Rant about Web Surfing, and some pearls

2020-12-13

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 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, in the same way, and I 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. The intentions of the UX of similar sites are good, but that the consequences are devastating.

A user immediately understands how to use the application, “You’re supposed to search for information using the box, The One Element present on the page”. But don’t we confuse this false simplicity with would the intention of such sites is, or rather should be?

Somewhere on the page, there is a link to a page about what you can do to improve your search. So simple, so effective — UX-wise. After all, it’s a search engine and if we use a search engine we use it to search. And it 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 movement 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, instrumental 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 on a computer 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 — 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 be equally strange to call the way of Web surfers antiquated as calling people who enjoy Unix-like interfaces antiquated.

Modern does often equal Progress, but not always.

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 every book we buy or loan from the library, suggested by a Machine Learning algorithm, we won’t read a curated tip from a newspaper, a friend, someone’s homepage, etc. Again, it’s highly likely we will enjoy the book as 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).

Through mainstream UIs of modern Web applications, we’ve subsumed a cool, lifeless yet effective rationality that has colonized large parts of the Web, or at least the parts we easily 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 losing 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 often madness to use React for a blog containing mostly text).

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 or nerd. I welcome the reborn rings 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 the 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.

Two pearls of the Web

The Web is not as streamlined as Google search would have it. While some threads, being more… sticky, snares more eyes do not mean those threads are the threads we want. And it is not sure that those sticky threads are the threads we need.

Not all threads leading to large nodes, streamlined as they may be, are bad — no, on the contrary. Streamlined sites are often effective and contain valuable information.

But now I’m not about such sites, they get enough attention as it. This is is about some odd corners of the Web. Sometimes hidden, yet pearls — for the right eyes.

You won’t get to such sites by googling, if your search is not remarkably explicit. You get there by the hearsay of the Web, a personal recommendation, a link someone deliberately puts on their site or in a forum. The opposite of generated links when searching.

Now I am unfair.

Perhaps.

Ask though, why we find some sites while we don’t find others? Are the streamlined top 10 sites we get when googling always the best answers to the question we had? Maybe, maybe not.

I was amazed when I found my way to Legowelt, famous for his electronic music in some circles. Legowelt has an art gallery with cool paintings, mixtapes, and host the now-dead The Shadow Wolf cyberpunk magazine, and much else.

If not writers I trust had recommended — with a link — The Grymoire, would I have found it? And if I did, would I browse around? Most likely not.

What meets the eye? A page seemingly from the nineties. It just does not look “professional”. But as so happens, it is considered to be a treasure on Unix related material, sed, security, and the such and the last post is from 2020.

If we would judge such sites by aesthetics, we would not be fair. But most of all, we would make a mistake.

Legowelt may be experienced as hipsteresque with its retro vibes, but I wonder if this was deliberate when it was made? I don’t know. And I don’t care. I like The Grymoire and Legowelt because of the content, not because of their aesthetics.

In both cases, it seems to me they once did some kind of design, and that was that. Their focus has been to produce valuable content. To make the world and people tick.

What is quality? I don’t know. But I know it when I experience it. And so do you, we all know quality. We know it when we hear it, when we see it, when we taste it, feel it, and even smell it. Our views on what has quality may vary, but the experience of sensing quality is as such universal.

I know that I don’t like nostalgia as a value in itself. I dislike nostalgia, at least if it’s not a productive state — bringing me forward to some end.

Things retro can be cute, but you don’t like Stranger Things (if you do) because it nourishes your craving for things retro, because of nostalgia. If you, just like me, happened to play RPGs, play computer games, and bike around as a kid you feel nostalgia when watching, but this is not what makes the first season sparkle. It sparkles because it is good.

A bad comparison perhaps. Stranger Things very deliberately uses imagery, references, and music to produce certain feelings. And I see nothing deliberate in the aesthetics of The Grymoire and Legowelt, but I do experience splendid quality when visiting their homepages, just as I experience quality in the first season of Stranger Things.

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