Thoughts on the Web, Circa 2013

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As you may have noticed, this website has a new theme. I love this theme, called Twentytwelve, despite it being the default theme for WordPress.com, which likely makes it the single most popular theme on the planet.

I will likely make a few more changes, personalize the design some more, add back the iconic header image, and the like, but… the experience of re-skinning my website triggered something else for me. I felt as if I should write it out with you all, so I can know what I’m thinking when I read it later.

Basically, changing the theme to Notorious made me realize how much the Web has changed over the past few years, and… well, I’m feeling a little bit wistful, I have to admit.

The Trigger

The immediate cause of this sort of navel-gazing was having to setup the sidebar. For those readers who aren’t bloggers, when you change the theme to a website, you usually lose all of the “widgets” on the sidebar. Over there ——->

My previous design had a bunch of widgets, four ad spots (which were mostly filled with my own ads), a way to connect with me on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Blip.fm, and two sidebars, one of which was dedicated to the latest comments made on this blog. It wasn’t awesome or anything, nor was it professionally designed — I coded it myself, sort of as an experiment, to see if I could actually hack some simple php and CSS code.

So when I changed the theme, my first task was to go setup the sidebars. Longtime readers can see that there’s nothing there now, except for a block of text where I attempt humor, a search box, my most recent posts, and post archives. Gone are the ad spots, gone is the social connection stuff, gone is the email subscription form, and most importantly, gone are the comments.

I’m not sure if I’d bring any of those back. I might bring back some ad units, just to see if I can defray the minimal cost of hosting. I might look for simpler ways for people to subscribe to the blog. I may or may not put up those social network links.

But I’m pretty sure I’m not bringing back the most recent comments.

Why would anyone care, right?

The World Wide Web: Too Wide? Too Much World?

I suppose the only reason why anyone, even me, should care is that the fact that a longstanding blogger doesn’t really feel like he’d be missing anything, or that his readers would be missing much of anything, by not putting most recent comments on the sidebar is… interesting.

I sit here wondering why it is that I don’t feel the urge to put comments on the sidebar. Why I don’t feel that every single visitor would want to see comments from other denizens of Notorious.

One reason, I think, is that the tradition of commenting seems oddly outdated. I mean, it isn’t as if people don’t comment all over the Web. It isn’t as if there aren’t major sites with hundreds of thousands of people commenting all over the place and having active discussions. There are. If you think about it, the entirety of Facebook is sort of like a giant comment thread to a post that doesn’t exist.

But at least in real estate, at least on Notorious, I sort of know who the commenters are likely to be. They might actually know each other by now, since very very few “new” commenters arise. Is there some compelling reason why those commenters, who likely know each other by now, need to see who made what recent comment on what post?

Maybe on other blogs, but I’m not sure on this one.

The other fascinating change over time is that the percentage of people willing to leave comments at all feels like it has dropped year over year. Consider my Seven Predictions post. That has been viewed by 750 people since Sunday when I put it up. It has eight comments on it, and two are single sentence compliments (which I appreciate, of course). Whereas this post from almost five years ago, which I know for a fact wasn’t even that popular, also has eight comments on it, and they’re all substantial.

I know I can’t be the only real estate blogger who feels as if the willingness to publicly talk and offer opinions and debate has decreased significantly. I know I can’t be the only real estate blogger who has had people contact him and ask to have their comments deleted entirely, because they got worried about its political impact, or because it was showing up on Google search results for their name.

It’s hard to make anything of one little blogger’s experience, but… y’know, I’m going to put it out there anyhow. I feel as if the willingness of people to have wide open conversations, debates, and arguments about substantive topics on the World Wide Web is going extinct. We’ve all noticed it, when Twitter looks and feels less and less like a conversation and more and more like a wannabe radio station. We’ve all noticed it as Facebook looks more and more like a photo-sharing and birthday-wishing website, as opposed to a true network.

As I’ve noted before, I know that vibrant online communities still exist. But they exist in private, away from the World. And certainly with zero intention of being Wide. The New Tribalism is the default setting for citizens of the Internet.

Even in something as minor and as small as comments on a blog, I’ve noticed that oftentimes, conversations will happen on a blogpost of mine on Facebook, where it is linked, rather than on the blog itself. And Facebook, of course, does feature far more privacy controls than blog comments. It’s a tiny hint of New Tribalism, and the Double Consciousness of the Netizen.

The story of the Web so far is that technology allowed us all to break down the walls of time and distance, and everyone flooded into the infinite public square that is the Web, and partied and met each other and argued and fought and loved and made friends… and then realized that we need to put up some new walls.

It’s an interesting commentary on human nature.

So the Web…

It’s tough to make broad generalizations about something as large as the Web. But hey, what the hell, right?

The World Wide Web circa 2013 is no longer all that social; it’s less of a Web today than it is an Archipelago, an infinite set of islands floating on the Sea of Google. The impact of “social media” was to push media to the front, and social underground.

The Web, especially the blogosphere, doesn’t feel like a party anymore, where the important thing was the chatter. It feels more like a marketplace, where professionalism, brand, self-promotion, and image are far more valuable and important than mere words on a screen. Talented designers and programmers keep pushing and pushing, and we have websites and blogs that are stunningly beautiful and technologically amazing that raise the bar so much on graphic design, on video usage, and prioritize important things (for a marketplace) like mobile responsive design.

Even bloggers think long and hard about SEO, about video, about conversion, about audience loyalty, and the like. Photos everywhere, carousels, user interface, tools, and graphic design… these feel like the markers of success and “quality”.

And maybe that’s why I’m so attracted to Twentytwelve. It’s a sophisticated theme, but you know… it’s just so simple. It puts the focus back on the word, the text, the thought. Rather than worry about all the cool things I can make WordPress do, maybe I’ll just worry more about the uncool, the simple, the boring, the word. The words.

Because in the end, this is a blog. It’s not an advertising platform. It’s not a conversion tool. It’s not the latest and best in media. It’s not the center of my social network. It’s just a blog. Where I write. Words.

Maybe I’ll see how that works out. Pure and simple every time.