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Mike Sugarbaker

What is web abolition?

6 min read

Let's do our part for internet content by starting with someone else's Twitter thread:

For several months now I've been having these periodic waves of compulsion to build a web site. I don't even know exactly what web site. Something nostalgic, just for fun; something that helps people create a world made of writing, like the weird, failed alt-wikipedias that obsessed me in my early twenties. Something game-like, maybe... or just a literal game? I've started to cut code for a few of these ideas (I'll still write code, as it turns out, just not for anyone else), but more often I've ruled them out or lost steam before even getting started. Any single one of them would fail to be what I want, which is a weird fever-dream amalgam of all of them.

Hopefully this has all been an extinction burst. The truth is, the web's done. It's best considered legacy now, all of it. This is the oldest of news to zoomers, who've never seen it as a virtuality to explore, but as the place where most forms of bureaucracy live (plus there's a Facebook interface there, I guess, but you'd only use it if you had to). The future almost certainly lies in networks that are roughly monkeysphere-sized, made not for the whole world but for a semi-gated group of people, who are probably connected by some context that isn't solely an online one; Slack or Discord is the paradigm, although given recent events, it sure seems worth looking at open source alternatives.

For a lot longer than several months, I've been involved with efforts to look past the web infrastructure we've got, towards something more useful and less costly and harmful. For a while, this meant the so-called IndieWeb, a collection of efforts to get the things we like about social media back into independent blogs. Then it meant the more radical fixes of the peer-to-peer web. Recently I've had my eye out for entirely new protocols - fresh takes on something like gopher, maybe with some of the interactivity of HTTP, and hopefully some of the writeability that was supposed to be a part of browsers from the beginning. That would be awesome, I've been thinking. Sort of.

And lo, here is Gemini, a new protocol which is almost those things. It was created by a few coders who were still hanging out on Gopher, which alone pleases my soul and gives me that feeling of good-hearted willful obscurity that goes with a lot of my favorite subcultures over the course of my life. It cuts a lot of features out of the web, which is a good and productive way to proceed, but writeability and interactivity are among them, sacrificed for user privacy. (They think the fact that you can send server queries that are rich enough to let you edit the web without editing HTML is inherently tied to everything that's gone wrong! What if they're right? What are my weird, dying dreams of textscapes in that case?) Gemini is like the IndieWeb, and like Beaker turned out to be, in that it doesn't offer anything that an average user, who seems pretty unmoved by privacy and such if their continued enthusiasm for Facebook is any hint, will actually experience as better - as motivation to switch. But the virtuality and exploreability of Gemini is delightful, if not strictly necessary anymore. (I recommend Lagrange.)

So what is a movement toward realizing the web as decaying infrastructure, something whose main verb is "crumble," not "connect"? I envision something like a Matrix client with a web browser bolted onto its side, the way that early versions of Netscape also supported gopher. That web browser would include JavaScript blocking and image blocking by default, sandbox all domains from each other's cookies, and possibly make use of gateway servers to further insulate the user. I'm sure that doesn't cover everything, but you get the idea.

At this late date, we have the gift of knowing what people want from the web, so we could make our client a lot less generic, with features that support RSS, photo feeds, maybe even some IndieWeb-style distributed social stuff. Or what the hell, bolt a Facebook client on there too! Their terms of service don't forbid this from what I can tell (Twitter's do, but Twitter should be abandoned, not embraced and extended). All to the point of positioning the web as something that isn't the center, for those few of us left who need help with that.

I admit I've also been trying idly to think of ways to augment places like Slack and Discord; something that a virtual world, visual or textual, can offer these groups of people... but most likely, my nerd scenes only ever valued such virtualities because we lacked the real-world context these new chat spaces have. Once your community is real and online both, the only adventurous journey that motivates you is... unionizing? Or in the case of non-corporate Slacks, maybe abolishing cops and landlords. If you want something to explore, look out on the streets.

So there's your nice tall glass of goodbye to all that. Don't get me wrong, the web isn't going away or anything. We're stuck with it, just like it itself is stuck with HTML 5 and JavaScript, 25-year-old technologies that were largely intended for other uses (thanks to the Twitter widget above, I have had to add <P> tags to this post manually). Where else are Google results going to come from but a hundred million blogs and forums that just won't quite die? Nothing dies on the internet. Not even Gopher died. If the Internet Archive were a company, I'd want to invest in it;* it's the only operation that feels relevant to the future of "new media," and it's specifically all about its past.

(A fun inside-baseball place to go from this conclusion: when do we short Google? Not immediately, for sure, but it's starting to look a little bit dead-man-walking, like how Yahoo looked ten years ago. Its only hope as a company is either to divest from search almost all the way, or else to really double down on owning the web even more than it does now. Hilariously, one of the best ways to do the latter would be to give direct financial and rhetorical support to the various IndieWeb initiatives. The fact that this will never occur to them would be the most damning evidence that they're in their decline as a company, if it weren't eclipsed by their massive failure to deal on any level with diversity and the general footgun shootout of their corporate culture.)

* You can invest in the sense of donating, which I very much encourage, if you still have the means after donating to things that are much more humanly material.