Exorcising algorithms

Back in 1996 my dad took me to the local internet cafe. It was my first meeting with the internet, and I still remember the first website I ever visited.

I was a member of the Norwegian Manchester United supporter club, and I had found the URL to their official website in their quarterly magazine. I remember typing it into the address bar. Domains were expensive and not commonplace then, so the URL wasn’t exactly easy to remember — which was why I had written it down on a piece of paper.

When I finished typing I hit return and boom, a minute or two later the Netscape browser finished loading their website. My first ever website.

Although it felt like ages to me, we finally had internet access installed in our house not long after. To the sound of screaming space robots our home was connected to the information superhighway. My life was never the same again.

It wasn’t that I stopped going out, or secluded myself from the real world to partake online. Instead, the internet became a social multiplier. Through IRC I discovered local chat rooms, where I got to know many people. Real people, with personalities, interests and flaws of character as much as great traits like humour, computer skills and knowledge of all kinds of fascinating things.

Conversations took place in public, and in private. There were disagreement and factions, quashed uprisings and successful revolutions. And none of it was the result of a digital drug designed to optimise retention. We lived in the early technological glory days before the rise of the algorithm.

Back then, everyone had to have their own websites. Although we didn’t use such a bland term back then. They weren’t just websites, they were homepages. As in, your the page that was your online home. Having one was a point of pride.

On your homepage you wrote about yourself, and everything you were interested in. Perhaps you shared some goofy pictures of yourself — if you somehow had access to a scanner and could digitise your photos. You probably even had pictures of some of your online friends, referenced by their nicknames, of course, because nobody would answer their lame real names, with links to their homepages. 

And all of them wrote messages in your guestbook.

Another essential element of every well crafted homepage was the visitor counter. It was simply a counter showing the number of people who had visited your website since whenever you installed it. It doesn’t require much imagination to see how that became a competitive element.

While you could share your homepage here and there and everywhere, it quickly became apparent that to hit the big numbers, you needed to rank in the search engines. And thus I first became familiar with digital ranking algorithms.

The rest is history.

Smart people realised that “feed” was the perfect vehicle for algorithmic content ranking. At first people were hesitant, but our new technological overlords promised to give us everything we didn’t even know we wanted. As they delivered, the protests faded, and the golden era of the world wide web came to an end.

Homepages gave way to social profiles.

Inspired knowledge gave way to bland search engine optimised articles.

News gave way to clickbait.

Friends gave way to influencers.

When attention is controlled by algorithms, it is inevitable that everything real is forced out by the loud and the shiny. And we’re all poorer for it. When we’re exposed to too much of the content equivalent of sugar — sweet and good for a quick dopamine release, but nutritionally useless —  we end up famished for substance.

Over the past couple of years, I’ve been detoxing. Weaning myself of the algorithm, bit by bit. I knew that services like Instagram, Twitter and Facebook weren’t making me happy. The opposite, in fact. Increasingly, as the content surfaced by the social algorithms continued to become more extreme, more devoid of substance, more clickbaity, I became disillusioned.

This wasn’t what it used to be like.

Where did all the real people go? Where are all the friends I used to make? 

I started to resign to the fact that time had passed me by. That I’d completed my transition into the “everything was better before” guy. You either die a hero or end or live long enough to see yourself become the person who complains that everything was better in the good old days, as they say.

The social media purge continued. By the start of 2022, I had no active social media profiles. And I felt better for it. My phone addiction began to subside. I spent less time thinking about everything I had to do and perfect. I became less anxious about all the terrible things that are wrong with the world; that I can’t fix. I felt calmer.

Something was still missing. That day in 1996 sparked something in me that still lives. A need to create and communicate and participate in real online communities.

But can you lead a life online in 2024 without being a slave to the algorithm? I don’t know, but I can try.

It started with bringing this blog back to life. Then I began exploring Mastodon and the fediverse. Even open social networks that rely mostly on a straight chronological feed are susceptible to many of the downsides of social media, it turns out. But I haven’t given it up, because it led me into a whole new, old world. Turns out, there are loads of people like me out there. Disillusioned by what the online world has become. People who long for substance and real connection.

At the heart of it are familiar technologies like RSS and email, and new options for more socialising, more interaction, like Webmentions and AcitivtyPub. And, in many cases, it all powers up that magnificent relic of a past we all long for, the homepage. There are even webrings and directories.

So now I’m on a mission. To try and carve out a place for myself in this brave new world. To get to know people. Through reading and interacting with the short and long form content they create, instead of just bite sized nuggets crafted for reach. And to find other, interesting people through their recommendations, rather than relying on the recommendation engines of big tech companies who optimise for engagement.

And I’m doing my own sharing, too. Right here on this blog. Or should I say this homepage.


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