The internet is an awesome thing, but we’re ruining it.
We probably can’t get enough people to stop shipping bloated and broken software, turn off their obtrusive newsletter sign up modals, or stop writing fake reviews for free products, but maybe the tide can turn just a little.
We’re all making choices every day that are collectively changing what the web is and not always for the better. These aren’t complicated choices. In most cases, they’re simply mindless choices. It’s what everybody is talking about or what everybody else is doing, so it must be the way to go.
With anything, you take the good with the bad, but maybe we can all make it a little less bad? And don’t get me wrong, there’s plenty of good. But so much of the bad is optional. Whether we’re knowingly accepting the bad as a tradeoff in convenience or simply following the cow paths, surely we can adjust course a little.
Maybe the dark patterns and passive malice stand out more than the positive changes, but it feels like the bad is proliferating rather than receding. Browsers fought off popups, and now sites harass with modals. Gmail beat spam, but now automated drip email sequences fill our inboxes with vapid requests to “pick your brain.”
It’s likely that a focus on metrics and tracking instigated much of this behavior. You can track that you got five extra signups, but you can’t track that you chased off countless others. Yet, we all know from experience that when we’ve been on your site for less than two seconds when a modal newsletter sign up request assaults you, you’re not signing up for their newsletter. And, if a site owner’s judgement is poor enough that they add such a thing, it’s unlikely they have much of value to share.
Let us not overlook the fact that a semantic HTML web site is inherently accessible by default. When we bend the web to our will, we break that. So we have a responsibility to correct it. Sure the new technologies are neat, but the end result is usually garbage. This all requires some next-level narcissism that our goals and priorities as developers are far more important than that of the audience we’re theoretically building software to serve.
We’re constantly measuring and analyzing the business numbers, but we don’t give the same attention to page speed even though we’ve known for years that slow sites decrease sales. We fail to acknowledge the impact of poorly-built and inaccessible sites on the hundreds of millions of people with disabilities to the point that companies would rather deal with law suits than actually building accessible software even though the latter is likely cheaper with more upside.
We stuff websites with useless stock imagery and slow the web down even more. We fake presence so people think they’re talking to a real person because we know that if they knew the truth, they wouldn’t interact with that “live chat” popup at all.
Search engine ads are barely labeled any more. Amazon is over-flowing with fake reviews despite their claims to the contrary. Social media networks do just enough to combat bots, nazis, and trolls so they can claim they’re doing something while not actually hurting their bottom line.
Then there’s the “news” sites that sell space to Taboola/Outbrain, or, as John Gruber so eloquently put it, “the dueling slumlords of the ‘content recommendation’ shitbox advertising cesspool.” Are there many moves that undermine a site’s credibility more than serving those ads from those companies?
Or, more simply put, we can care a little more about the people on the receiving end of our work. Then, just maybe, after another decade, we’ll have built the web we all want.