The Post-Timeline Era

I used to lament the gradual decline of web syndication until not so long ago. I liked RSS. I spent many cold autumn mornings waking up to news, hacks and comics. But I begrudgingly accepted that web syndication is going the way of the semantic web, just not as quickly. Along with that acceptance came the darker thought that the age of user involvement in Internet media distribution was finally gone. The WWW had finally devolved into a deluge of "content", that timeline kibble that you just doomscroll through until you can finally clock out of work.

But I think I was wrong. I see this, for instance, in the resurgence of newsletters. There was a time when everyone knew what newsletters were. Then, right around the time even grandparents got Facebook accounts, nobody knew what they were anymore. Now everyone knows what they are, to the point where my friends' teenage scions are setting up email accounts so they can subscribe to them.

I think I was wrong and we are stepping into the post-timeline era. People are finally fed up with things that algorithms "recommend", and not just on social media platforms, but on search engines and in news media, too.

I also think this isn't just technology fatigue. It's not that we're bored with old toys like Facebook so we're falling for new ones like TikTok. It's just that recommendation and search algorithms have been gamed for so long that most of their results are junk.

Brin and Page notoriously quipped on the risks of this early on. Their seminal Anatomy of a Large-Scale Hypertextual Web Search Engine paper cited twenty year-old experience (at the time) when saying that they expected "advertising funded search engines [would] be inherently biased towards the advertisers and away from the needs of the consumer".

Well, you guys, I think we're there.

Google for anything programming-related and you'll wade through all sorts of bullshit from websites like Google for a history topic and you'll get StudySmarter paywalled articles and platitudes. I'd say DuckDuckGo or Bing those things instead but that's not even funny.

All this SEO bullshit is wideband noise of such intensity that it's beginning to jam the Internet. And as John Gilmore once remarked, The Net interprets censorship as damage and routes around it.

So people are finding all sorts of new ways to sidestep things that algorithms recommend.

They're curating lists, in awesome-lists on Github, for example, of book lists, or movie lists, or playlists. These are a reaction to the fact that Googling for anything on those lists will largely reward you with one legit result (usually high-ranked, but often not the first!) and two pages' worth of bullshit, to the point where "surfing the net" is practically impossible if you start from a search engine.

They're sending newsletters again -- a reaction to the fact that major social media platform timelines -- from Instagram to TikTok -- are largely noise. Good for when you're bored but not for when you're curious.

I can't say I blame them. The algorithms are, by now, not even wrong. I follow Cold War historians and electronic music enthusiasts; you'd think it would make sense to sell me books and music. Instead The Algorithm is trying to get me to follow dank Eastern European meme makers and '80s fashion shops.

Twenty years ago, we turned to Google to find websites that were otherwise difficult to find. Now we see the wheel turning again: people are curating link lists again, in the spirit of The Open Directory or Freshmeat. Even hybrid approaches are yielding good results: on Mastodon, you can host with your own crowd, and the local server timeline is usually really cool. (I mean, I miss my old forum boards, but the local SDF timeline is almost as good!)

Other, non-WWW media distribution schemes are coming up, too. E-mail is a thing again, thanks to newsletters, but Discord is also filling an interesting space that's halfway between IRC and USENET.

Some of these platforms are closed (eh, Discord?), sure, but they're not closed in the same way that made the web a cesspool. Discord's money printing machine does not run on putting someone's IMs first in your channels, so communities can curate their content freely.

Personally, I'd love to get USENET back. But if Superhighway84 doesn't take off, I'm good with Mastodon, too. Or even Discord.

Back to blag archive

Back to blag index