Make it Stop!

I work in digital media, I love the medium and I love what I do. The problem is, as the web matures (remember that there are adults that weren’t born when the web as we knew it really took off) it seems to get worse.

I suppose this is true of most mediums that technology controls, the better and cheaper the technology the more junk is created. The more we focus on eye candy and revenues than actually creating good content.

Twenty years ago we had GeoCities, what I like to think of as the wild west of the Internet. Explorers forging their way into unknown territory, staking their claim on small pieces of the web and making it their own. Jesse told us about skiing, DVN HVN had a Cattery (some things never change, cats and the Internet!) and Jayne instructed us on cool places to visit! We had sparkly unicorns, animated gifs telling us this page was under construction and it was wonderful!

Wonderful? Am I actually serious? It was horrible, it was exactly what happened to the printing industry once home computers became cheap and MS Word and WordPerfect came on every computer. Everyone was a designer, every flyer had 10 fonts and 22 colours! Yes, that’s true, aesthetically the Internet was a mess but it was beautiful at the same time. Beautiful in its simplicity and in its innocence. Very few people were trying to make a buck, they were all just reveling in the ability to share with everyone their thoughts, passions and ideas.

Very few people do that any more. The first question I hear most often when someone describes a new site they want to build is “Nice, how do you plan to monetize it?”

For the love of money is the root of all evil: which while some coveted after, they have erred from the faith, and pierced themselves through with many sorrows.
Timothy 6:10

It’s sad, well it makes me sad at least. Very few people just want to create something cool or interesting. They all want to profit, be the next Facebook, Twitter or BuzzFeed.

There is a talk that I absolutely love by Brad Frost called Death to Bullshit, anyone that really knows me knows I love this talk. I’ve probably been responsible for thousands of hits on the video myself. Brad also created the Death to Bullshit website where he displays the lunacy that the web was becoming.

The really sad part? This talk was done in 2012, we were already on our way to a web experience that was just a disaster. More ads than content, distracting and misleading pop ups and a trend towards ad revenue over good content. Four years later it’s worse, not better.

The latest trend is sites that are made up of lists. Now, list sites aren’t new you say, they’ve been around for as long as the web. The best of sites, the funniest of sites, the most horrific tales, etc. But this new trend is disheartening. The one list item per page of ads sites. “See the 15 most beautiful people in the world!” Click on that link and you’re presented with an introduction paragraph and a button saying something like “View the List.” Clicking the button takes you to a new page, with more ads and the 15th most beautiful person in the world! Oh… and a next button. Guess what that does? Bingo! It takes you to another new page, with more new ads, and the 14th most beautiful person in the world.

Many of these lists are interesting, they’re funny, they’re things I want to read! Usually just for amusement, thankfully the things I really want to read haven’t gone this way (yet).

Why? It’s not because the pages are smaller and load faster (quite the opposite actually). It isn’t because web sites can’t scroll, or some bullshit about above the fold content (here’s a clue, this is the web, there is no fold). It’s about marketing and money. It’s about ad revenue and being able to sell your potential advertisers based on click metrics. It’s about being more concerned about Google Analytics and AdSense numbers than it is about offering good content.

So, what got us to this point? When did the web stop being about content (yes it really was not that long ago) and started being about everyone wanting their piece of the pie instead of being about people just wanting to share? Google, Facebook and Twitter. No seriously think about it.

Google is the reason SEO even exists, and as much as I realize that SEO is necessary I still think it’s evil. The basic concept behind SEO is trickery. Craft your site in a manner that will make it rank higher in search engine listings. Now, to Google’s credit their search algorithms have come a long way and gone are the days of putting “real estate Chicago” in an invisible div 10,000 times, but the fact remains that content is secondary. People are more concerned about getting their site up in the rankings than they are what they’re delivering because higher ranking means more views which means more ad views, which of course means more money.

Facebook and Twitter allow you to tap a previously unattainable number of viewers pretty easily. Craft your previews to be enticing “You won’t believe your eyes!” “What happens next is unbelievable!” and people will click your links, which is great but what’s greater is they’ll share your links. And much like the old Faberge Organics commercial that’s where it all starts.

It’s bad enough that some of the bigger sites have latched onto this trend, I’m looking at you Diply but now bloggers are doing it too, it’s the new wave of the Internet and it needs to stop.

But how does it stop? We can’t stop it can we? We’re powerless. We aren’t, just like almost everything in the world we, the people, have the power. We can stand up to what we don’t like and make a difference. “But I’m just one person, what difference does it make if I click the links and read the list?” It makes a difference because you’re one less person reinforcing that this stupidity is a good idea, and if you tell two friends, and they each tell two friends… well you get the idea. Rosa Parks was one person, Martin Luther King Jr. was one person and Mahatma Gandhi was one person. I’ll admit it’s a bit overreaching to use these figures as examples. They did far more important things than making the web a better place, but I use them of examples of what can happen when you refuse to just accept the status quo.

This isn’t a new rant for me, just three years ago I wrote a blog post called Create Something Beautiful for a local software website, Software Hamilton. It was essentially the same rant but targeted the web development community to stand up and just do things differently, to create beautiful things with wonderful content instead of clickbait crap. Sadly, I think we’re beyond that point now. Web creators have to make a buck, and as long as we let them do it in this manner they’re going to do it.

Many of you reading this may think it’s naive. It probably is, many of my wishes for the entire planet probably are. I want people to be kind, to take care of each other, to be more concerned about quality of life for everyone instead of just themselves. I’m okay with being called naive for wanting a better world. Honest.

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