An off-ramp from the digital IKEA maze

Posted: 2023-05-04

There is an episode of Star Trek where a character is for plot reasons trapped in a shrinking parallel universe. As time passes, people she knows one by one just vanish and she is the only one who seems to notice. Eventually it gets to an absurd point. She asks if it really makes sense if a ship made for a thousand people would have a crew of a few people, and everyone just sort of like shrugs and looks at her like she’s crazy. That’s basically what the last decade of the Internet[1]. It feels like it’s shrinking. Like parts of it are vanishing.

In part I think it’s the fault of the big walled gardens on the web, whether Facebook, Twitter or Reddit. They’re essentially designed like a maze. They make you feel like there are no other websites aside from few silos and e-commerce and various forms of blog spam and political propaganda, like the web only consists of maybe a few dozen big sites, encircled by an endless digital strip mall.

For reasons that are superficially different but on a more profound reason similar, Google isn’t much better either.

It’s basically like wandering around in IKEA. Can’t find an exit, and everything is about leaving you confused and exhausted and buying low-quality crap.

Makes sense though. Why would they permit free exits to other parts of the web when they make more money the longer you keep scrolling, when part of their business model is to charge money from advertisers for the permission to create links. Having links to non-commercial websites just doesn’t make business sense if that is your model.

It’s crucially important to understand that search engines and aggregators don’t just bring websites to people, they bring people to websites.

It’s why there is money in this business. They can control where people go, what people see.

Excluding any sort of conspiratorial motives, it’s self-evident that commercial websites will have money to pay to have people sent their way, and non-commercial websites won’t. So they get buried.

Popularity and ranking schemes are also culpable. They promote what is already popular and visible to become even more popular. What is already obscure to become even more obscure. Websites and content isn’t judged at face value, and the centralization self-reinforces.

That said, the independent and creative side of the web needs traffic even if it isn’t ad funded. It has a value in its own, not only because it’s legitimately a nice place to visit, but because it difficult to censor or control. It can act as a legitimate counter-culture. It isn’t just a write-only creative outlet, it’s a meeting place, a scene, a place of collaboration and exchange of ideas.

These places can certainly become too crowded and killed by tourism, but we are extremely far from that happening.

The flow of visitors has a tangible effect on which websites grow and which websites wither. If there is no way of finding anything other than blog spam and e-commerce, then that is all that the Internet will eventually become.

It’s noteworthy that a lot of the infrastructure of the early web was exactly about promoting interesting and creative websites. Which no doubt permitted them to flourish. Today there is almost nothing like that anymore.

Is something like Marginalia Search sufficient to reverse this trend, to stem the tide? I can’t say. Probably not alone. At the same time I don’t think there is any hope for a creative, free and independent web without good means of exploring it.