Mysteries of the Hidden Internet
This article also appears in: 2600: The Hacker Quarterly, Vol. 36 #3
With this article's recent publication in 2600, I'm finally allowed to release it on my own website!
This version is slightly less edited than the version in 2600, but its the raw rant I wrote while annoyed about the internet. I hope you enjoy!
The internet of today feels very open and accessible, but the internet seems to have lost its mystery and charm. Before, you never knew what you would run into - you could search a new term and find a fan site completely dedicated to the topic. Search "canadian owls" and you might find a website created by a researcher completely dedicated to the topic. Someone who had spent years of their life perfecting their research and knowledge, and had spent hours and hours creating this internet-accessible portal into their depth of knowledge. But today, that feeling and mystery is almost completely gone. Search "canadian owls", and what are you greeted with? Many large websites operated by foundations and companies. Sure, they have encyclopedia-like information on the topic, but there's no personal touch. There's no author to contact, there's no one you could have an email correspondence with, asking them questions about owls. Instead, you're presented with plastic-feeling template websites with information collected from various sources and papers. If there's an author's touch, you'd never know, because none of the pages are signed.
While this is optimal for getting information out of the internet, you're missing the human touch. You're missing the personalization that made you say, "wow, I'm on Dr. Orton's Owl website!". You're missing those strange owl gifs that Dr. Orton seemed to insert in the background of all of her pages. The patterned backgrounds that never really seemed to fit the design of the site, but you would miss them if they were gone.
It's like going to a McDonald's instead of your local family eatery. Sure, you may be able to read their menu a bit clearer, and you be able to receive your food more efficiently, but there's no personality. You don't have a favorite McDonald's cashier. You don't get to know the owner, and you don't get to taste the personal cooking of the guy running the kitchen. There are no types of food from the owner's country, and there's no recipes that have been passed down for generations. And lets not forget the reason McDonald's is like that - they're trying to make a profit. They're not expanding due to their love of food and need to share it with the world, McDonald's is expanding and opening new stores because people think "I bet people in this area would buy McDonald's, I think I could make money by owning a franchise here."
Lets switch back to websites. Many of these websites aren't driven by a love for what they do, they're driven by a love for profits. Perhaps owls weren't the best example - lets do the total opposite and look at some anime. If you Google search for "Sailor Moon," an extremely well-known anime from the past decade, you'll get a lot of search results. Wikipedia, IMDB, Anime News Network, Hulu, Amazon, Kotaku, Crunchyroll. All of these are huge websites that care little about Sailor Moon as a series - to many of them, it's simply another news story to discuss so they can make money off ads, another show to stream and run commercials on. There are no fan websites in the first few pages of Google. Sure, you'll eventually find a few Wikias, and Wikipedia is an obvious omission from the "companies that just want to make money off of you" list, but we run into the same problems. These Wikias and whatnot have no personal touch - sure, you can find a list of Sailor Moon episodes. Sure, you can find a summary of the plot of the show. But will you find Shriya Patel's analysis of the plot? No. Will you find someone's blog post, talking about which of the cast they think is the best girl, and why they believe that to be true? No.
I think the first creation that started to strip these sites from the internet was forums. Many people simply discussed these things on forums, since it was free and didn't require you to create your own website. Now, this obviously wasn't the only reason - don't forget that Usenet has been a thing since the 1990's, and telephone BBS's since long before that. But it was still a large catalyst. These forums create walled-in communities whose knowledge becomes off-limits to the rest of the internet. Chances are, there have been dozens of popular forums over the years that have discussed Sailor Moon. Hundreds, even. But many probably required an account to read threads, and as such weren't indexed by Google. Or perhaps, as their membership dwindled, they slowly went offline, never to be archived or remembered. Users on that forum probably had valid opinions on the show that would seem like a treasure trove to fans of today - what did people think, in real-time, as the first season of Sailor Moon aired? What were people posting about the show online? But now, we'll never know. (For an interesting example of one of these time capsules, check out these Usenet postings from when a rap beef was occurring between Biggie and Tupac, resulting in their deaths)
Forums were bad, but at least the ones that were indexed by Google are still search-able. You'll find many of these relics while searching for programming questions on the internet - rarely answered questions in a 10+ year-old thread that has somehow achieved the highest SEO rating for your search on Google. But social media has stepped in to change that. Now, websites like Facebook and Twitter are transforming the future of live Q&As. Lets say you want to learn about how to make your Honda Civic faster. You log onto Facebook and search for groups with "Honda Civic" in the name. Perfect! A group specifically for Civics of your exact generation, and it has thousands of members! You join, and ask "Hey guys, I have a 2001 Honda Civic. How can I make it faster?" You're immediately flamed off the group, insulted into oblivion, and your post is deleted by the moderators. You see, the people of this group are sick of answering the same questions over and over, but it's because of the layout of Facebook's groups that this occurs.
Lets roll it back five years.
You want to make your Honda Civic faster. You search "How to make my Civic faster" on Google, and are directed to the Honda-Tech forums. There, you see they have all sorts of sub-forums about different model Civics, so you choose your generation. From there, it's even more granular - sub-forums about engine tuning, chassis modifications, tire choice, paint jobs, interior, etc. You click the forum for engine tuning, knowing that to make your car faster, you normally mess with the engine. You start looking down the list of threads, and the first one jumps out at you - "READ THIS BEFORE MAKING A POST!!!!!!!". You click on the thread, and in it, a user has nicely summarized a lot of common engine upgrades, how much horsepower they make, and linked relevant threads on how to do them. Awesome! From here, you can research each specific upgrade more, and then make a thread asking questions when you have a more relevant question that shows you've put some thought into it. Of course, this magic didn't always work on forums - you would still sometimes get users who ignored these stickied threads and posted their generalized questions. But there was a path to point them to! Something obvious that they missed!
Back to the preset - why did you get flamed off of Facebook for asking your question? The blame lands on the platform itself, Facebook. Users wish they didn't have to re-explain how basic tuning works every day, but there's no easy way for them to pin relevant information. There's no way to tell a user off for not doing their research, because the user would have to stop using Facebook to find the relevant information. It's a proposition which perfectly breaks Facebook's "walled garden" mentality, something that requires a user to specifically stop using Facebook to find their answer, something Facebook doesn't want users to have to do.
I will admit, that last example got a bit off topic - it turned into a rant about the low quality of Facebook as a platform (which is still true), but that wasn't it's goal. Think of all of the advice and specific nuanced questions that have been asked and answered on that Facebook group. Or on any number of the millions of groups that exist on Facebook. None of that information is archived or search-able in any accessible fashion. None of it is available on Google, and to even know that the information is there requires a membership to the group on Facebook. This is the furthest possible destination for information, hidden not behind paywalls like traditional journals, but instead convoluted networks and free memberships. This is objectively worse - the information isn't made off limits by a single organization that says whether or not you can access it, but instead the information is obfuscated and made almost impossible to find. Even if you wanted to know how to make your Honda Civic faster, Facebook as an organization would never be able to tell you, even if they wanted to.
While this article wanders a bit, I want you to fully consider my wandering train of thought, and take in a picture of the internet as a whole. All is not lost. There are still oddities on the internet, and personalized content as well. YouTube has become the bastion of creativity - rants and interesting content that before could envelop and entire website are now packed into a single YouTube video and shared with an audience. This is amazing, and YouTube is an amazing platform for doing this all for free. Additionally, the oddities of the internet are still out there, and they're waiting for you to find them. In 2008, I thought it was cool that I could telnet to a random IP address and have an entire Starwars movie play out in ASCII on my terminal. In 2018, I think it's cool that I can watch a channel on Twitch that's running defragging simulations 24/7. They're both things that I never thought I would find on the internet, and never expected to enjoy either. Things that tickled my brain, and made me think "wow, this is a revolutionary use of the internet, more people need to know about this." These small creations that didn't overtly improve the internet - no one asked for a defragging simulator - but were a creative use of the tools placed in front of someone. They signed up for a Twitch account not to stream video games, but to stream things that they enjoyed, and did it for no one except themselves. And yet, people have come to enjoy it. More and more channels on Twitch are breaking the mold of what people stream, coming up with creative new things to show the internet, and I think it's an amazing use of creativity, one that rivals the Geocities websites of the early 2000's. They're not exactly on the same plane, but they're both amazing nonetheless.
Lets back up a bit: I know I just spoke highly of YouTube, but it also comes with issues. Videos are inherently less search-able, and their content is not easily indexable. The creation of a system to be able to do so would most likely result in the loss of freedom of speech for many on the platform, along with heavy moderation and micro-manageable ads. So that is not what I look for. Rather, I wish for others to take the information taught and shown within these videos and share it with the world. Write papers about it, create websites dedicated to it, cite the videos as your sources. Many people learn insane amounts of information from YouTube videos without realizing it, and later can't explain why they know what they do. It's helped millions of people access content and knowledge that was previously hidden behind paywalls, or tangled in the depths of the internet. Things like free YouTube programming tutorials are revolutionary - you no longer have to buy hundreds of dollars worth of textbooks to learn programming, or sign up for classes that cost thousands. You can now get the same amount of information from a series of free YouTube videos, and even skip around and learn other things in-between if you want to. The flexibility is second-to-none.
Now, I'd like to hear from you, the reader. What do you do on the internet? How many websites do you use each day? Why don't you run your own website? Lets talk about your hobbies - I'm sure you're passionate about them, why not tell people about them? Give yourself a platform to speak about them. Don't feel dedicated to your audience either - you don't need to pump out a blog post a day or have the prettiest site around. Just put something on the internet, exercise the amazing power in front of you. And then email your site to me.
I want to check out your hobbies. I want to read what you think of the latest season of that show you watched online. I want to know what you think about your laptop, and how your W key sticks sometimes.
This is what created the internet. This is what I loved about the internet. This is what we can bring back to the internet. It's up to us to shape the future of the internet, we can make platforms that allow us to voice our opinions and share our stories, while allowing others to find them and index them and read them. We can allow the things we create to be accessible to everyone, not just those with the best SEO or most keywords in their article.
Do you disagree with me? Don't close this article and continue on with your day. Get mad, email me - I'm a human, and I'll respond. We can have a real discourse over the expanse of the internet. Remember that everything you read on the internet was written by a human, who probably feels like they're throwing their words into the void, hoping someone will receive them and be impacted by them. Today, I'm that human. Next time you read something on the internet, think of the author and the time they spent writing. I bet they'd like to read some of your words too.