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Peak Web Has Passed

On user experience vs. user exploitation

Spring 2021

With Wikipedia turning 20 years old, I started pondering when peak web, from a user perspective, was reached. I say reached, because the more I think about it, the more I realize that my web experience is now often worse than it was 15 years ago.

I could do the same things online in 2006 that I can now. I was banking, watching pay-per-view video streams, shopping, enjoying communities and discussion boards, reading the news, watching national television, sharing funny cat videos, downloading software, streaming music, playing games... I was even gawking at things like zoomable, annotated world maps and online collaborative document editing. So, what's gotten better?

Some things are more polished now, sleeker. The videos are in higher resolution and the stuff I buy online arrives quicker. But faster delivery is about real world logistics, not amazing technology - and better quality videos are about higher bandwidth and faster CPU:s and not specifically about the web.

Animations and custom fonts, while not my personal preference, can probably seem like a nice touch to some users. But honestly, looking at a bank statement isn't more exciting because it's in a fancy typeface and finding products in a web shop is slower, not faster, if they smoothly slide and fade into view.

Some things, like search functions and accessibility, have clearly improved. We finally ditched Flash. Semantic markup and CSS has matured into something actually useful. For developers, things are by and large much smoother - at least in theory. The cross-browser frameworks we swore we'd get rid of as soon as the damn vendors could just settle on actual standards are no longer needed. That's good.

I can write statically typed JS or just ditch it altogether and go purely functional, or do freaky stuff in web assembly if I feel like it. There's web workers and websockets and local storage and if I need another server, I just push a button. Yes, as developers we have, if nothing else, at least a good amount of options.

On the flip side, jQuery - a comparatively sleek, low level library - has instead been replaced with an ever-evolving mishmash of supposedly helpful and increasingly complex tools and platforms that'll surely, in this latest version, fix that last little nagging problem of not delivering a site quite fast enough... Honest, we'll get it right this time! We just need to add some more JavaScript to it!

With so much to choose from, I think we too often pick the wrong tool for the job - but that shouldn't really matter as long as the end user experience is great. I don't care if a site I have to use is written with HTML 3.2 or React Hooks as long as it's fast, safe, respects my privacy and does what it says on the tin. The sad truth is of course that most of those basic qualities are rarely applicable.

In 2006, I used to think that Flash banner ads were annoying. The animations in them distracted me and sometimes they even played sounds, but that was easy to mitigate with a browser plugin like Flashblocker. Today, ads are not only animated and playing sounds - there are bizarre amounts of them, they pop up when you least expect it and they make damn sure to track your every little movement online.

I use an adblocker, of course. Not because I think everything online should necessarily be free, but because the web is downright farcical without one. And even an adblocker usually won't help with something like the splash boxes for newsletter subscriptions that pop up in my face after reading a page for a minute or so, or "Download the app" banners covering ever-larger portions of the screen, or the dark patterns permeating even the largest, most profitable shopping sites on earth.

There was a breaking point before peak web - probably around the time Wikipedia launched - when it was no longer feasible for me to browse the web with my Amiga. Mind you, I had a pretty beefy Amiga at the time, but it just couldn't cope anymore. The web browsers weren't up to date. The CPU and graphics card were too slow. Video support was terrible.

But you know, I was okay with that. The user experience I got when surfing with my Athlon XP 2200+ was vastly superior, because the sites leveraged the speed of that machine in a positive way. Sometimes an annoying flash banner snuck through my filters but in general, browsing was a smooth experience - even while simultaneously watching streamed video.

Today, I wouldn't dream of using an Athlon XP for browsing. Even a much more powerful computer, such as my four core Raspberry Pi 3B+, can't handle most of the sites. And I'm not talking about video sharing sites or complex web apps: even the ostensibly simple ones, like discussion boards and web shops, crawl along in 10 FPS. Heck, even my souped up work laptop with a Core i7 and 32 gigs of RAM starts to sweat at times.

A lot has been said about web bloat already, of course, and about the ad economy. My perspective isn't new. But if we're going to just accept it - which seems to be what we've done - shouldn't we also expect something in return?

Is my online experience four CPU cores, eight gigabytes of RAM and hundreds of megs of tracking scripts better than it was in 2006? The answer is, undoubtedly, no. Online banking is basically unchanged. News sites are so littered with ads they're practically unusable. Online communities - for which I actually used to pay money - are no longer about the community, but about selling ads. Many times, users can't even choose what content they want to see - remember when a "timeline" actually was a timeline of your friend's posts? Datagubbe Farm remembers - and sort of wishes that today's young designers and developers could go back in time and experience the 2006 web. Slightly uglier, perhaps, but so much more useful and usable.

Google was plenty profitable 15 years ago. Amazon sold lots of stuff then, too. And I could actually live with seeing most of the ads on sites like Slashdot and CNN - mostly without being spied on. All on a single core CPU with 256 megs of RAM.

Good times. Possibly good enough to be the peak.