The Internet it utterly useless
We celebrate the information age as a massive step forward for humanity. It made possible the exchange of information almost instantly across the world. Borders so it would seem are completely irrelevant and everyone can share and consume information and "content" freely.
Remote work is no longer some exotic concept and online shopping has turned from a fringe experience to the default way of doing things. Everyone can contribute, exchange ideas, publish content, shop, work, bank, ... you name it. Our lives are digital and the internet is at the very heart of it.
So how on earth would anyone consider the internet useless in any way?
SEO stands for search engine optimization. Get it right and your corner of the web - whatever it may be - will be flooded with visitors. It was during the blog boom of the eartly 2010s when webmasters where hard at work to exploit this system.
And so we've seen countless zombie sites and blogs pop up that are full of ... well junk. You must have seen them. They are written in strange ways. Like the thing you where looking for on your favorite search engine is repeated in every bloody headline. The content is mostly fill and useless. Extracting any useful information for humans is difficult if not even impossible.
These things where written (or generated) for algorithms not for you. They serve as the entrance to some sales funnel. The content is just there for bait and doesn't even try to satisfy your curiosity. Instead the operators of the site will do their best to push you further into that funnel. Suprise!
During the recent popularization of AI I've seen a lot of attention going towards AI generated content. It's heralded as something totally new that we haven't seen before.
Oh please ... nothing is further from the truth. Even years ago Article rewriters where used to automatically take an article and rewrite it in such a way that it will pass as something new. Both in the eyes of the algorithm and the law.
And if that didn't work a common strategy used to be hiring writers in low GDP countries to do the writing/re-writing for the operators of those funnels.
So don't think for a moment that artificial content is a product of AI. It has slowly poisoned the internet to the point of uselessness.
One of the greatest benefits of the Internet is the supposed lack of borders. In fact this was one the things that drew me towards this mysterious new frontier in the late 1990s to begin with.
Today we are a long way away from borderless cyberspace. Geofencing is a constant annoyance for power users, digital nomads, frequent travelers, etc. and breaks many services to the point of utter uselessness.
Take Youtube Prime for example. I was delighted when their Premium subscription came to Europe after the US had a multi year head start. I subscribed immediately and loved it. Until two weeks later when I crossed the border to Turkey. Not only was I cut off from the service I paid for regardless of location, the client even deleted all downloaded videos from the phone.
It doesn't even end there. Many years later I signed up again for another try using the Family option. Yet adding my spouse as a user was denied because her Google account was in another country. That subscription lasted less then an hour.
And that's only the harmless tip of the iceberg. Real damage happens when governments push blocks on a whim. It's a very strange feeling being cut off from Wikipedia ... just to name one example.
At this point a VPN has become a must have for anyone using the internet beyond their own borders. Even just to visit perfectly legit websites refusing to comply with the laws of other areas of the world (e.g. EU cookie laws).
Sadly VPNs have the nasty habit of being locked out of various services as well as they consider your activity that of bots.
Everyone hates Captcahs. Those annoying mini games focing you to identiy a traffic light or some other item to prove your humanity.
Bots are a problem. I get that. But the amount of times I was unable to complete a request because of a captcha is insane. I call the Captcha of doom because they cause serious problems.
Just today I tried to contact the support of a delivery service about a missing delivery. Yet at the very end I was held up by one of these deadly captcahs. After about 50 tries I gave up screaming and shouting. If that delivery is lost for good and I can't recover it because of a captcha that captcha cost me around 200 EUR. Fantastic!
Given that I tried to contact support there may be other motives at play then just to avoid bot requests. But of course that's neither here nor there ;)
Regular SEO is still relevant today. I do my best to please the algorithm to get a bit of traffic despite the lack of a profit motive. But I do like the idea of curious cybernauts stumbling across my site and hopefully take something useful away from the encounter.
But of course that's not enough for the business side of things. Today SEO is paid for. Give a popular platform enough money for a bunch of keywords and you shall have top rankings. Not only does this go for search results but also map placements, ad banners, etc.
I'm guilty of playing this game too. There's simply no choice. I'd never pay for this site to be found but when it comes to potential foot traffic finding our shop top placement is essential. SEO won't do it, so it's pay to win.
For a shop I get it. But how about blogs and other attention based businesses? Quickly potentially useful sites are pushed out by those with a profit motive that are willing to pay. At this point, the highly praised top 10 result page on Google is probably the one with the most useless results.
The internet began as a lose collection of networked machines. Those connections where shaky at best and often not even permanent. In the pre-web days an email making it's way through various bbs servers could take longer then an old school letter.
But these systems where decentralized and everyone could add to it. The latter is true even today. And I'd argue that the barrier to entry is all so much lower then it was back in these pioneering days.
And yet we don't see an explosion of websites and blogs anymore. Most content is stored in major silos like social media platforms, large blogs and blogging platforms, etc.
Social media has drawn in the mainstream and now controls the flow and availability of information. The platform is now the it. Independent sites and blogs meanwhile have turned into little more then static.
Prominent examples of centralization are of course Facebook and more recenty Twitter (or whatever they call it these days). No account, no reading. OK, keep your junk.
Similar movements on Medium which ended up on my search block list. Same for everyone who thinks their content should be behind a paywall. Bait them and make them pay. No thanks.
This trend only continues and I seriously worry about what might be left to those refusing to set up accounts they don't want or need.
Apps have been the it for a while and they are (sadly) here to stay. Why make a website if you can force a user to install an app? Why not collect more data and control every aspect of their experience using your platform or service? Including ads of course. No blockers ...
While mobile apps certainly lost some of their popularity and people are less likely to blindly install just about anything onto their phones. Regardless of this there's still flood of apps washing over the various platforms.
These take away from the internet as such. They are yet another walled garden requiring the user to use a specific piece of software instead of a freely accessible web site with their browser of choice. This is part of why I could never figure out Instagram ... not that I'd miss it but that's another can of worms entirely.
The more content is trapped behind an app the less free the internet becomes and the less useful it is on the whole.
Just recently I've managed to reconnect with a few old friends I lost touch with over the years. Sadly communicating with them turned out to be quite difficult as they all have their own preferences for messengers.
I don't even blame them as I'm a big proponent of Signal excluding pretty much every other popular modern messenger. Yet I'm not really willing to lower my standards. Others may feel like it'd be strange to install an all new messenger to just to talk to a single person. I get that.
This highlights a larger problem with messengers. They don't interconnect. They only really work within their ecosystem and that's the end of it. If you refuse to join (and potentially give up a lot of your privacy to some big tech company) some people might be out of reach.
Without a common standard or some enforcement requiring some level of interconnectivity this problem will only continue to grow. This makes the already dumb internet even more useless as it cuts you off from direct connections to people relevant to you.
At this point I have little hope for the Internet. It has become useless to the point that I'm buying books on certain subjects instead of trying to navigate the endless marketer hell SEO created.
AI will both make it easier to get relevant information but also flood the web with even more useless junk.
And so far I didn't even touch on the social aspects like hype, clickbait, idiotic thumbnail trends, trolls, etc. Let alone the far reaching consequences of misinformation and other nonsense.
Governments around the world try to turn the Internet into a tool of control (with an eye on China and their sesame score). Take the recent conversations about digital identity and digital currencies (CBDC). And that's only the tip of the dystopian iceberg we're heading for full steam ahead.
I might just be an old man shouting at all things new. I could be wrong and I'm really just too dumb or too set in my old ways to benefit from the internet.
My arguments are grounded in reason, tech know how and an extremely low tolerance for BS. 99% of what's going on on the web doesn't even clear the latter on it's own (just take a look at these Web3 folks).
So far I've left almost no room for anything positive in this article. But I do also believe that we are at a turning point. We're in the midst of a monumental shift in how we are using the Internet and maybe technology as a whole.
I'm personally not a fan of a lot of things that are happening but I admit that the future holds huge potential to make the world an overall better place.
When Twitter started to fail (and I think it won't be around for much longer) I was delighted to see a brief spike of attention hitting Mastodon.
And therein lays my hope. "Old" players start to show cracks. Scandals, nonsense, censorship, restrictions, paywalls, etc. will all contribute to push a number of people out of the holy platforms and into the desert of the Internet.
It will be up to us to turn it back into an oasis of knowledge, cooperation and sharing free from corporate overlords dictating the ins and outs of the web.
Turns out I'm not alone with these thoughts. The "dead internet theory" feels a whole lot less like a theory then reality. Anyway, check out what other people have to say about these issues:
- Jon Cherry: Why has the Internet become so depressingly shit?
- Redit: Blogs & SEO whores have polluted the internet full of useless junk text.
- Wikipedia: Dead Internet theory
- Hacker News: I feel like Google is increasingly becoming useless
- The Atlantic (2021): Maybe You Missed It, but the Internet ‘Died’ Five Years Ago
I think it's up to us - the users, the pioneers, the developers and admins - to rebuild. Right now big tech rules the tech world. And it may likely stay this way. Even if one would fall another is ready to pick up the slack locking away information just like it's predecessor.
But there will always be those of us who reject or at least sometimes leave the big platforms in order to surf on alternative information highways. We are the ones who have to build these highways in order for them to offer value to those who come after us to grow it even more.
With that I'm closing this article with the promise to share concrete steps to start and take control over your own digital life using free and open source software, open platforms and networks (e.g. the fediverse), host your own junk (e.g. your blog, email, etc.) and so on.
All in attempt to make the internet a little more useful one step at a time.