Friday, 22 June 2018

The Internet ain't what it used to be

The first time I “went online” was in the 80s using a BBC microcomputer borrowed from work. I dialed a long distance number to connect via a very slow modem to GreenNet to access a bulletin board about environmental issues, for a magazine I was running. Being an expensive call, I set all content to spool to a text file as I was “browsing” the text (there were no images), and got offline again as soon as possible, reading the content later, and then incorporating it into the magazine.

Then around 1999 I discovered the free dial-up service FreeServe. Well, the service was free but it might take up to six attempts before I managed to fully connect, and I was charged for those attempts to connect. Whether this was due to issues with the new technology or a deliberate policy to swell their coffers, I do not know.

Wild West

I created my very first web site around that time, and found the usenet newsgroup alt.sufi, meeting people from around the globe who were actually interested in the Way, which opened up a whole new world. This was before the first big groups like Yahoo! groups came along and began to kill off usenet.

The internet was far more open then, and there was a lot more searching around and exploring. In those days, someone might come along to the web site and stay there for ages, slowly browsing through most of the pages on the site, or (being in a web ring of like-minded sites for a time) they might browse my site having just come from the previous site in the ring, and then wander on to the next site in the ring. Again, in those days, search engines would crawl and index the whole of the site and especially at AltaVista and Yahoo! you could find my site on the first page of many results, even though it was just a chicken shack operation.

Social media

And then along came the social media as we know it today. Sites like Facebook certainly have their appeal, and they've helped draw together people in greater numbers than previously, but such media tend to get a hold on people through this appeal, and through the illusion of being given a voice, making a difference, and so forth. But at the same time, it draws more and more people in, hangs onto them tenaciously, and in turn, this has led to the gradual but relentless demise of the earlier groups like Yahoo!, and is also chewing away at the way people find resources on the Internet, such as using search engines. And, of course, with the rise of Google many of the earlier and smaller search engines have now either disappeared or else their content is no longer independent and is actually provided by their larger cousins.

These days, if a tweet or Facebook post doesn't go flying past unnoticed (within fractions of a second on Twitter, which is often like reading reams of classified ads or legal spam), I might get a hit on the one linked page, lasting perhaps seconds, or if I'm lucky they might check out the home page and/or another post, before flying off again, without saying “hi!” and perhaps never to be seen again.

Mom and Pop

These days, wonderful independent Mom and Pop sites with little authority (because they don't have many, if any, backlinks from authoritative sites) hardly get a look in — except for “by the way” articles that for some strange reason keep bringing people along in their droves; in my case one about the Kindle Paperwhite's experimental web browser which has notched up 41,435 hits out of 199,609 since January 2012) — and end up with just a trickle of visitors per day. Having said that, though, there are many forums that cater to niche audiences that have successfully bucked this generally downward trend: paganism and conspiracy theory being two notably successful niches.

We really could do with new, independent search engines that are designed to help out smaller, independent web sites, which is something I've been quietly working on for some time now.

Trickle-down economics

But, yes, in general terms, trickle down economics applies to independent web sites and indie authors, too – though I should add that I really don't care too much for marketing, and that my main objective is to entertain and spread a hopefully useful message. Nothing matches the power of personal recommendations, and “content is king”, but advertising options are, of course, available on the Facebook and Twitter platforms. On Facebook I was recently offered the option to “boost this post for £40 to reach 370 people.” I mean, they're kidding right? Actually, that was just an anomaly, and I could see the funny side.

So how's advertising in social media work? For me it goes something like this, though your mileage may vary. Let's say I'm selling an e-book at Amazon for £1.99. A typical pitch on Facebook might be to boost a post for £15 to reach up to 10,000 people, which in the end would actually cost £15 to reach perhaps 850 people before the budget runs out. Of these, let's say 10% or 85 users actually click on a link. And say 10% of those or 8.5 people actually choose to buy and read the book. Of course this doesn't cover the cost of the promotion, but is simply written off as “publicity”, “marketing” and getting the message out. And of those 8.5 readers, let's say that on average 10% of those actually leave a review (which as any author will tell you are like gold dust and are the cause of much delight and gratitude). So we have 0.85 reviews or, shall we say, an 85% chance of getting a review as a result of the promotion.

And on Twitter, things are certainly no better. There you have to enter an auction to have promoted tweets placed, and each goal – for example if someone clicks on a link to a book – can cost from maybe 50 cents to $4, the average number doing this being maybe 1 or 2% of those who see the advert. So an outlay of £15 is going to get few clicks, fewer readers, and still fewer reviews.

Either way, Facebook and Twitter win, but there's little reward for the self-published author.

Under assault

The increasing moneterization of the Internet and the booming cult of celebrity are bad enough, but – far worse – add to this the increasing assaults on the freedom that the Internet offers us, such as the recent loss of net neutrality, “the principle that Internet service providers treat all data on the Internet equally, and not discriminate or charge differently by user, content, website, platform, application, type of attached equipment, or method of communication”, according to Wikipedia, and also disastrous copyright legislation that the EU is now drawing up – both of which have been vehemently opposed by Internet users, authors, publishers, news agencies, cultural institutions, those in the industry, technologists, law makers and others – and, alas, the future of the Internet looks even less rosy. Bye-bye hippie dream, I guess.


I have many questions and few answers right now, short of revolution, or a societal reboot, or unless some kind of alternative network can be set up, perhaps distributed among users, and hopefully more benign than the Dark Web. However, Tristan Louis offers a number of possible solutions in his thoughtful essay titled “I Killed the Internet”, which is well worth reading.

And, yes, I'm sorry but I helped kill the Internet, too.


  1. Thanks Etienne even more detail and I will give the essay a read.

  2. Hello Eric, I was not surprised that the bulletin board you recently set up came to an end.

    Mark Sedgwick has written a book “Western Sufism: From the Abbasids to the New Age”. I have not read it, but a footnote to Chapter 12 “Idries Shah and Sufi Psychology” is as follows.

    “Quotations from online survey carried out by the author in January 2015. This was completed by almost 20 percent of 1,000 English-speaking Shah enthusiasts identified by Facebook and contacted by means of a Facebook advertisement. Of respondents, 73 were university graduates, and a remarkable number had postgraduate qualification: 36 percent of male respondents, and 58 percent of female respondents. To some extent, of course, this reflects the fact that the better-educated are more likely to spend time writing short essays to help a research project.”

    The chapter was developed as a paper which is available here.

    I recently came across an article by Jean Néaumet ( a translator of Shah’s books) which the Chrome Web Browser translates surprisingly well.
    James Faint