This morning I tuned into Radio 4 to listen to an interview with a client of mine, after which followed a programme about the early days of the internet. I was only half listening (ironically because I was busy building a website) but one particular point did grab my attention.
In the early days, Tim Berners-Lee and his associates envisaged the internet as a system for the global sharing of documents. In order to fulfil this vision they spent time contacting large institutions asking them to make their documents available on this system. They were surprised to find after a while that though it was a success, it wasn’t working exactly as they had envisaged because computers can’t do something humans always had; they can’t judge a book by its cover. Humans would look at a document and decide if it would be worth reading. Computers don’t do this. They can only look for specific words or phrases within a document. This slight difference meant that quite quickly the internet led to humans searching not for documents but for content.
This is the world we now consider normal. Content is king and the document, in whatever form it takes, be it the book, the device, the channel, the album, is irrelevant. By forcing us to adapt to their way of working, computers have made us much more likely to consume content separate from the context in which it was originally conceived. It’s something I wrote about in more depth earlier this year in response to the announcement that Google Reader was being retired and horrified RSS feed addicts the world over began the desperate search for a hasty replacement. If you read that piece you’ll see I wasn’t keen on the function of RSS feeds then, and I’m still not. They seem to me like context stripping at its most blasé.
In September the domain for this site came up for renewal and I really struggled not to allow it to expire. The stats show this is a site with very few visitors, and more depressingly that the two search term referrals now ranking well above all others are “Bahco Spanner” and “Silver Reed Silverette”.
This isn’t a spanner blog, nor is it a typewriter blog. Though both the Bahco Spanner and the Silver Reed Silverette make an appearance, their respective blogs were written around them rather than about them. The content might have been a spanner, but the document was on a subject completely unrelated. I’ve never written a blog about a spanner. I’ve certainly written about a feeling within me that a spanner embodied, but never really about a spanner. Similarly, a 1970s typewriter in and of itself would never warrant a blog from me, but the way it made me feel thankful for what I have today is a subject I once deemed worthy of a few hundred words.
That the content of my blogs are seldom the actual subject is a nuance current computers don’t recognise, so the humans directed by those computers to my content won’t actually be looking for my content. How many people type “Bacho spanner” into Google hoping it returns a blog about the creative inspiration and design preference of an unsuccessful northern graphic designer? I’m guessing it’s somewhere roughly in the region of not a single one in all the time the internet has been live.
This very piece you’re now reading might attract searchers looking for the above mentioned spanners or typewriters. Perhaps it might attract those Googling Radio 4, RSS feed readers or, by the very act of typing it, rotor tip wear on Wankel engines, but it won’t refer anyone who might actually be looking for the subject I’m writing about.
I don’t write this thinking I live in a world desperate for my beautiful content if only it could find it. I write it wondering how anyone really expects to find the humanity amidst all the commodities, and what commodification measures are forced upon web–traffic reliant humans trying to accommodate this problem. If somebody were searching for articles on the subject of this piece, how would they find it? How could I make it more easily findable, and how would it be changed in the process of trying?
Human thinking is full of metaphor and contradiction. Its infinite grey areas are where the most interesting, exciting and important things happen; where love is born, where passions are nurtured and where creativity is harboured. It’s where despair is fought, inspiration is found, where tangents are tolerated and randomness is rewarded. It’s this core madness that make us human, and our beloved internet can’t show us any of it happening until it has been reduced to the point where there’s an Amazon category for it.
So last month as I sat looking at the third reminder email from the hosting company, mindful of how short the bars are on the site’s stats chart, it was very hard to find the motivation to click the Update Now link. I thought long and hard about what I might do to attract sufficient visitors to justify the site’s existence. Should I adjust my writing style to include more relevant key words and phrases? Should I talk more directly about the subjects I wish to raise? Should I lose the metaphors and instead simply spell things out?
Then I though no. That wouldn’t be human, and if humanity is measured in a lack of web traffic then perhaps I’m doing something right. Domain renewed. Sprungseven now lives to fight for at least another year, motivated solely by the fact that remaining human in this world of machines actually feels like an act of defiance.