Yes, I’m getting nostalgic.
This is a post that I began writing in November of 2015. This was around six months after my first book was published and I was undergoing a rather extensive professional transition. I decided to revive it from our unpublished archives and give it some light, as many of the circumstances and feelings that I covered here remain relevant today.
Trends come and go. Baseball cards are largely a thing of the past. So are Pet Rocks, Cabbage Patch Kids, and Beanie Babies.
Perhaps soon independent single author blogs and SEO-driven publishing business models will be added to the list. 😉 –SEObook.com
I am feeling nostalgic — a feeling that I’ve always reserved for old folks who have already done it rather than those still young enough to be in the process of doing it. I like what I do — I couldn’t ask for anything more or for anything to be much different. But there is one stretch of this road that I find myself longing to return to: those first few years of blogging.
It is true that everything is flying now — I had my first book published, I’m writing for some of the most prominent publications in the world — so why am I looking backwards?
Because I’m realizing that I experienced something that, as it turned out, was really very special and unique in the history of media.
I’ve been at this work for a long time. For ten and a half years I’ve been blogging more or less regularly. I’ve put up thousands of articles and posts on Vagabond Journey and many more on other sites. Blogging has become a large part of my profession, as well as the catalyst that has generated many other opportunities — my first book deal and other engagements with big media were sparked by this blog. This kind of all happened by accident.
When I first began blogging full time in 2005 I justified it by saying that it was solely a writing exercise to train myself for other, more professional forms of media. At that time, blogging was something corny; blogs were little more than online diaries that your mom read. Big media hadn’t yet jumped on the blogging bandwagon, and declaring yourself a blogger was something that was kind of embarrassing. So I told myself that I was using blogging as a stepping stone to gain the experience and cultivate the skills to get to the next level as a writer. The truth was that I really enjoyed doing it and aspired to make a living from it.
A couple of years later I achieved this goal: I was blogging full time on my own website and making money. While the income was also incredibly tight, this was a fundamental part of the story I was telling. My narrative was about a vagabond writer, and this was the reality as well.
For the next three or four years I relished this story. I loved my work — I went wherever I wanted and wrote about what I chose. I didn’t have a boss, no editors, nobody telling me what to do. I just traveled and wrote.
It was literally incredible, something that was beyond the imaginations of pretty much anyone in any previous era. There was now a way for a single individual to start up a small media company and have access to an audience of millions.
At that time, I thought that everything would keep going up. I thought that my blog would continue getting more traffic and that I would continue making more money. That didn’t happen — not just for me but for just about everybody. An entire global ecosystem of creators was wiped out as the internet restructured itself and matured.
The World Wide Web was envisioned as a place where you could freely go from site to site, being linked through the cosmos of knowledge by … well, links. These links were to be the sinews of this glorious worldwide network — you could start at one place and following links travel through other realms of the internet. In those days, the World Wide Web actually resembled a web. Barriers to the flow of links — blockades on the roads of information — were discouraged. There were no walled gardens like Facebook or even paywalls — everything was open and free.
In those days, search engines were still in their infancy and, while they existed, they were not the go-to trailhead for content discovery as they would later become. One alternative way that we would find interesting sites was via these things called web rings.
Web rings — I believe I need to define what these were — were basically coalition of related websites that linked themselves together. There would often be a set of navigation at the bottom of each page of each participating site that allowed you to toggle through the ring from site to site. This form of navigation perhaps better than anything else represented the web-like, sharing nature of the web: information would link deeper into more information ad infinitum.
At this time, the World Wide Web was viewed as something too loose and unstructured to be economically viable, and the lack of a business model momentarily kept the big companies at bay — “what, you mean we’re just supposed to give our content away for free!?!” And due to this, the world wide web was opened up for an entire world of independent creators.
There was something that people wanted in those days that they weren’t getting anywhere else — especially from the mainstream media — so masses escaped into the world of independent websites and blogs. There they found a beautiful cesspool of contending streams of information, ideas, and stories of life. For a few years, it was exactly what the world wide web was intended to be.
Browsing the internet in those days was truly a form of exploration. As a teenager, I can remember waiting until my parents would go to bed and then sneaking out to the living room where the big IBM desktop stood. I would log onto the dial up connection, covering the computer with a blanket to dull the hideous sound, and get truly excited to dig in. I knew that I was going to see things that I’ve never seen before; I knew that I was going to discover ways of life that I didn’t know were out there … It didn’t even matter that each page took five minutes to load.
It was all just so real and raw and magical. I would sit there at the computer in the dark and stare into other worlds. My life was changed forever by some of the sites that I found then, as I put together the basic architecture of how I wanted to live. I learned that, yes, I could travel the world. I learned that I didn’t have to go straight to college and get some job. I found out that there were other … ways.
Each night I that I would sit down at the computer I knew that I was going to find something new.
This isn’t really the case anymore.
The end of the World Wide Web
It is easy to criticize countries like China because of their heavy censorship of the internet, but companies like Google and Facebook are currently engaging in some of the most intensive censorship campaigns ever waged. But rather than covering your eyes to prevent you from seeing something — rather than removing or blocking content — they simple turn your head in other directions. They decide what you see and experience online, not you.
February of 2011 was the month that independent websites across the internet started being culled by Google. Under the banner of improving search quality, corporate sites (aka “brands”) began getting increased visibility in search results while sites run by people like me were relegated to the bottom of the pile. I lost 50% of my traffic, but many of my colleagues fared far worse.
Over the next couple of years the situation grew worse and worse, more and more traffic continued being diverted from independent sites to big brands — many of which happen to be the same big brands that pay Google massive amounts of money for advertising — until it became futile to run a website as a business.
And what about that eco-system of independent creators?
Go out and try to find them now. They’re gone.
But it’s not just the selective organization of web content by corporations like Google that has destroyed the world wide web, but also the paywalls that are severing it into a million independent pieces, the walled gardens like Facebook that are trying to keep as many visitors for themselves as possible, “cyber-sovereignty” which is giving each country the right to have their own little internet that’s completely under the control of its respective government, censorship at the IP level essentially removing entire categories of sites from existence, as well as the apps that are simply removing viewers from the world wide web altogether.
And about those web rings … well, the technology that ran most of them was bought by Yahoo — a search company at the time — and dismantled. Beyond that, they were dubbed “link exchanges” by Google and banned. Needless to say, they’re gone now too.
Now, it feels more and more like the internet has already been mapped. Do a Google search for just about anything and you’re going to get page after page of corporate sites and Wikipedia. The results have been polished clean, whitewashed, and made “advertiser safe.” You don’t get much else other than the exact same mainstream media that we once fled to the world wide web to get away from. There is nothing exciting about this. It’s like going on a packaged tour when we used to go on expeditions.
But the internet user is different now as well. We’re no longer seekers looking for new information and ways of life but are complacent little Facebook minions, providing a corporate giant with free content and personal information with which they make billions while luring us to sleep with their heinous brand of social and psychological trickery.
The World Wide Web will be a term that future generations will more than likely scoff at, kind of like my generation does “Hammer pants” and telephones that you have to plug into a wall that don’t even have cameras.
“Hey, remember way back in the day when we’d “Google it?” and we’d have to search through thousands of different sites to find what we wanted! That was so dumb. Now we just get on the Googlebook app and get everything in one place!”
I know that I sound nostalgic here, but nostalgia is simply the record of time well spent. I think of the hours that I poured into blogging over this past decade and a half and I smile. It wasn’t worth it solely because it led me to book deals and a profession as a journalist but because I really, truly enjoyed it. I grew up with one foot in the analog age and the other in the digital, and being a small part of that transition was really something special.