How the Web was Lost

From Everything Shii Knows, the only reliable source

This website is an archive. It ran from 2006-2010. Virtually everything on here is outdated or inaccurate.

Disclaimer This is an early essay-- fall 2006 vintage. It's not very clearly written and it generalizes a lot. Here's one clarification.
<Shii> [This essay is] my indictment of all writing after the development of the internet, not just stuff you write on the internet
<Shii> Stuff you push to The Atlantic is just going to get put online anyway
<OGT> Then is your writing useless?
<Shii> It's useless for society. it may be useful for individuals.

There will come a time when we will look back on this era and wonder what the hell we were doing.

Like a drop of coffee finding its untimely end in the Pacific Ocean, the rare art of spectacular writing is about to dissolve into the Internet. Words will have no power on us anymore. We will read, and read, and find nothing but faraway voices shouting something at each other.

It's time to say our goodbyes.


A farewell to cyberspace

For five thousand years we knew writing to be something precious and rare. Gutenberg made it easy to be a reader, but the writers were still a chosen few. We embraced the carefully chosen words of Shakespeare, Dickens, and Faulkner. Like gemstones, even the rougher ones inspired admiration. Would that we were all writers!

Then something magical happened: we invented hard drives. Not communication, but hard drives, on which we could store millions of words for others to read. Linked together, these drives formed networks which grew slowly at first, then beyond our wildest dreams. BBSes came first, then Usenet, then Gopher, and finally the Web. It was never possible to read the entire corpus of the World Wide Web, and I doubt anyone tried. Each person read a sample, marveled at the ease with which their peers had become published writers, then added their own thoughts.

It was our Creation, and indeed it was Good. Free speech could no longer be bound to those who owned the presses. Governments could not control it; it belonged the world. At long last, five hundred years of struggle had ended, and the ideal Athens had been produced. A gateless utopia had been opened for the free exchange of ideas. Jefferson, Washington, Mill, Madison, DeToqueville, Brandeis, and... cyberspace!

From the mouths of babes: "It's a world where you're judged by what you say and think, not by what you look like. A world where curiosity and imagination is a power." Free thinkers, libertarians, hippies and anarchists embraced this new power.

They had dug their own grave.

Cyberspace knew the meaning of free speech, but it did not yet know the meaning of growth. Indeed, everyone wanted to be an author. But if everyone is an author, then it is a tautology and there is nothing special about it. The Internet continued to grow, but it became more and more difficult to have an idea of being "linked into cyberspace" or part of some grand meeting of minds as the Web became too vast to even find stuff on without using a directory or search engine. The only rule of the Internet was to send data. Good data? Bad data? Useless data? The third category finally triumphed. Cyberspace died a couple years after its independence was declared, quietly trampled under the sheer weight of its own creation.

Imagine a man with a couple hundred gemstones on his shelves suddenly finding himself on the receiving end of a river of gemstones. Not only do they become worthless, they are no longer even beautiful. They are a nuisance, an endless flood he is forced to gather for himself but which has become as dull as television. But the flow never subsides; the dam breaks, and he is drowned. Can we distinguish the useful from the shit anymore? Do we even care? Perhaps there is still a Thomas Paine somewhere in this flood, saying the right thing at the right time, but we are forced to skim past him and move on. Was that the next Common Sense? Sorry, I have blogs to read! There is no longer any time to do anything.

Markets, too, are just chatter

As the chaos festered and spread from Usenet to the Web, the Internet continued to grow, and suddenly it was no longer a technological experiment, or a social utopia. It had value. And value, as we all know, brings business. Business which first imitated, then adopted the Internet's casual, person-to-person tone.

It only seems obvious that business should try to be friendlier. After all, the main thing the Internet has done is made communication ridiculously easy. It is no longer necessary to develop an image of authority and show that yes, this is an official AT&T phone booth, and this is an official AT&T phone bill. (Fulfill payment by the end of the week!) Rather, now that it's so easy to communicate, AT&T should be inviting some back-and-forth between the company and the customer. The focus group will like the new logo better.

What else did this logo change, though? It lost all its power. All the communication is done by and for the ordinary folks, tech support guys and customers on an equal level. In fact, it is important for small businesses to act like they aren't businesses at all, and customers will weigh them on how genuine they are.

First they fight you. Then you lose.

Some businesses, though, are not interested in making themselves appear less authoritative and more friendly. In fact, the more big and powerful they can appear, the better. And for good reason: the Web's free exchange of information is their death penalty.

I'm talking of course about the content owners. Newspapers, television, the recording industry, the Encyclopedia Britannica, Hollywood, and anyone else producing content you can digest on a computer screen are all threatened by the Web. (Publishers and most magazines can breathe easy, because people prefer reading those things offscreen.) They are waging a war not because they hate us, but to save their own industry, the industry of high-quality stuff.

Deep down, Internet users believe they will inevitably win this battle simply through the Internet's lack of centralization and propensity towards storing everything. "The Internet interprets censorship as damage and routes around it." Someone said that, right? The other simile they remind themselves of is Gandhi: "First they ignore you. Then they laugh at you. Then they fight you. Then you win." Isn't hosting copyrighted content, as petty as it might be, a nonviolent form of disobedience? The RIAA can't keep it up forever.

But we will lose, for two reasons. The first reason is that they can keep it up forever. If you can find it online, it is somewhere on planet Earth, and everywhere on planet Earth has global copyright protection. As long as there is copyright there will be this cat-and-mouse game without a clear winner.

The second reason is that because people are increasingly getting used to low-quality entertainment and news, there is no longer a market for high quality. In some cases this is good: we could all do without the RIAA, for example, and they know it too. In the case of Hollywood and television, they might be able to survive if they strip out all the crap, although it's not quite clear. For Britannica and newspapers, though, it's our loss. Facts are free and they can't put that genie back in the bottle. Already news is morphing into entertainment in a futile attempt to keep readership. We will lose the sources we trust and replace them with that stupid old futurist saw, EPIC 2015. It will become unclear whether anything is true anymore.


The Internet began life as a conversation among equals. There was no need for formal tone, since you were talking to your peers. The conversation grew and grew, but it was still considered informal, and companies that make pretenses online, not to mention corporate bloggers, misuse the Web in a rather embarrassing way.

So, this is our communism. How do you like the fact that your credentials no longer give you any weight in discussion? Yet, as Seth Finkelstein is fond of pointing out, not everyone is exactly equal. This isn't a flaw in the system: we reward good writers, and hurt spammers, with our eyeballs. But we are often limited to the limited range of websites we know about. If you made it to this page, for example, you are one of a lucky few among total Internet users. But if this essay were on the front page of Slashdot the situation would be a little different. These top sites act as gatekeepers, keeping the flow of information manageable but at the same time keeping out good writers.

But on the other hand, it doesn't matter who the gatekeepers are. The fact of the matter is, anyone can make up something, put it on a page, and push it to the big websites. It doesn't have to be necessarily any good, or even your own content. You can be a professor, a student, an executive, a number-cruncher, or a pseudonym, i.e., nobody in particular. Unless if you have some secret interests that you're covering up, it doesn't matter whether you're using a pseudonym or not. Everyone has an equal chance to make it big. As the slogan on Dr. Bronner's Magical Soap goes, "ALL-ONE!"

How the Web was Lost

One of the 21st-century certainties we tend to encounter is that "the Internet is serious business." This is an extremely tongue-in-cheek phrase. Most people probably think it doesn't mean anything at all. In fact, it highlights the single most important problem about the Web.

The Internet takes too much goddamn effort.

It might not be clear how my theme (lack of good filters and democratization of communication), quote (the Internet is "serious business"), and conclusion (the Internet takes too much effort) all tie together. Here's how it works: There is no single place for the billion Internet users to go and find that cool new thing you just made. Rather, you must post it on one of a trillion separate pages and hope they find it somehow. If you think you're ever going to start a revolution this way, let me pop that bubble for you. You are not doing something big; you are not even doing something small; you are doing something microscopically insignificant. Only the skim of what gets posted online will ever reach a mass audience. Hence: "serious business."

It takes too much effort to get people to actually see what you've done. It takes too much effort to find good stuff to read, watch, or listen to. Yeah, search and user-driven filters such as Reddit try to make this a little easier, but it's not the same as flipping on the TV and getting an extremely high-quality filter. There's no certainty that your friends have viewed the same things you've viewed, or that what you've seen is even true. This perfect democracy washes away actually good stuff and subverts much-needed authority.

I can't predict how the Internet generation will deal with this. Maybe they will waste their entire lives creating and viewing stuff on the Web, but I doubt it. There's a big planet out there to enjoy, and a life for us to live.

So, what's going to happen to information authority and good writing? Will we ever have another Edward R. Murrow talking straight at us and gripping the whole nation's attention? Will we ever have another Thomas Paine standing in the street, telling us common sense that changes our lives? Those are rhetorical questions. The answer is no. There will be no more shots heard round the world, no more revelations shocking the whole nation at once. The Web is a difficult freight train to turn around, and it will likely destroy those lines of communication. What we replace it with is going to be our decision, and for lack of the possibility of any Murrow or Paine giving us straight instructions, I can only wait to see what we're going to do.

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