Searching the Creative Internet

I had of late been lamenting the loss of the internet of the 1990s. A place where everything was obscure or new. If you saw something mainstream like a Disney princess, it was because someone had taken the time to handcraft an ASCII art portrait. Today if you type [disney] into the ubiquitous search engine, every link on the page is either crafted by the Disney corporation or is the product of a major news outlet.

This was inevitable.

The internet is no longer a place where a relatively-small fraction of the human population go to find something different than everyday life. It is everyday life for billions of people. As long as life is megacorps and information gatekeepers, so too is the global ubiquitous internet. Mission accomplished.

Usually when this kind of nostalgia or cynicism preoccupies me I quickly realize how bone-headed I am being and figure out how wrong I am. It took a little longer than usual but I got there.

The internet of the 90s is still with us, hiding in plain sight.

Page 7

Dig a little bit. If you click through all 14 pages of results Google returns for [disney], nothing I could conceive of as interesting appears. Corporate website this, chewing-gum news article that. But if you refine it a little and search for [disney blog], then by result Page 7 things start to get interesting. Half way down page 7 is a link to Rejected Princesses, a site filled with excellent original stories based on historical figures. Some Disney executive should buy them.

Now this example may not convince you. Rejected Princesses is reasonably popular, and better than almost all the original visual content you would find on the internet in the 90s. How could there be 14 pages of disney results without a single original interesting work? Is the old internet really there?

It is, you just can't find it using a search engine designed for the modern internet.

Page 2

Take a far more obscure search term: [modern nuclear propulsion research]. We are really in the weeds now and have made our intentions clear. This is a question about the state of the art in an obscure field of human study.

The first link is gizmodo.

The second link is a NASA press release. (Why does NASA even have those?)

The rest of the page is links to popular science, click-bait nonsense, or one tangentially-related reddit thread made popular by linking the topic to someone who garners a lot of media attention. No research or original content creator in sight.

By page 2, things get interesting. There you will find a link to the excellent Beyond NERVA blog. This is the wild internet where people make things and think things.

How do we make the creative internet easy to navigate?

What I miss about my "90s internet" wasn't it specifically, with its slow data links, tiny JPEGs, buffering RealPlayer, or the <blink> tag. It did not the tiniest fraction of the wonderful content the internet has today.

What I miss is that I could "go on the internet" and be in a creative corner of the human experience. Today if you "go on the internet", that means you pulled your phone out of your pocket, dismissed some notification spam and start reading click-bait shared by people you have met on social media.

Today you have to choke your way through the money-making miasma to find the joy.

I wish the internet of creative people and their works had a front page and a search engine. Something that made finding the blog about the search for planet 9 easy to find, and the New Yorker article on it hard to find. A place where wikipedia articles came first, where all the interesting technical stuff you might find in whitequark's feed was what you got instead of sidebar ads, not buried away behind the popular and the profitable. Where a D&D podcast made by three brothers and their dad in West Virginia was as easy to find as the podcasts produced by NPR's $200m/year machine.

There is enough interest the creative web to pay for its tools. Wikipedia raises $80m a year from donations! (What they spend it on does not seem at all effective to me, but it's not my money. Your software does cost more when you have to spend time making sure it doesn't hurt your fundraising.)

What is clear to me is that it is time for separate tools. A search engine designed to be used by billions of people every day to do daily tasks is not one that will be appropriate for weekend meanderings though obscure topics. A content-sharing site like Reddit that encourages links to the New York Times will not generate thoughtful discussion.

What is not clear to me yet is how those tools should work. How do we build a search engine that penalizes media outlets and promotes blogs and podcasts? How do we distinguish between a research paper or an article written by someone about their daily life aboard ISS on nasa.gov from their useless press releases?


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