Friday, November 25, 2022

Is it the end of the Web as we know it?

Or maybe a better question is "What is this Web we speak of, anyway?"  My default answer: dunno, I'm figuring it out as I go along.

I think the last time I mulled that second question over, in the context of "Web 2.0" (Remember Web 2.0? I think it was one of the exits on the Information Superhighway), my opinion was that the big division was between everything that came before and "the Web", or "Web 1.0" as I don't recall anyone calling it very much.  In other words, that first time someone chased a link from one web page to another using a graphical browser was an epochal event, even if hardly anyone noticed at the time, and what's come after has been a steady stream of technical improvements and services founded on that base.

Two types of service in particular have been prominent over the last decade or so: social media and cryptocurrencies, and both seem to be in questionable shape at the moment.  I've cast a somewhat skeptical eye on both over the years, but that hasn't stopped them from intersecting with the lives of billions of people.

Billions in the case of social media, at least.  I don't actually know how many people own cryptocurrencies, directly or indirectly, but who among us hasn't seen an ad for one or another, or read about the latest crash/rugpull, not to mention the millions of people living in countries that have made cryptocurrencies a significant part of their monetary system, so I'd say billions there, too, depending on how you count.

But the past year has not been particularly kind to either.  This is all over the news at the moment, but just for later reference, let me list a few items of note

  • Elon Musk's takeover of Twitter is off to a rocky start.  My guess is that the new ownership will find some way to keep the servers running and reach some sort of new equilibrium, but with a sizable majority of the workforce either forcibly terminated or choosing "take the severance and get on with my life" over hardcore intensity, it's safe to say there will be a period of adjustment.  Major advertisers seem to be sitting on the sidelines in the meantime and, thanks to the billions in debt that came with the leveraged buyout, the burn rate has increased from "we'll be out of cash on hand in a couple of years if nothing changes" to "we'll owe more in interest this year than we have in the bank"
  • Facebook seems to have wandered off into the Metaverse.  This seems to me to be a classic case of optimistic extrapolation run amok.  Virtual reality is interesting technology.  It clearly at least has good potential for useful applications in areas like design and education.  Getting from there to a world where people spend comparable amounts of time in the virtual world to what they currently spend on scrolling through their feeds seems like a stretch.  Personally, I've tried out an Oculus, and there were definitely some cool things on offer, from a deeply moving immersive art piece on refugees to super slow-mo of a couple of guys making showers of sparks that you can walk around in.  But the age of those links should tell you how long ago that was.
  • No less than Ian Bogost, of Cow Clicker fame among many other things, has written an article entitled The age of social media is ending.  It should never have begun.  I'm incorrigibly skeptical about proclamations of the End of an Age, or the beginning of one for that matter, but Bogost makes some good points about the crucial distinction between social networking (good, and computers can be very helpful) and social media (the never-ending pursuit of clicks, shares, followers, content and so forth, not so good in Bogost's estimation).
  • Crypto exchange FTX has imploded, taking SBF (its colorful founder Sam Bankman-Fried) down with it, the latest of many crypto plays that turned out, shockingly, to have been built atop a house of cards.
  • Bitcoin, the grandaddy of them all, has fallen from its all-time high of close to $69,000 to, at this writing, around $16,000, down over 75%.  Interestingly, the price of BTC had pretty closely tracked the price of the S&P 500, leveraged about 3:1, until the recent FTX fiasco sent it further down.  What it didn't do was rise as reserve currencies hit a round of inflation, which as I dimly understand it was what was supposed to happen.
  • The whole advent of crypto exchanges has only emphasized the disconnect between cryptocurrency in theory -- decentralized, anonymous, free from government interference -- and practice -- centralized by exchanges and mining pools, generally tied to bank accounts in reserve currencies and subject to government regulation from several directions.
Plenty of cold water to be thrown on social media and cryptocurrency enthusiasts, but does this mean the whole thing is coming to an end?

Social media doesn't seem to be going away.  There's even been a rush of activity on Twitter, speculating about the demise of Twitter and what to do next, and if you want to use that as a jumping-off point for a rant about modern culture eating itself, be my guest.

Even if cryptocurrency is dead as an alternative to reserve currencies and more conventional payment systems -- I'm not saying it is or isn't, but even if -- I doubt it's going to stop trading anytime soon.  My personal benchmark for "crypto is dead" would be something on the order of "I can personally mine and take ownership of 1 BTC using my phone at a nominal cost".  We're quite a ways from that, but on the other hand there's still plenty of time left before the mining reward rounds down to zero sometime around the year 2140 at current rates.

In short, there are certainly some major disruptions going on in some of the major features of the Web landscape, but, in answer to the question in the title, they seem more like the kind of shakeup or reining in of excess that seems to happen fairly regularly, rather than some sort of deathblow to the Web itself.  Webvan, anyone?

But then, as I asked at the top of the post, what is this Web we speak of, anyway?

Apart from the time constraints of a busy life, I've been a less apt to post here, and in fact started a whole other blog (which I also don't post on very frequently), because I had come to the conclusion that a lot of things I wanted to post about weren't really related to the Web.  Even here, one of my more recent posts was me fretting about what even is the Web any more and why am I not writing about it?

That post, though, mainly talked about what the Web means day to day.  For better or worse, a lot of that has to do with social media, and I have no interest in devoting a large chunk of my time to what's going on in social media.  Plenty of other people do want to do that and do a better job than I would.  But what is it that makes the Web webby, and how does that relate to the Web as it impacts our lives?

If you peel back all the layers, all the way back to that first link chased on that first graphical browser, the Web is about links.  If you've ever meandered from one Wikipedia article to the next, following links in the page or the "see also", you've been using the Web at its webbiest.  Likewise, I think, if you've browsed your favorite magazine and followed the links from one article to the next, within that publication or outside.  The web of interconnections is what makes the Web.

That primordial web is still around and likely isn't going anywhere, because this sort of browsing from one topic to the next is probably pretty tightly wired in to the way our brains work.  What has happened is that a couple of layers have grown on top of it.

One is search.  You can find all sorts of interesting things by browsing, but often you just want to know where to find, say, a replacement battery for your cordless vacuum.  Browsing would be a horrible way to go about that, but you don't have to.  Just type some likely terms into your search bar and there you are.  This is useful enough that companies can make quite a bit of money by running ads on a search platform, and I doubt this business model is going away, whatever the fortunes of the particular companies providing it.

Social media constitutes a different layer on top of the web.  As I've mentioned before, I'm not active on social media, but it seems to me that while you can certainly browse the links of your social network to find people that people you know know, and you can follow links from a post/tweet/story/whatever to more things that you might be interested in, the main innovation in social media is the feed, which brings content to you without your having to search for it or stumble onto it.

This isn't limited to social media.  I spend quite a bit of time reading my news feed, anti-social though that may be.  In any case, I think there is a distinction to be made between information you actively seek out and information that some person you're following, or some algorithm, or some combination of the two, brings to you.  I doubt that this is going anywhere either, but it looks like there is some rethinking going on about how to control the feed of incoming information, and, to some extent, how much attention to pay to it at all.

Interestingly there was a lot of interest a while back in social search, where you could ask questions of the crowd and people would dig up answers, and people would get paid, and various companies would take various cuts, one way or another.  I think that fell by the wayside because automated search does a better job in many cases, and when it doesn't, asking someone you know without anyone in the middle generally works fine, or at least no worse than trying to ask a pool of random people.

Also interesting: Nothing in those last few paragraphs involves cryptocurrencies, even though I implied earlier that upheaval in that world might have something to do with "the end of the Web as we know it".  I think that's because, even if stories about cryptocurrency have been all over the web, cryptocurrency itself doesn't have much to do with the Web, because it just isn't webby in that primordial sense.  Following some sort of network of transactions, link to link, is not exactly played up as a major use case.

I've actually found working through this pretty encouraging.  A few posts ago (that is, over a year ago), I was ruminating on whether there was anything webby left that I might want to talk about.  Going back to first principles about what makes the Web the Web immediately revealed a view in which the very basis for the Web is alive and well, and aspects of it that are prominent now, like search and feeds, can at least be understood in relation to it.

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