Developers need to turn their attention to infosites
Author: Daniel Cuttridge
Most people's tech heroes are Elon Musk, Steve Jobs, Linus Torvalds, Jack Dorsey, and co. I like them too - though I find myself most interested in names like Jimmy Wales, Jack Herrick, and of course, Tim Berners-Lee. Each responsible for the creation of the informational empires they are now most credited for.
Information on the web offers access to what you could not get outside of college lecture halls, for everyone. At the individual level, it can help save lives, or show you how to change a lightbulb... In millions of big and small ways, access to free & accurate information makes things better for people.
Despite that quality infosites (informational websites), such as Wikipedia, are among some of the most important contributions to the web since its inception, they don't get a lot of positive attention. Perhaps this is because of what we value as a society, and I think that is part of it... But it is not the only reason.
There are now low-quality sites that are pumped out daily by those looking to make a quick buck. We also see traditional news publishers getting in on the action, dishing out affiliate guides alongside the ever more paywalled journalistic pieces. The information is often biased, the reviews often fake, and a lot of us know it.
When you consider both of these things, it is not hard to see why more skilled professionals do not look at infosites as a good use of their time or ability. In the late 00s, the rise of so-called 'rags to riches' social media giants helped this process along. This helped even more computer scientists, developers, and software engineers lose interest in running infosites. It seemed like for the better part of a decade that everyone wanted to work at Google, Apple, and Facebook, or form their own startups. That is changing, but the change is slow.
Today, a lot of people who remember the 'wild west' days of the web are wishing it would go back to how it once was. I would include myself in this group, it was the old web that inspired me to learn to code in 2004. If I were now 14 again - looking at the web today - I am not sure I would bother. That said, I'm here, and so I have a responsibility to fix the problems that I see. With Project Urchin, for example, I decided to tackle an issue involving specific information being actively retracted from the web by companies looking for quick profits.
On the web, the freedom of information, the quality, and the accuracy of information are more at risk than ever. Also, let me be clear... There are not enough people working on these problems to stop the rot.
The many who wanted to work at the corporate tech companies are starting to understand that algorithms have squeezed the life out of the web. The hermetically-sealed filter bubbles that they helped create have diminished the web, and they know it. The problem is that as these talented developers, scientists, and engineers look outward, there is a good chance they will not look to the ecosystem as a whole. If people want the 'feeling' back from the old web, then we need to change what we look at as a good use of time and talent.
More evidence to the idea that informational sites have been overlooked is that we have not seen the full-potential of infosites. With so few talented tech-folk working on infosites, it is no surprise that most infosites out there are low tech. Most of these sites are 'Proudly powered by WordPress', which is sort of like driving a '67 Ford Anglia when everyone else has a Tesla. Yes, we have not seen much progress in these areas for over a decade, except for a few exceptions.
We need progression and reform at many levels...
Things have not only stagnated in terms of technology, but also the diversity of information out there. It is popular to blame Google and there is a lot of blame that is justified... For example, due to a variety of reasons their algorithms do not focus on the information itself as much as they could. It is now hard work to find sites you have not already heard of - even if better information exists. Yet, I do not think it is fair to place all of the blame on them, as individuals, we are also responsible. In one industry I have been involved in over the last 10 years, great articles do not get shared but average articles by big names do. I have also been witness to changing times - where once people blogged, people now tweet all day and speak at conferences.
This is not how things should be.
For those who still aren't convinced that infosites are worth the time and effort, just remember that the web is just an information ecosystem. Just like any ecosystem, there needs to be diversity and there needs to be balance. It is by that reckoning that infosites are a great health marker of the entire ecosystem of the web.
While I do think that social media can be a force for good - if implemented right - it is also not what people referred to when they said that the web is 'the great leveler'. It was around the time that social media really started to explode that people started to say the opposite. When people said the web could be the great leveler, this was based on utopian visions for collaboration, information-freedom, and social mobility.
Right now, wake-up call... It is not.
I love infosites because they enable us to help others, improve our society, and change the world. I also have to love them because I love the web. They are one of the foundational elements to what can enable the web to be great. We just need more people to acknowledge that. We also need better tech designed for it, and we need better minds working on it. There was a time when the web was little more than personal sites, informational sites, webrings, message boards, and forums. Things thrived, or we wouldn't be here. I also think it was that balance that so easily stirs our fondest memories of 'the wild west days of the web'.
Web builders need to look back if they want to move forward.