Rant about Web Surfing

What is it to surf the Web? Urban Dictionary writes,

Usualy involves an individual browsing through the internet, whilst not looking for anything in particular.

Perhaps it's the values that shine through most modern Web applications that depress me the most. The apparent lack of vision, adventure, discovery, and playfulness that concern me the most. Today we're molded into being good consumers, made into slaves by the tyranny of the 'professional' UI and the consumer society.

We are no longer surfing the Web and I believe, because of this, the Web is slowly losing its creative potential.

Surely this is something we still do. But I don't think we're doing it as much as before, and I also believe it's harder as an unintended consequence of modern Web UIs and trends.

In the name of simplicity, the experience of someone using the Web is strictly controlled by professional applications such as Google (the search engine) as well as its alternatives such as DuckDuckGo. I believe the intentions are good, but that the consequences are devastating.

Yes, a user immediately understands how to use the application - you're supposed to search for information using the box, The Element present on the page.

Somewhere on the page, there is a link to a page about what you can do to improve your search. So simple, and so effective UX-wise. After all, it's a search engine and if we use a search engine we use it to search. And yes, this is a very effective tool if we want to find information. If we're using the web, and want to consider top matches (true for Google search, not DuckDuckGo) based on our previous searches and general patterns on the Web.

Surely users visit a search engine out of free choice. But I think the values of search engine sites have degenerated even though the results are more precise than before (and this admittingly is their narrow purpose).

But in the nineties search engines helped you not only to use the Web, but they also helped you to surf the Web. The results were worse but the values behind better - the spirit was one of discovery, playfulness, creativity, things good for learning, and expanding the horizon of knowledge.

How did old equivalent sites help you surfing? Lycos i.e. had a browsable catalog, hierarchical after subjects. An experience analogous to walking into a physical library: yes, you can make a search and walk straight to a book, get it and leave but you can also use a physical library as means to discovery, adventure, and play. I don't know how many times I've walked to a 'category' rather than a title, and discovered books.

Today surfing is an arcane art, earlier it was the norm - how you used the Web.

I think the present solutions are unimaginative and have poor UX. UX should not only strive to enable new users but provide means to grow with the experience.

Because Google and other sites are obsessed with simplicity - a primitive form of simplicity in my eyes - and use your limits against you (everyone's horizons of knowledge are limited and therefore it's a bad idea to tailor search from statistics) to provide a 'comfortable' experience.

The same mechanism is used in all consumer society applications today.

It's not that for instance that the Machine Learning techniques provide poor results in advertising. In fact, the results are 'good' with respect to the objective (selling stuff easily). For instance, I like books and the suggestions for books I most likely would enjoy are good but they never truly surprise me.

Instead, they lure us into buying 'similar' books (or other products), books we wanted. But not necessarily books we needed.

Because we're usually fat and lazy, Machine Learning results in advertising (or searching) are poor. They don't allow 'leaps'.

I could see the connection between sub-areas of Anglo-Saxon philosophy, category theory, and Haskell and could make a recommendation based on this about a book about philosophy to someone who for instance only read Haskell programming books. But a Machine Learning engine would most likely not if s/he had only browsed and bought Haskell books.

As a counter-movement to fatness and comfortability, we currently see 'retro' trends.

It's easy to view this as some kind of hipster phenomenon (and it is too; hipsters tend to have a better nose than the average person) but I think this is unfair. It's a reaction to the norm of how things are done today and it would equally strange to call the way of Web surfers antiquated as calling people who enjoy Unix-like interfaces antiquated.

Discovery is of course still possible. But it’s harder because of increasing amounts of noise. Reading is a time-consuming activity; reading means prioritizing. For each book we buy, or loan from the library, suggested by a Machine Learning algorithm, we won’t read a ’curated’ tips from a newspaper, a friend, someone's homepage, etc. Again, it’s highly likely we will enjoy the book (it will be very close to our known preferences) but it’s also very unlikely we will be surprised (even if it’s a possibility).

Sometimes this is a good thing, and as I said the ML algorithms are generally very good. But together with mainstream UIs of modern Web applications, we’re subsumed a rationality that has colonized large parts of the Web (or at least the parts we find our way to).

Tim Berners Lee speaks about a fractal design of the Web in an early essay – both a standard and a vision – in which people, organizations, or concepts connect. My fear is not the Web loses its fractality, but how the fractal design is streamlined by services such as Google, the loss of the old home pages (developers such as myself is nowadays supposed to have a grandiose React webpage even though it’s madness to use React for a blog).

The emerging ’retro’ trend with rings (I’ve joined several), alternatives to mainstream sites, is most welcome. I don’t care if I am accused of being a geek, nerd, or hipster (perhaps true, but quite irrelevant, unimportant categories) – I welcome this because I care about real content. I’d rather read or hear about your thoughts than looking at some overdesigned site without content (naturally no issues if someone would combine this).

Geeks, nerds, and hipsters are vague notions and some of us may take retro design too seriously. But regardless of this, the point is twofold: firstly it emphasizes, it’s about the content; two, by using ’retro’ design you indirectly complain about the present state of the Web and have a more playful attitude to the design.

Besides joining more Web-rings, I plan to make a page with links (my selected bookmarks). This was always present on pages before, and I miss them. It's generally speaking a great way of finding new homepages. It's a way of making surfing possible.