River Kingdom - Blog

Clip art of a computer monitor with a waterfall flowing out of it.

What does the "Web" mean, from a social perspective?

March/April, 2023

We know that technologically, and conceptually, the "Web" is a big, intertangled connection of various linked websites and computing devices.

But in human terms, what does the "web" really mean?

Despite more users and more websites existing than ever before, the actual spider web of websites that the average person visits has been getting smaller.

Instead of every person having their own personal website, the social media era aggregated people on Myspace, Facebook, Twitter, and a few others. Instead of information being discovered primarily through hand-curated catalogs of links and primitive search engines, the way we access information has narrowed into a few algorithm-dominated search engines, such as Google and Bing. Even many "alternative" search engines like DuckDuckGo use Bing or Google's index of information. Then, after using a search engine, we typically end up at the same small collection of mega-websites with a seemingly limitless amount of information, such as Wikipedia, Reddit, major news outlets, Youtube, and a small collection of others.

I think these algorithms have changed our behavior as well. We seek the comfort of a known website rather than something that seems like it isn't as popular. People swipe through humans on dating apps, and we swipe through websites—spending a few seconds to see if the website looks "off" or whether it has enough to keep our attention. That's sort of the opposite of what "web surfing" was originally supposed to mean—which was something akin to getting lost in random Wikipedia articles that you never even knew you would be interested in for hours on end.

I don't want to blame it all on "the algorithm". I think another aspect is the damage that malware websites have had on our psyche. Although it seems like firewalls and browser protections have gotten much better over the decades, it is easier than ever before to create spam websites and use SEO tricks to get them to rank highly in searches. (As I write this, by page 3-5 on most DuckDuckGo searches every search result is just an obvious SEO-stuffed procedurally-generated spam website!) Even though we are probably less likely to wreck our computers by clicking on a random website than we were in the '90s, I am more hesitant today to click on a website which is unfamiliar or could plausibly be set up for nefarious purposes (e.g. a random Blogspot website, or a website ending in .biz, .info, and other "weird" top-level domains).

Unfortunately I have felt myself falling into these patterns on NeoCities. There are so many websites displayed on the main page. So many choices. How can we possibly "consume" it all? Click on a few, stay a few minutes to see if it's entertaining, then move on the next one. ...That's not how a community forms.

I am also more hesitant to click on newer NeoCities sites and those with fewer views. What if they have malicious code hidden behind their flashy retro exterior? Would they have been caught and removed yet if they are brand new? What kind of quality controls to prevent that sort of thing even exist here? We can have comfort knowing that a random Twitter user can't inject a bunch of sussy javascript and redirects on their page (at the expense of being bombarded by Twitter's industrial-grade tracking scripts and other malicious, yet non-virus-causing, code).

On the other hand, if no one clicked on new websites, no one would ever see mine. As difficult as it may be, in order to restore a healthy internet, we need to learn to give each other the benefit of the doubt again. I think a big part of this will be reverting to hand-curated lists of links by websites we know are non-malicious. For example, see MelonKing's similar thoughts on the importance of linking. Through this fundamental process of the World Wide Web, we can quite literally re-weave a "web" of social connections, rather than keep on swiping in the wilderness until we (never) find the perfect match.

Ironically, however, it seems like most of the real community building is happening off of NeoCities, on forums and Discord servers like the Yesterweb community. (...Well, at least it was, until the Yesterweb communities got too busy for the admins to keep up with). But forums cannot host personal websites, so a web of complementary platforms truly is necessary. One size can't fit all. Contrary to the goals of the "big web", we can't cram everyone and every interaction into a single website.

Furthermore, through genuinely social websites like forums, we can get a sense of which users are respectable in values and personality and thereby let our guard down and be more likely to trust their link recommendations. The social process on a good forum is more-or-less an analogue of in-person social interactions where we gradually move from stranger to mid-level acquaintance through (mostly) indirect interactions, in the same space, over a period of time. ...Unlike websites and apps like Facebook, Twitter, Tinder, etc. where the standard social process is to attempt to go from stranger to bestie instantly, by pitching disingenuous advertisements "selling" your "personal brand"—by making your profile and persona like some kind of over-the-top commercial you'd see from a suspicious lawyer or local car salesman.

Another factor to consider about how the web used to work is that communities were smaller. Facebook boasts about having billions of users, but quantity is not quality. I've often seen Small Web advocates and Web Revivalists mention Dunbar's number—a hypothesis that the human brain can only keep track of a maximum of ~100-250 social connections at a given time.

If you were in a crowd of millions of people in person, it would be obvious that you would be unlikely to run into the same people twice, and therefore unlikely to ever form a meaningful social connection. The same goes for online interactions on websites with millions of users like Reddit or Twitter—only the interactions there are even more impersonal than seeing a human stranger in a crowd. For all we know, half of the people we run into on those massive social media sites are just bots.

I won't further explore the ideas of what exactly makes a good community or what makes a for a meaningful social interaction on this page, but we should think of things like Dunbar's number and remember that individual online communities used to be much smaller—yet they were more social, personable, and interconnected into the wider web because of it! Those who were too young to experience it first-hand can see it now in the night-and-day difference between communities that are part of the Web Revival subculture (or any subculture, or any mid-size or smaller Discord server) compared to the mass social media sites.

To conclude, the most important part of the Web Revival is the revival of the grassroots "web" of social connections. Flashy graphics, the technological side of decentralized hosting, webcore nostalgia overload, and whatever other trendy things are going around are meaningless without the human aspect of the web. With or without the webcore aesthetic, I think the revival of forums and gradual de-aggregation of users from social media giants will go a long way in rekindling the sociality of the web.