Rediscovering the beauty of text on the internet

Rediscovering the beauty of text on the internet



I see a new trend developing among geeks. Maybe I am
just deluding myself, or perhaps it has always been this way.
Maybe it’s just wishful thinking–along
the same lines that has caused me for decades to wish that
the average engineer would suddenly begin to care about
using his work day productively. But lately, I have been
noticing more individuals who run their own websites writing
articles about the value of text-only, static, and
non-commercial websites. These hobbyist website designers
seem to care deeply about the efficient transmittal of
information. They seem highly frustrated by the bloated
Internet on which the average web page takes 10.3 seconds
to download and transmits next to no useful information to the
user. An example, though you may want to avoid it if foul
language offends you, is this
seven-year-old website.
Another
article
highlights some of the practical benefits of
text-only websites. And,
this
article
discuses the broader topic of the value of small,
independent websites and the reasons they differ from
commercial websites. Then, there is the question of
information
density
, or the amount of information that should be
shown on a web page.

The Streamlined Internet is Already Here–You Just have to Find It

Having a more streamlined Internet is about more than just text-only
web pages, because the Internet is about more than just web pages.
Gopherspace and usenets are still around.
Project Gemini is
being touted as something to fill the gap between gopherspace and
the Internet. RSS feeds seem to be once again gaining popularity
among geeks. And then there is the
Tilde Town server and its overflow
onto similar servers. While the average Internet user may see Tilde
Town as nothing more useful than an experiment to see how many clowns
can be stuffed into a clown car, Tilde town and its imitators have
drawn thousands of users to connect to their servers using the
text-only technology of SSH. This is a command line world that the
average Internet user under 30 likely cannot even imagine. But for
thousands, these few servers not only provide free avenues for their
creativity and comradery, they also boldly proclaim the truth that
some much can be accomplished with so little.

Text-only
news websites
are also coming back. The reason for this is that some
news agencies have finally recognized that the Internet may be less
accessible in areas hit by natural disasters. Lower bandwidth
connections may be available as backups at these critical times, but
they require more efficient news sites to provide continued access to
the news. These sites are also more accessible to people in emerging
markets.

I should also mention distributed and dark networks like ZeroNet, Tor,
I2P, and IPFS. These are perhaps some of the last strongholds of
geeks on the Internet, and they are all about text. At least, that is
the way it appears to me as I peruse the sites of these networks.
And, by the way, these relatively new networks are populated mostly by
geeks in the same way that computer hobbyists were once the source of
most of the activity on the early Internet. Perhaps the text-only
format of most sites on darknet and distributed networks is one
reason average Internet users tend to shun these networks like
vampires hissing at the sight of garlic.

Text is Beautiful

If you are not one who inherently feels the allure of text, it may not
be possible for me to help you understand why text making a comeback is
a good thing. You may view my attempt to explain as something akin to
Greg Kinnear’s character in the movie “You’ve Got Mail” waxing poetic
about his type writer. And, maybe it is in some ways. I’ll try to
explain anyway.

Think of the difference between reading a book and watching a movie.
Each has it’s own strengths and weaknesses. A book uses words to
convey the inner thoughts of a character in a way that a movie just
cannot. Books increase your vocabulary. They also give you a window
into the heads of enough people that you develop insights into people
that you cannot to the same degree by watching movies. Books are a
slow enough form of communication that you have plenty of time to
think about the message the author is trying to transmit. If you are
initially confused, you can go back and re-read sentences or
paragraphs as many times as it takes to understand the full meaning.
With a movie, if you sneeze, you may miss something important.

Perhaps the feeling of reading pure text on a computer screen is
something that you just have to be of a certain age to fully
appreciate. I can still vividly remember my college and graduate
school in the days of VT100 terminals with green or amber text
scrolling by at 300 baud against a black background, just a little
faster than I was comfortable reading. I remember keyboards that
seemed to have a full half-inch of key travel. I remember working on
assignments in computer rooms during the day, surrounded by other
students, having a shared experience, often of frustration, always of
learning. At night–especially late at night, or on holidays–I was
frequently the only one in the room. I would be debugging some code or
running a simulation and after deep brain fry be ready for a few
minutes of exploration. That was how I discovered email in the mid
1980’s before that was a even a word that most people had in their
vocabularies. Back then, email was commonly referred to as electronic
mail. Later, it became e-mail, and then finally email. I also have
a vague memory of usenet, though I didn’t have time to delve into it
much. I wish I had had more time in those days to smell the mainframe
flowers. I remember better the text-based computer games of the early
1980’s. Those were the days when text was king on microcomputers, as
they were called then, simply because the computers that individuals
could afford to buy didn’t have the power to present the flood of
eye-candy that we are force-fed today.

The allure of text is about more than just nostalgia. It is primarily
about the transmission of information. Even in this
Youtube-and-podcast-centered generation, nearly six hundred years
after the invention of the printing press, text is still what we use
when we are primarily interested in conveying in-depth information.
Other media focus primarily on entertainment with information
transmittal sometimes as a secondary goal. Information that must be
digested slowly is still best conveyed with text.

The beauty of text is most apparent when we look at it through the
lens of useful information conveyed. Text is the most
information-dense medium on the Internet. We say a picture is worth a
thousand words. How much real information is conveyed in this ten
minute and 16 second, 1080p
cat
video
on Youtube? I do not deny that entertainment has value and
is therefore useful in some way. But, one of the things that irks
me when I am looking for information about a computer-related topic
is to discover that the only information available on the
Internet is in the form of a Youtube video. This is the worst medium
for conveying technical information that I can think of. However, I
understand that the author of the video may have chosen that format
because it was likely to deliver the largest audience of any format
to which he had easy access.

Let’s look at just how efficient text is in comparison to other
media. Leaving aside arguments that can be made about what
constitutes useful information, no one can deny that this cat video
takes up 150.6 MB of storage space or that it takes about 100 seconds
to download across a slower 12 Mb/s Internet connection. The same
amount of storage space can hold about 5.2 hours of 64 Kb/s MP3 audio
data or about 25,000,000 words of ASCII text. That is the equivalant
of around 40,000 pages of text in a paper book. It is the equivalent
of about 11,000, fifteen-hundred-word static web pages when the
inefficiencies in hand-coded HTML and meta tags are folded in. It is
more like 1,100 fifteen-hundred-word web pages coded by WordPress
software. Eleven thousand, 1500-word webpages read aloud at 160 words
per minute would take about 1700 hours to read. Reading silently at
300 words per minute would take about 920 hours. So, I would argue
that for each human-brain-absorable unit of 1080p video informaton
stored on a hard drive, something like 30 units of useful audio
information or at least 9,900 units of useful text information could
be stored in the same space. That is nearly ten thousand times as
much useful text information as 1080p video information.

But, why should anyone care about the efficiency of data storage and
transmission? Hard drives are cheap. We now have gigabit per second
Internet connections–well, at least a few of us do. Why in the year
2020 should we acknowledge the beauty of text as the most efficient
means of conveying information? I can think of several good reasons.
But first, let me just state that not caring how much space is taken
up on a hard drive illustrates the mode of thinking behind the
phenomenon of data expanding to fill the space available. This
phenomenon has plagued humanity since we first learned to store
information and has cost truly staggering amounts of money. I will
now address the role of efficient data storage and transmission in
free speech.

Text and Free Speech

Perhaps the most important reason to acknowledge the beauty of text in
efficiently conveying information is that we have nearly lost the
battle for control of the Internet to commercial companies whose only
motive is profit at the expense of all else. I should also point out
that companies are regulated by governments whose major concern is
usually remaining in power. It appears to me that geeks increasingly
reject the eye-candy that predatory websites of large companies use to
lure childish “normies” into their cars. That sounds like I’m being
overly judgmental of average Internet users. Maybe I am. I just feel
that most of what is wrong with the Internet these days is the fault
of the majority of its users. They have made themselves the cattle of
the Internet by allowing themselves to be corralled into Facebook’s
and Google’s corals. The cravings that normies have for inane
eye-candy has given giant companies like Facebook the power to
dominate the Internet in ways that are beneficial to Facebook and
damaging to the rest of humanity.

The big question is to what ends are these companies using their
power? And, how will they use it in the future? Facebook’s primary
goal is to keep users on its website for as long as possible. Most
likely, Facebook could not care less about transmitting useful
information, except as one means of keeping users on its website.
Facebook and Google combined with other major companies now
have the power to effectively bar a large portion of Internet users
from accessing small websites, or any website that has not paid for
eyes on pages through the purchase of key words in search results. I
call this obscuration “the commercial smog of the Internet”.

I have seen for myself that rather than using the key words that I
specify in the meta tags of my articles, Google chooses key words on
which to base its search results that are in my opinion largely
irrelevant. The result is that Google does not lead readers to my
website who are looking for the information that I have to impart. In
my opinion, the vast majority of readers that Google sends to my
website are led there by keywords that have little or nothing to do
with the information that I have to convey. The result is that
readers who happen to be led by Google to my articles most likely
leave immediately. Google can then use this to justify an even
lower ranking of my articles in its search results.

Google and Facebook effectively choose which websites many users
visit. This means that they control the information users see. This
is the real problem. Pervading the Internet that large corporations
have established under the supervision of governments is the idea that
users should be “protected” from untrustworthy websites containing
unreliable or false information. But having set themselves up as the
arbiters of truth, large corporations have put themselves in a
position to filter out legitimate opposing views. They now have the
power to erect censorship barriers to prevent individual voices from
exposing fallacies in any narratives they may choose to present to the
public.

In practical terms, this means that much of what regular people like
you and I say on the Internet can be hidden from most Internet users.
One example can be illustrated by an article I posted several weeks
ago on one social media website. The article explained the reasons I
no longer vote in political elections. It received close to 2000
page views before it was pulled less than half an hour after I posted
it. No reason was given. My guess is that my article did not fit
well with the world view that large corporations and governments are
cultivating in their workers and tax payers.

Large companies have also very effectively barred all individual
Internet users except the most determined and knowledgeable, I would
guess perhaps 0.01% of users, from running their own email servers.
So, we are for the most part forced to use company-provided email
services. As
a result, we are subject to their terms and conditions, which some
have used to justify reading our private emails. Luckily, there are
still alternatives like Protonmail, but one has to wonder how long
they will remain available.

At least part of the problem of restricted free speech on the Internet
can be solved with a more pervasive use of text that gives
individuals the power to speak from their own websites using limited
bandwidth and computing power. But before this can be effective, the
average Internet user must be educated sufficiently that he becomes
willing to go on an eye-candy diet. Only then, will small websites be
able to meaningfully compete as a group with giant corporations for
the eyes of average Internet users.

While I am on the topic of free speech, let me speak briefly about the
mainstream Internet alternatives. Decentralized networks like
ZeroNet, IPFS, I2P, and others that are run soley on the computers of
their users are subject to many of the same limitations as small
websites. They have limited storage and limited bandwidth, because
their users have limited storage and limited bandwidth. It may be
difficult to see if you do not have direct experience using them, but
believe me (or don’t), it is true. They are mainly useful for
transmitting text. They do transmit audio, pictures, and videos, but
they do not do it well. I have seen first-hand how users from 8chan
flooded into ZeroNet immediately after 8chan was shut down, only to
leave a few weeks later when they could not get what they were
looking for, a largely visual experience. The fact that decentralized
networks have limited ability to transmit the eye-candy that the
average Internet user wants means they will probably continue for
some time to have only a small voice in the increasingly one-way
conversation that is the Internet.

You are no doubt aware that this article begins with a picture. The
reason I include pictures in most of my articles is in the unlikely
event that an average Internet user stumbles upon one, he will be less
likely to leave immediately. I try very hard to limit pictures to 50
KB per article. I do this for two reasons. The first is that in order
to keep page loading times low, I have to reduce the bandwidth
required. The second is that on rare occasions when a large number
of readers want to read an article I have just posted on social
media, I have to keep the amount of data associated with the article
small enough to make that
possible
. If not for the fact that I am transmitting
this information to you largely through the use of text, I would not
be able to provide it for free. Being forced to take money from
advertisers to pay for the functioning of this website would mean
that I would likely be at least partially hampered from telling the
truth as I see it.

ISP’s do not Recognize Our Right to Run Websites from Home

Unfortunately, limited bandwidth and computing power are not the only
problems that plague operators of small websites. In the year 2020,
most Internet service providers do not recognize residential customers
running their own websites as making legitimate use of their Internet
connections. Have you ever wondered why? Is it simply because too
few residential customers run their own websites? Perhaps. It cannot
be due to the reason ISP’s usually give, which is increased traffic.
The average blog only receives something like 3,000 page views a
month, or about 1.5 GB of data transmitted a month in the case of a
WordPress blog. That is the equivalent of only a couple of hours of
Netflix watching. In the last six or seven years, I cannot
recall hearing any
ISP claim that watching Netflix is not a legitimate use of residential
customers’ Internet connections. Thank goodness that applications
like Skype and interactive gaming are seen as legitimate needs, or
residential customers would have virtually no upload capability at
all!

Text Conserves Natural Resources

Another reason to acknowledge the beauty of text is that we have
something like 4.6
billion people
accessing the Internet. All that access consumes
vast resources. By some estimates, the Internet uses
10%
of the world’s electricity
. In the US alone, about
500
million tons
of coal are burned per year just to generate
electricity. If we could increase efficiency significantly by using
text-only web pages, or even text-mostly web pages, wherever possible,
we could save an enormous amount of resources. And if that seems too
far outside the realm of your personal self interest to concern you,
think how much faster web pages would load if we could only somehow
convince marketers to stop using so much
eye-candy and
tracking software
to lure buyers into making purchases.

Final Words

To wrap this up, let me just say that if text really is making a
comeback among geeks, there are good reasons. Text has the potential
to free us from the Internet information gatekeepers, and in so doing
make us more free to speak our minds and actually be heard on the
Internet. Text can also help us conserve more of our limited natural
resources. When given a choice between the dispersal of eye-candy and
the dissemination of useful information, the thoughtful practice of
choosing text could be a continual reminder that just because we can
fill our websites with useless junk does not mean we should. Alas, if
only we could somehow educate average Internet users to stop craving
eye-candy over substance.

If you’ve found this article worthwhile, please share it on your
favorite social media, so average Internet users will be able to read
it. You’ll find links at the top of the page.

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ZeroNet and the Future of the Internet

The Next Internet

A Death Certificate for Free Speech on the Centralized Internet

Running a Small Website without Commercial Software or Hosting Services: Lessons Learned

How to Serve Over 100K Web Pages a Day on a Slower Home Internet Connection

My Search for Alternative Social Networks

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