R.I.P. Web 2.0
What a hell of a month it's been. It seems the internet is collapsing in on itself like a dying star, with websites choking off their user bases for the shriveling hope of last-ditch profits and public offerings.
The Beginning of the End of Web 2.0
For those unaware of the term, web 2.0 refers to the push for the internet to become more focused on user-generated content.
Now that interest rates are rising, the pandemic lulls to a close, and all that VC money is drying up and investors are starting to demand profits rather than the magical dream of endless growth, the time has come for these C-suites to put up or shut up, and a lot have chosen to fight in some rather bizarre ways. Between Reddit's new extortionate API pricing and Steve Huffman destroying his and his company's credibility, Twitter's shitshow of a decline through the lens of one extremely online Elon Musk, Google's ongoing rampage against ad-blockers, Meta's…whatever Zuck's even up to these days (trying to fight Musk??), and lots of other tech companies jumping on the bandwagon of destroying their platforms, it's been a tough time for the little guys on the internet to keep our communities and experiences intact.
The promises of "grow now, profit later" are finally coming home to roost. Tech companies now have to actually be profitable rather than just grow endlessly. For what it's worth, it's shocking and impressive that all of these social media platforms have survived for as long as they have.
One of the old guards of web 2.0 is Reddit, the content aggregator that inspired me to write this post. Around a month ago, Christian Selig, creator of third-party Reddit app Apollo, revealed that Reddit had made a snap decision to begin charging for API access on July 1, after stating for months that there would be no changes.
January 26, 2023 Reddit: "There's not gonna be any change on it. There's no plans to, there's no plans to touch it right now in 2023. [Selig]: "Fair enough." Reddit: "And if we do touch it, we're going to be improving it in some way."
Now, there's nothing wrong with charging for API access, it's expensive to manage and maintain and people deserve to have sustainable business practices. However, the pricing is absurd and meant to shut down any discourse. The scheme works out to about $12,000 for 50 million API requests, costing Selig around $20 million a year to run the app. Other third-party apps espoused the same feelings before they ultimately decided to shutter on June 30 to avoid exorbitant fees.
It quickly turned into a large-scale protest, with thousands of subreddits, including most of the largest ones, some having tens of millions of subscribers, going dark beginning June 12. Some closed with a planned June 14 return date, others closed indefinitely. Traffic tanked, ad clicks tumbled, Google suffered, and the internet on the whole began to lose a wealth of information.
Huffman stated in an AMA, "We'll continue to be profit-driven until profits arrive. Unlike some of the 3P apps, we are not profitable." Which…yikes. Maybe…not the best thing to reveal when you're preparing for an IPO and Fidelity is slashing your valuation like it's going out of style. Then again, this is coming from a man who thinks Musk is a business genius. "Long story short, my takeaway from Twitter and Elon at Twitter is reaffirming that we can build a really good business in this space at our scale," Huffman said.
As someone with well over thirteen years on Reddit, it's been a major change in my habits over the past month to go without. I removed Apollo from my home screen on the night of June 11, and it was a weird experience during the first few days. I used Alien Blue for years before Reddit bought it and systematically destroyed it. I was part of the beta testing for Apollo eight years ago. I'm sure I've used it every day I used my phone since then. Apollo outlasted multiple relationships, phones, jobs, moves, and major historic events. I grew into an adult in Reddit's communities, for better or worse.
I was definitely more addicted to Apollo than I was to Reddit, and between Lemmy, kbin, and other Fediverse platforms, the itch is already being scratched in a healthier way. I've already participated and commented more on federated platforms than I had in over a decade of heavy Reddit usage. I've reduced some of my screen time and am trying to maneuver my habits into more real-world things, like crafting, making art, and overall spending more time teaching myself to be comfortable with being "bored." I think that's a major issue that’s cropped up in the past few decades. I think a lot of us in the post-industrial Western world have lost our knack for boredom while doom-scrolling our ways for tiny dopamine hits. In my adult life alone I've witnessed the Tiktokification of many things and the shrinking attention span we all seem to have.
It's hard to ignore the gravity of Reddit's fall, though. For 18 years, it's fostered countless communities and been integral in life-changing events both online and in the real world, both good and bad. The prospect of losing large quantities of internet history is daunting. There are people trying to archive the information, but there's only so much you can do now with the restricted API access, and things that have already been lost, overwritten, and deleted.
Then, on the evening of June 30, all third-party apps ceased to operate.
If you're not under a blue bird-shaped rock, you're probably aware of Elon Musk's hilarious yet depressing carnage of a once semi-sacred breaking news space. We learned a lot about Musk from this, including that one can, in fact, squander $44 billion in the most public and embarrassing of ways.
Twitter's staff is down to around 1,500 from 8,000 pre-takeover. Their most recent snafu is blocking guest users from accessing content and rate-limiting users after gutting their maintenance engineers and allegedly skipping out on paying their $1 billion contract to Google's cloud services. Starting with the rate limit of 6,000 posts per day for verified accounts, 600 for unverified accounts, and 300 for new unverified accounts. So for new, unverified (yes, that means the people that refused to shell out $8/month to read bot and Nazi posts), you were allowed to view 300 tweets. Have you ever scrolled through Twitter? Imagine how quickly you could get through 300 tweet impressions. It didn't take long for people to receive unending rate limit errors.
The restrictions rapidly fluctuated over the course of the day.
And then, you know, accidentally DDOSing itself. In making it impossible to read tweets without being logged in, Twitter broke embedded tweets. The type of thing that for years has been used all across the internet. So when you remove that access, every embed tries to fetch content that will never arrive, at a glorious rate of around 10 requests per second, creating an intense, unending self-DDOS.
God, it's impossible not to laugh. But it's not a "haha" laugh, it's a "oh my god this is real life I'm so uncomfortable" laugh. I deleted my account when Musk took over, and I'm glad I did. Twitter used to be such a valuable asset in the journalism community and allowed a democratic dissemination of information. The "common folk" could speak up and have their opinions heard, their experiences shared, their lives seen. It was a vital part of the internet and the fight for equity amongst people's voices. And now it's a shell of what it was, full of unmoderated spam, bots, and misinformation.
Google's not shying itself away from the fun and games of enshittifcation. After major price hikes to its Premium service, Google is beginning to test a 3 strikes policy for ad-blocking for some users. This wouldn't be so horrible if ads have not become unbearable lately. They're more frequent, longer, less skippable, and contain more scummy practices. If you didn't subject users to a bad advertising experience, they wouldn't be as likely to use ad-blockers. Some people have even had 10 unskippable ads. Why on earth would you be okay with subjecting yourself to that?
Discord's method of choice is a hyper-monetization of its users and communities, as well as introducing Twitter-like bad faith adjustments to verification and people's names. P.C. Gamer's Morgan Park framed it perfectly: "nickel-and-dime-ification of Discord servers begins this week with 'media channels,' a new type of channel (currently in beta) designed to host subscriber-only content."
I remember signing up for Discord soon after its release, moving away from buggy Steam group chats and having a siloed space for all of my friend groups to nestle into. Now, they're paywalling content that used to be free and separating a space that used to have a good amount of equity. Even with the Nitro features, Discord was still a safe space for people to celebrate their individuality without significant hierarchies and giant paywalls. The paywalls were solely cosmetic or offered nominal improvements that did not negatively impact the free users.
Codixer's post on the Discord support forums about the new systems describes a lot of negative outcomes: "One of the major issues that can be confirmed is the resale of Discord accounts. That is something that is unable to be denied and is going to be a major issue." Beyond the safety issues and large chances for impersonation and scamming, it just doesn't even make sense. The old system worked well and people were very happy with it. There was really no need to change this and potentially endanger creators and vulnerable populations.
Again, I get it. It's okay to make money from what you create. But why do all of these companies seem to stick their fingers in their ears when people tell them what they want?
Tumblr's demise is slower, more piecemeal, more death by a thousand cuts. It's undergoing a significant Tiktokification, with live videos, shorts, and For You pages full of algorithmically-recommended content. Similar to Discord, there's also been a large increase in the microtransactions and monetization of individual creator's content. Why does everything seem to be gravitating toward microtransaction hell?
Another honorable mention is Gfycat, which is closing September.
The Gfycat service is being discontinued. Please save or delete your Gfycat content by visiting https://www.gfycat.com and logging in to your account. After September 1, 2023, all Gfycat content and data will be deleted from gfycat.com
It feels like all of these companies are using this turmoil to try to throw their bad news out into the world without too much blowback, hoping it'll get swept away with the tide of everyone else's fallout.
Web 3.1? 4.0?
Web 2.0 seems to be digging its own grave as fast as it can. Web 3.0 was commandeered by crypto-bros and NFT blockheads, so maybe we need an homage to the Windows 3.1 days, or just full send our way to 4.0. The amount of link rot that will exist by the end of this year is insane. So much of the internet's backlinks and references will become permanently unavailable, and there's little we can do outside of creating our own repositories.
I think an important aspect to remember in all of this is that there is no cloud. There is no mythical airspace above us full of our files. It's just a computer, somewhere else. And if the owners of that computer decide they want to use that storage for something else, they can and will do that. And without data hoarders, decentralized storage spaces, and many unique backups, things will just disappear. There's nothing really stopping a digital Library of Alexandria moment. It may already be happening, right before our eyes.
For all the ways that the past pandemic years have seemed to be the "Fuck Around" years, 2023 seems to be the "Find Out" year. These companies are starting to learn that it's best not to look a gift horse in the mouth and that pissing off the creators and users that make endless content for free are the true value in the platform. The users have moved before and they will move again. In a way, it's almost liberating to know that people are going scorched earth and telling these companies that enough is enough. It seems like people are opening their eyes to see just how greedy the internet has become.
I think we're moving more towards a federated, decentralized, and more personal internet. Back to the olden days of hyper-specific forums, niche content aggregators and microblogging platforms. Personal, self-hosted websites. Creators and users taking back the content they've created and controlling the platforms which host it. It's kind of an exciting time, while also feeling like a mourning period as the spaces we've too much spent time in go away. There are lots of places that feel like the old internet, the wild wild web of the past. Only time will tell what truly comes next.
I'll leave you with the comic that still orchestrates the vibes of the last decade.