Essays on Technology and Culture

How Do We Put the Web on a Diet

If you haven’t read or watched “The Website Obesity Crisis” by Maciej Cegłowski, you really should. It’s one of the smartest things said or written about the state of the Web today. It’ll also help you get some context for the essay to follow. So, go click that link. I’ll be here when you’re done.

Okay, are you back? Great. Now, let me cite one of Maciej’s concluding parts.

Let’s preserve the web as the hypertext medium it is, the only thing of its kind in the world, and not turn it into another medium for consumption, like we have so many examples of already.

There’s a lot to unpack here. I know where Maciej is coming from. I work in digital publishing, I’ve been making stuff on the web for nearly twenty years, and I am trying to teach myself modern front-end development. The Web in 2016 is very different than the Web of 1996, which when I first got online. I learned the basics of building websites that same year, out of a copy of HTML for Dummies: Quick Reference. You could, at the time, make something throughly awesome by going to “View Source” on any website on the Internet copying, pasting, and fiddling with the code.

Now? Well, have you ever tried viewing the source on I did once, and I when I came to, I was naked and covered in what I hoped was my own blood. Web development is hard, things are bloated, and the sense of independence and fun of making stuff on the web is largely gone. It’s been replaced by blue and white faux-minimalism that grinds your computer to a halt to load ads. It’s no fun.

Making anything cool now, well, it takes a lot more work and knowledge than it did in 1996. Even if you’re just building the theme for a blog, you need to know a lot more to make things look awesome everywhere. And awesome looking stuff takes a lot more computing power to render. So…

Let’s commit to the idea that as computers get faster, and as networks get faster, the web should also get faster.

Here’s the screwy bit. Aside from a period when mobile devices that could view the real Web were just taking off—basically with the original iPhone—computers, networks, and the web are all getting faster. It’s just that once things get fast enough that we get even the slightest bit of overhead, web stuff gets more complex and demanding on the network and the computer. Just look at the development of JavaScript interpreters in browsers. There’s an arms race to optimize how fast a browser handles JavaScript, and it has had a performance impact for the better.

It’s not even a new problem. The move to semantic markup and CSS was actually supposed to speed the Web up for users. You might have to download another page, but your browser kept the CSS file and images cached. Pages loaded faster, and rendered faster, at least as your computer got faster. Then, with all that freed up computing power, web people decided to try crazier stuff. And things got more complicated and slower to load. Either the technology catches up (broadband), or we start stripping stuff down again (early Web 2.0). It’s cyclical.

There was a period in the 90s when computers completely revolutionized print typography and design. People were making, and publishing really wild stuff, but it was a fad. There was eventual pushback over crazy neon colors, hard-to-read fonts, and screwy layouts that looked insanely cool, but made reading print a huge pain in the butt. If looking at those examples reminds you of the late 90s on the web, you’re not far off. That aesthetic carried over to many websites, too. I dare you to look at circa 2000 on the Internet Archive.

Fortunately, that cycle is moving towards simplification again. The pushback on bloated ads, tracking scripts, and all the excessive crap that spins up our laptop fans and pushes us over the data limits on our mobile plans is reaching a head. Soon, we’re going to have a reckoning. How it shakes out is yet to be seen, of course. The result could be even more siloing of content behind the walls of tech companies who want eyeballs and data to monetize on. I’d like to see something more akin to what Maciej wants. The web needs to “stay participatory.”

But, even when the web was largely hypertext, it was’t all that participatory. Twenty years ago, the Internet was just starting to penetrate into ordinary people’s homes. The tipping point there was probably settling on the 56K Modem standard, and AOL opening up its walled garden to the Web at large. We were all going to connect in cyberspace over ISDN lines and something, something world peace. Really, most early adopters were more interested in drop shipping carpet, finding porn, or both.

At A Working Library, Mandy Brown is on to something in her great piece on Maciej’s talk.

“There’s an old saw about the web that says that when the web democratized publishing, everyone should have become a writer, but instead most of us became consumers. (Nevermind that email and SMS have most people writing more in a day than their Victorian ancestors wrote in their entire lives.)”

Mandy’s seeing Maciej’s argument from the filter of a writer, and I’m seeing it from the filter of a writer and a web… site… making… guy. I don’t think the creator of a really awesome web bookmarking app is advocating we give up making cool applications that use the web as a platform. More that we people who make stuff on the web strip this crap down and focus on making awesome stuff everyone can use without compromising a user’s computing power or their privacy, and make it easier for someone to get started making that awesome stuff.

Which is going to be very, very hard for a lot of reasons, but laying those out will have to wait.

Edit: Find out a couple of those reasons in this follow-up essay.