So this happened the other day: I did a search for something on my phone. One of the results was a page on CNN’s web site, which appeared to have exactly what I wanted. Win! So I tapped that.
The page appeared with the beginning of an article, and a little button that said “Read more” so I tapped on it to get the rest of the article. Except. As my finger was about a millimeter from the phone screen, something else loaded and everything on the page bounced around and suddenly I was whisked off to some ad landing page with a video.
No. So I tapped the back arrow, and got back to the article. I started reading and went to scroll down and continue, when something else (ads) loaded and everything bounced up and down. So I took a breath to let all the stupid shit load so everything would settle down. And scrolled again and… boom! Everything starts bouncing around again.
At which point I thought “fuck this” and went back to my home screen.
This is the web now: the vast accumulated knowledge of humanity, delivered in a way that makes you want to throw your device across the room.
Nick Heer described this perfect last year in The Bullshit Web, observing that our network connections have become mind-bogglingly fast while our experience of using them feels slower and slower, because there’s a just a lot of useless shit being pushed down through them.
Take that CNN article, for example. Here’s what it contained when I loaded it:
- Eleven web fonts, totalling 414 KB
- Four stylesheets, totalling 315 KB
- Twenty frames
- Twenty-nine XML HTTP requests, totalling about 500 KB
- Approximately one hundred scripts, totalling several megabytes — though it’s hard to pin down the number and actual size because some of the scripts are “beacons” that load after the page is technically finished downloading.
The vast majority of these resources are not directly related to the information on the page, and I’m including advertising. Many of the scripts that were loaded are purely for surveillance purposes: self-hosted analytics, of which there are several examples; various third-party analytics firms like Salesforce, Chartbeat, and Optimizely; and social network sharing widgets. They churn through CPU cycles and cause my six-year-old computer to cry out in pain and fury. I’m not asking much of it; I have opened a text-based document on the web.
This is the standard web experience now, and it’s garbage.
There’s no real solution. You can load your browser up with blockers for all this, which will make a lot of sites impossible to use, until the site publishers put blocker-blockers in place, and then you’re back to where you started, until you find a blocker-blocker-blocker, after which they’ll find a blocker-blocker-blocker-blocker….
So you can not use it. Which is not really tenable unless you are also moving to your cabin in the mountains and your main contact with the outside world is going into town to pick up your mail once a week.
This is not directly caused by the emergence of the tech oligarchy, which has transformed a vast, decentralized network for sharing information into something controlled by a handful of giant companies. It is not unrelated either. They have made surveillance technology and highly-intrusive advertising the de facto model for turning web publishing into a business; everyone else is following.
It’s garbage, It could be so much better. I’m not sure how to get there but there are a lot of creative, smart people thinking about it. The problem is that once an oligarchy is in place, it’s really hard to change the way things work; nobody has actually succeeded with a better model yet.
And so we have the most amazing technology created for information sharing in human history at our fingertips, and we seem to be more ignorant by the generations that had to put much more effort into getting news and information.