible to toxic content, a constant barrage of it can desensitize a person to the point where this behavior becomes normal.

The concentration of users into a single point combined with anonymity and a lack of consequences for bad behavior has created a situation where misinformation and outright lies spread like wildfire, and are accepted as truth without any critical thinking or vetting of these ideas. The misinformation then gets translated to real life in the form of actions that have proven devastating to the public at large. The anti-vaccine and anti-mask groups are a prime example; despite decades of solid scientific research saying that vaccines are safe and effective, and that masks help stop the transmission of infectious disease, some users will reject this as being false in favor of conclusions backed by dubious evidence presented in an article shared on their Facebook feed.

But it gets worse. These social media giants are collecting data about every single internet user at an alarming rate, housing it in enormous data storage facilities around the world. Once collected, this information is analyzed, compiled, and sold to any interested parties willing to pay for it. It’s not only your activities in a web browser that are gathered; many smart devices including televisions, smart phones, home automation equipment, and more will passively listen to casual conversation looking for key words and phrases. This data will be correlated with the online profile of the speaker with speech recognition and anything you talk about will be added to a database of your interests. Once complied, this data becomes impossible to track down and remove. A user’s personal data will never disappear from the internet. It will be continually be added to, recompiled, reanalyzed, and sold over and over in order to sell ads in the hope of selling a product. If you sign up for a free service on the web, then you are what is being sold.

All too often, this data ends up in the hands of advertisers that use it to target ads specific to the user in order to increase the likelihood of the user clicking on an ad, which in turn generates revenue for the ad company on top of simply serving up the ad. Serving up millions upon millions of ads per day has enabled Facebook and other social media giants to amass vast amounts of wealth, which they convert into political power in the form of campaign contributions to politicians sympathetic to large corporate interests.

The largest sites use addictive psychological techniques to keep users engaged on their site for as long a possible, and keep them coming back with an unrelenting barrage of notifications. This keeps users coming back into the toxic environment, back into the misinformation, more chances to collect data, and more chances to sell ad impressions. Social media is a corrupting influence, a cancer that we have invited in and inflicted upon ourselves.

How Things Should Be

The simplest and most immediate course of action that we can all take, is to remove ourselves from the control of giant sites that profit from our attention. We are the fuel that makes their machines work, and if we refuse to participate in their systems, they start to break down. Fewer eyes on their pages mean fewer advertising dollars and investors. Eventually, if enough people leave, the beast dies of starvation.

It will not be an easy transition for most people to make. These sites are designed to be highly addictive, creating a self-feeding dopamine loop in the brain of the users. It will be like trying to quit smoking or drinking. Your friends will probably wonder why you are even trying, but it will be worth it in the long run. Once your time is once again your own, you can turn that time into building actual connections on the web the way we used to - organically and with a sense of community. Your circle of online friends will shrink, but you will come to know your online neighbors better.

Another tactic is to use smaller, less well known search engines. Your data is harvested not only by giant social media corporations, but by giant search engine companies as well. When you use one search engine for every search, you become trapped in an invisible bubble of results that were curated for you by that company’s algorithms. By using multiple search engines you get a new set of results, and you may find something that you might not have otherwise found. The idea is to break the cage of monopoly that these tech giants have built around you. Without a single company’s algorithms dictating what you find online, you will have a broader sense of what is available on the net.

The hardest thing we can do, but the most vital, is to start building amateur websites again! Hand coding is a dying art, but it's worthwhile to learn the ins and outs of coding a page and having the page come out exactly the way you want. It's just like building a house or a piece of furniture; it's a lot of hard work, but you step back when it's done, and look at it with a sense of pride. You put a piece of yourself into making it, and it's no different for web pages.

Building amateur web pages increases the quality of content on the web as well. A status update or a tweet on a huge social network is a lot like fast food; it's immediately satisfying, but it's not good for you, and ultimately leaves you feeling empty. But writing content for your own site - something that you feel so passionate about that you needed to build your own site to get it out into the world - is like cooking your own meal from scratch. It's immediately filling, and satisfying in the long run the way fast food could never be.

But it’s not enough to build our own site. We need to connect to others. Geocities was one of the pioneers of early web hosting, and even though it’s gone, there are still lessons we can learn from it. When you built a site on Geocities your site was sorted into a neighborhood, along with other sites that shared a common theme. This is a concept that we can borrow and build upon. We need to get to know our virtual neighbors and build a community around common interests, linking each other’s websites to form our own microweb of related content.

So seek out new and interesting sites, and link to them on your site. Reach out to them, and see if they'll link to you. Start a dialog. The way to build a better web is to build a better web of people.

Another relic of the old days that is still around is the webring. These are collections of sites linked together in circular fashion that were enormously fun to browse, and because they are naturally sorted into topics of interest they are a great way to group sites into neighborhoods.

But it doesn't stop there. Since a site might address many topics, it might be a part of several webrings. This widens the community, and brings together sites that might not otherwise have been linked together at all.

Where do we go From Here?

The web was a gift for all of humanity. Tim Berners-Lee released the code for the web so that no corporation could control the web or force users to pay for it. We took this gift, and tossed it away, preferring instead to bow down to corporate masters who get obscenely wealthy using underhanded tactics to maintain users attention for as long as possible, all in the name of serving up an endless steam of advertisements. The web is a mire of toxic and empty content because we, as users, took the easy path and decided to consume content instead of creating it.

But it doesn't have to stay this way. By getting back to basics, by learning the skills and building our own digital homesteads with care, and then linking then with others to form communities, we can take back the web and make it the fun, exciting, and wondrous adventure that it used to be. We have forgotten the wonder of Web 1.0. It's time to return to it.