Woman blowing bubble

What happened to the web?

As we enter the third decade of the World Wide Web, you could be forgiven for thinking it’s simply a place full of people shouting at each other. What happened to the Web, asks E&T.

In the beginning, the World Wide Web was simple. You picked up an HTML editor, which might have been just a copy of Notepad, and slapped together a website. The adventurous would find and copy animated pictures of dancing babies, splatter the site with flashing text and backgrounds that stayed put when you scrolled the text. Sites like Geocities allowed these excursions to thrive.

Even better, people thought they were going to get rich by having dancing babies on their website. Netscape had floated - its share price skyrocketing. New Economy fever gripped the developed world in the years before people realised it was just like the Old Economy, but with the disadvantage of never being far from contact with the office. As the new millennium approached, people rediscovered the lessons recounted by Charles Mackay in Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds.

It's hard not to draw parallels between some Internet business proposals and the prospectus that defined the South Sea Bubble: 'a company for carrying on an undertaking of great advantage, but nobody to know what it is.'

Bizarrely, Mackay's argument that crowds are stupid would be turned on its head in the following decade when self-appointed gurus decided that, on the Internet, the crowd is always right thanks to books such as James Surowiecki's Wisdom of Crowds. Websites were no longer storefronts and billboards where you could pronounce the superiority of your products. You had to 'join the conversation'.

The movement started with The Cluetrain Manifesto: The End of Business as Usual, penned by Rick Levine, Christopher Locke, Doc Searls and David Weinberger. The fundamental premise of the manifesto is to tell companies not to sell rubbish by dressing it up with fancy packaging and advertising. Because, thanks to the Web, you will be found out.

'Hypertext,' the authors argue, 'is inherently nonhierarchical and antibureaucratic. It does not reinforce loyalty and obedience; it encourages idle speculation and loose talk. It encourages stories.'

Out of this came the gnomic line: 'Markets are conversations.' Somehow, the authors failed to realise people have conversations in markets but there is no mystical process of transubstantiation that converts one into the other. So, it's a slightly bizarre position to take, especially when you've got a philosophy professor - Weinberger - on your team. But it's a curious Orwellian direction to take when the emphasis in the manifesto is on people rather than corporate power.

One thing the phrases did was propel the idea of blogging and social media into much more widespread use among marketing types. After all, if you're a marketer and you're not having conversations, how are you participating in the market? Suddenly, if you weren't ready to 'join the conversation' you just did not get the Internet.

The manifesto, written in 2000, turned out to be spot on in a number of ways, particularly in Locke's characteristically forthright chapters which bookend the work, imploring readers: 'Will Cluetrain be the Next Big Thing? Not if we can help it. Let's not start another frickin' club.'

Locke wrote: 'The Internet is inherently seditious. It undermines unthinking respect for centralised authority, whether that 'authority' is the neatly homogenised voice of broadcast advertising or the smarmy rhetoric of the corporate annual report.'

In the 'Cluetrain world, authority figures no longer have control over public opinion because a million, a billion voices might disagree and publish their views on a multitude of blogs, forums and websites. In practice, this has always been the case - without collective dissent being possible, revolutions would never have happened. However, the World Wide Web has made it much easier and quicker to challenge pronouncements from on high.

Even as early as 1945, Vannevar Bush's concept of the memex, a massively linked mechanical library that is considered to the forerunner of modern hypertext - took in the idea that knowledge is collective. In his article for The Atlantic, Bush wrote: 'Wholly new forms of encyclopaedias will appear, ready made with a mesh of associative trails running through them, ready to be dropped into the memex and there amplified. The lawyer has at his touch the associated opinions and decisions of his whole experience of friends and authorities.'

Bush had lofty ambitions for the memex. Some have been realised. Some scientists are fighting poor, misleading reporting of their work by blogging and making public their disquiet over selective use of statistics in research. At the other end of the scale, conspiracy theorists have found a ready-made support network for increasingly bizarre, Machiavellian frameworks for the Moon landings and the 9/11 attacks. One thing links all these people - and it's a factor neither Bush nor the 'Cluetrain authors considered - they have the problem of being found. You may be the greatest expert on early music but if some lunatic who believes solfeggio is a series of magic healing tones tops you in search-engine rankings, who do you think is going to have more clout in what people believe 'do, re, mi' means?

Mooers' Law

In his book Ambient Findability, Peter Morville cites Mooers' Law (as opposed to Moore's Law) - a little-known but useful rule on the search for information. Librarian Calvin Mooers noticed at the end of the 1950s that people do not do a very good job of searching for information. They could, but they just don't want to:

'If you have information, you must first read it, which is not always easy. You must then try to understand it...understanding the information may show that your work was wrong, or may show that your work was needless... thus not having and not using information can often lead to less trouble and pain than having and using it.'

In other words: even if the information is available, if it is tough to digest, people will just ignore it. Which is why kooks can post all sorts of physics-troubling nonsense. Nothing makes information easier to obtain than a search engine. And if the text looks a little tricky, there's always another page one or two clicks away that might just tell us the answer we want.

It gets worse. Actively getting things wrong can make you more famous on the Web than someone who has patiently researched a topic and uncovered as much evidence as they can to support it. People will helpfully point out the error of your ways on Twitter, Facebook, blogs, forums and, to make sure readers get the point, include the link to the offending piece. Each link will encourage Google's algorithms to consider your page to have greater authority - even though the linking pages may be highly critical - which will help push it up the rankings or search engine results pages (SERPs) in search-engine optimisation (SEO) jargon. There is a reason why these articles attract the term 'link-bait'.

It is possible that, one day, search engines will take account of sentiment in how they treat links to pages but, until then, being controversial rather than right is generally more important for findability. As a result, much of the visible World Wide Web has descended into an online form of the Jeremy Kyle daytime television show - full of people shouting at each other.

Moving into the third decade of the Web, we seem due for another change in how it operates. Web creator Tim Berners-Lee wants more data to go online; for more machine intelligence to be deployed to make it easier to find useful information. All I can say to that is to quote the old saying: 'Fool me twice, won't get fooled again.' Oh wait, that isn't it? It's what came up on Google.

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