the state of the web

Hey there

The past couple of weeks have been dominated by a couple of things: sorting out the GitHub repository for (b)log-In and messing about with music now that I have a second Behringer TD-3. I can't be bothered with, and certainly couldn't afford, a sports car so maybe making acid music with actual hardware is my version of a midlife crisis as I approach the big five-oh. I seem to be spending an inordinate amount of time tracking drum machines and synths on eBay.

Venkatesh Rao wrote about finding obsession in middle age:

"At any rate, it's nice to have some obsessions going. It makes me feel strangely young again. Obsessiveness is naturally a young person's mode of being. To discover it again in middle age, in a somewhat mellowed form, is something of an unexpected gift..."

Messing about with some self-indulgent knob twiddling certainly takes me back a good few years so there's definitely something in obsessions making us feel young again although those of us who lived through the birth of acid house in the 80's are all now of a certain age. I suppose it's no different to the Rolling Stones still doing their thing after all these years.

Moving on...

What I really wanted to write about in this letter was the state of the web and how we connect over it.

On Malik writes about using the web synchronously, what he calls the "alive web" – the overriding idea that such interactions should make us feel more like we are there, more involved. For all the talk of "real time" in relation to social networks over the years they are still asynchronous, even if only minimally so.

As Om says, video and voice chat – they are actual real time experiences. SharePlay in iOS 15 is another upcoming real time experience. SharePlay is not an original concept, there have long been services that let you watch things together over the web, the now defunct for example. The difference with SharePlay is that it's built in and there are no licensing issues to worry about.

While not synchronous, perhaps the current failings of online interaction are partly behind the resurgence of email newsletters: people looking for a smaller, closer experience, something more contained and intimate rather than the usual mass broadcasting. As I have been saying for years, it is, or should be, about relationships not metrics.

However, it was Om's comment about the web no longer needing to be operated at scale that caught my attention. This took me back to me ideas from 2011 about implicit social graphs. In essence, implicit social graphs are everywhere and we pass through them constantly throughout our day without realising. They can create experiences which are:

  • specific to an activity or location
  • a shared experience
  • more intimate

The web has traditionally been very poor at exposing this sort of thing and, as a consequence, we are generally poor at using it.

This all goes back to the notions of identity and how, for the most part, it's an all or nothing deal online. In life we deal with different groups in different ways, present different aspects of ourselves, discuss different things. We filter based on circumstance, relevance and on whether things are appropriate.

It is, therefore, interesting to see the news that Twitter is testing conversations with select followers and what they call "facets" – the ability to ascribe topics to tweets so others can follows only those aspects they are interested in. More of an interest graph than a person-based graph. Color tried that before but didn't have the traction of an existing user base.

It's not just the tools we have at our disposal but how we (ab)use them. As I wrote a couple of days ago, I can't help but feel a degree of sympathy for the big networks. There are undoubtedly problems with their business models and motivations but trying to keep everyone happy is an impossible task especially when there now is such extreme polarisation online. The algorithms are designed, maybe not intentionally, so that they amplify conflict and outrage but they will only amplify what they are fed. And they are being fed a lot of toxic ideas.

Jan linked to a post from Manuel Moreale, The Internet is not broken. People are which emphasises the point:

"I don't believe what we're facing is a tech issue. I think what we're facing is a human one."

I've added him to my RSS reader as he has a number of interesting things to say that relate to the ideas in this letter.

As he says, "big companies are spending big money in order to optimise their sites to leverage every single bit of human flaws that are present in our damn monkey brains" but it is, surely, incumbent on us to minimise the damage yet so many revel in the conflict, thrive off it and we are in a race to the bottom, a chain of causality where ever more extreme content further trains the algorithms meaning they amplify ever more extreme content.

There have always been cesspools on the internet, it's just that the prevalence and immediacy of social media, combined with the reliance on a few centralised services, has exacerbated the issue.

How do we recover? Can we?


I've gotten completely out of the habit of reading these past two weeks. I got through the introduction to the Book of Mu and read the short sections about the history and nature of koan meditation but they weren't terribly enlightening. Maybe that left me feeling a little jaded and I haven't gone back to it. I'm thinking about changing books for a while – I have several to choose from.

And that's it...

The next letter may be in three weeks rather than two as it's my wedding anniversary and birthday. I will be officially old, whether or not the midlife crisis makes me feel young for a while.

Until then, take care.

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