People who have used the web since the 90s generally miss those times, because they were calmer, they were cooler (in terms of homepage creativity), and less weaponized and polarized. The web has changed a lot in the past two decades, and the biggest advances were the advent of search engines and social media.
One of these in particular, Google’s search engine, is typically criticized for their centralization, hoarding of user metadata, and more recently with a decay in search result quality. In this article I’m not going to talk about any of those. This morning while drinking my coffee, I noticed a critical way in which Google has hurt the web and society in general. In fact, this criticism extends to all search engines, including the one I use, DuckDuckGo. But since Google is still the dominant one, this article is focused on them.
To start with my main point: Google popularized the habit of taking things out of context. Google allowed users to cut several steps in their discovery journey, creating a more direct sense of “information at your fingertips”, which was a common mantra at the time (thank you, Bill Gates, twice). This is not new information, we’ve always known that Google made information retrieval easier. The problem is that making something easy has a dark side, because whatever was hard to do is not going to be done at all anymore. In specific, Google eliminated the need to connect with communities online if all you wanted was the knowledge produced by that community. And connecting with people and communities – in the style we still practiced in the 90s – is time consuming, often hard.
Sometimes, barriers to entry can be good. Browsing (excuse me, “surfing”) the web in the 90s was a chaotic discovery process. Sometimes after clicking page after page (each of which took several seconds to render) you would stumble upon something that interests you, and this means that your journey through those pages was your “context”. You arrived at a destination in relation to other places you visited. As an example, as a teenager on the early web, I often browsed through videogame-related pages. On a catalog-like page, I carefully went through each website listed. One day I stumbled upon a game maker forum, and this was an amazing discovery. I created an account, and committed to participating in the community. The discovery process plus the account creation was the barrier. It filtered for people who were willing to pay the “barrier cost”, guaranteeing that the community is all made of people who care enough.
Google eliminated barriers. It was sufficient to have just a fleeting thought about a topic, and Google was ready to send you to the depths of a community of specialists. This had several effects, the most obvious one is the selfish one where the Google user instantly benefited from the insights of that community (if they can parse the expert jargon). Another effect is how reducing these barriers to entry meant that any “rando” could join any community, not having to care for or be interested in the community. But the effect I really want to talk about is how the elimination of barriers and discovery journeys meant that Google users were invited to take things out of context. They call those things “information”.
We now assume it is an established truth that the internet is made of “information” or “content”. This has not always been the case. If you asked a 1990s web user what the internet was, you would probably get divided opinions. Some people would describe it as “information at your fingertips”, but others would say it’s a place to meet and connect with people, either in BBSes, FidoNet, IRC, forums, or surfing people’s homepages. The former is the information paradigm, and the latter is the community paradigm.
I would say that the dominant one today is the information paradigm. People are seen as either information producers or content creators, and “communities” are just places for their content or information to be shared so that reach is maximized. Heck, even now as I write this article I’m hyperaware of what I’m doing – producing information – and how it’s going to be shared: on social media to an ultimately amorphous audience. Genuine community building still exists, because the human need for connection is inexhaustible, but the community paradigm for the internet is lost.
The problem with the information paradigm is how “information” is ripped out of its context: the people, the inherited knowledge, the culture that produced it. Everything is seen as an atomic digestible, and there is little regard for the processes, conversations, debates that produced those digestibles. The whole idea of “information” is somewhat of a farce, I doubt you can truly learn and internalize some information without learning surrounding information that sheds light on the nuances involved. These are things that only knowledgeable people can distinguish and report on. But it is legitimately hard to know who is an expert in what, since – thanks to Google – we all have access to atomic digestibles from any community of experts, and can easily copy-paste them whenever needed in a discussion (with whom? Probably randos on social media).
I won’t paint the 90s as a perfect world (it was not), but there is something we don’t have today which still existed in the 90s prior to the mass adoption of Google. People asked each other for help, and whenever they knew something, they would answer. If they didn’t know the answer, they would refer you to someone else who knew better. As a universal example that rings true for anyone older than 30 years old: if you were in a new city and you were lost, you would ask a local stranger for directions. If that stranger didn’t know the answer, they would refer to another stranger who probably knew more. Similarly, if I had a friend who was a doctor (or studying to become one), I would ask health-related questions. Their answers often included disclaimers, pros and cons, and even uncertainty. Similarly also with friends who knew about electronics, or other topics.
The recurring pattern in those examples is connection and commitment. The local stranger is connected and committed to their environment, they live in it, aware of its contour, remembering its details. The doctor is connected and committed to their healthcare institution, they’re intimately familiar with books on medicine, statistics, chemistry and biology, after having committed years of their life to this knowledge. All of this takes time and effort, and becomes a part of the person, even part of their identity. A person is truly a member of their community or their surroundings when they embody and represent its culture and legacy.
With Google, all of that was shattered to the winds, indexed, optimized, and presented to you in under 100 milliseconds. Connection and commitment are irrelevant and frankly unnecessary when you can just instantly retrieve the directions in a new city with Google Maps, you can discover the most common medication based on your symptoms, and so forth. All without interacting with any single human being. Or at least not directly, because ultimately all of this comes from communities of people. Information is the inhumane essence that is squeezed out of humanity. Even when you’re scanning reviews on Amazon, you’re interacting with the informationesque quantified essence of humans, and only indirectly interacting with actual humans. Curation is the internet’s community paradigm in a servitude relationship with the information paradigm.
What happens when connection is made unnecessary, while humans still infinitely crave for it? Social media. It’s a place where people go to feel connected and understood, but in reality they are just being fed atomic digestibles. These digestibles are tailored to their unique interests, but on a person-to-person level entirely disconnected. Apart from the short-lived chain of replies, there are no conversations. The commonalities in social media “relationships” are shared interests, nothing else. Content is found wherever it is found, and tossed back and forth between these “relationships”. People are primarily interested in their interests, and only secondarily interested in the people who produce those digestible interesting things – content. All while thinking that they are satisfying their need for human connection! This is not obvious at first, but becomes clear as soon as the
content creator person changes (gasp) interests or (worse) opinions or (even worse) political alignment. The relationship is immediately made second whenever the shared interest is threatened. There is little conversation, little nuance, little commitment to keep on talking. Facing a vast ocean of people who agree with you, there is little incentive to commit to talking to people who you disagree with.
I know Facebook is typically credited for popularizing social media, but this time I’d like to argue that Google took an active role in creating social media, and I don’t mean Google+ or its dozens of failed attempts. I mean in how Google advanced the ideology of information at your fingertips. Facebook in the beginning was actually entirely about connection and commitment, when its members were made of only people committed to the same college. Google had an interest in indexing the information on Facebook and Twitter, and all these other social networks popping up. Facebook actually had an interest in locking down that information, creating barriers for search crawlers. Google wanted to eliminate those barriers and open it all up for indexing. Of course, Google wasn’t alone in promoting the ideology of instant information disconnected from communities, but it was arguably the largest and most visible representation of that ideology.
The information paradigm gradually evolved. As Google indexed information on the web and presented it in scrollable lists, it inspired Facebook to index people’s conversations into scrollable lists, represented by what they called the News Feed. Treating people’s conversations as “news” that are “fed” is what made Facebook change from social network to social media. This in turn evolved into the “content creator” ideology, as a way of optimizing for your interests, where you only follow people who say things that you love. It became fast paced with Twitter’s short-form posts. It became high resolution with YouTube. And then it became fast paced and high resolution with TikTok. And here we are today.
As individuals, our need for human connection is still there. As society, our need to listen to nuanced information from experts is still there. As communities, our need to have persistent and shared history with people we do life together with – who can agree or disagree with us – is still there.
Copyright (C) 2023 Andre 'Staltz' Medeiros, licensed under Creative Commons BY-NC 4.0, translations to other languages allowed.