The Hyperlink

There's an interesting piece (https://medium.com/matter/the-web-we-have-to-save-2eb1fe15a426) over at medium.com by previously jailed Iranian blogger Hossein Derakhshan reflecting on how the web has changed since he originally went to jail and where we are now.  It's rather long, but worth a read.  There aren't too many major surprises in his opinions: the web has become much more centralized around Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc. (i.e. social media servers), streams and their content selection algorithms dominate what people see, we are seldom exposed to ideas that challenge our own (you don't often see a comment to the effect of "sir, I am deeply offended by your kitten meme and wish to raise the point that..."), and other points that many people would, these days, just consider behind the times.  

Derakhshan centers his argument around the disappearance of the "hyperlink" as an object that appears in "hypertext," at least in the way that it was previously used by bloggers to wrap in the opinions of others, and content that lived in different corners of the internet from where theirs was hosted.  He reflects that hyperlinks on social media sites are often only inward facing, linking to content hosted in-house only, or forcing a user to view external content in the social media's own "browser."  He also makes the point that these links are often to images, or videos, and rarely to text, and rarely does a link exist in a larger context; links today often exist as standalone "shares" that people then like, dislike, reshare without much more than 140 characters of how the link fits into their life.

To me, Derakhshan's opinions first smacked of someone unwilling to embrace a new reality.  Being out of the public eye for a few years lost him the sway that he previously enjoyed, that frustrated him, and perhaps if he had a few thousand more followers on social media the medium.com article would have never been written.  But the "old-timer" in me couldn't help but give this guy a thorough read-through.

As I see it, the hyperlink by itself is not the point, but rather what the hyperlink stands for, and consequently its disappearance or shift in usage represents.  To me, the hyperlink Derakhshan is referencing represented a jump to a different server, a different piece of the internet that someone entirely separate from you controlled; the hyperlink represents the decentralized nature of the web and the kind of wild-west, free-thinking, free-love, free-speech world that existed outside of the control of the social media sites.  Prior to social media, it was possible to develop a huge following for your website directly, through linking and generating insightful content.  Today, few websites exist without any social media presence to help boost their influence, and "clickbait" will always grab more eyes than thoughtful think-pieces such as Derakhshan was used to finding and creating.  

After reading through the article a couple of times, for me it boiled down to the fact that everything that he said was on the money.  We are entering and in many ways very much in the next iteration of the internet whether we're ready for it or not.  I think everyone is entitled to write a few pieces like Derakhshan's lamenting the loss of the world they're used to, but ultimately you have to make a decision.  Are you writing to gain followers, and to influence people?  Is your goal to reach as many people as possible?  Then you have to follow what the people are doing to some extent.  Or are you an idealist, content to insist on your own methods, and the world your were used to prior to the shift?  

For me personally, I've opted for the idealist route in as many ways as possible right now.  I don't have any social media presence, this website is the only place I post my opinions, and I try to get my news from sites that don't just pander to getting the most clicks or likes on facebook (npr.com, slashdot.org, arstechnica.com and I lurk on #xkcd at irc.foonetic.com).  One day, I hope to be able to afford my own server where I can host this website independent of a third party publication service such as SquareSpace or Wordpress.  Through all of these choices I've made, I'm fairly "disconnected" from things, which can feel a bit lonely.  I joke that having this website is like yelling into a forest: no one can hear me, so I can pretty much say whatever I want, but it's a choice I've made because the disappearance of the hyperlink, or put a different way, the centralization of the web and ideas, scares me.

As individuals we have to make decisions about how we use the internet.  I made my choice in my sophomore year of college when I spent more time on Facebook complaining about facebook than I did enjoying it.  At that moment it became clear to me that the only way to exercise any power over facebook (or insert any other social media name you want here) was to simply not be a part of it.  You'll see it after every major update to facebook: loads of groups will develop to "change things back" or some other nonsense.  The absurdity of it all is hilarious.  Similarly, right after Derakhshan bookends his piece with "[This] is the web we have to save," a statement that the reader should sit with and ruminate on, within ten words at the footer you see "Follow Matter on Twitter" and "Like us on Facebook."

So to Derakhshan: your people exist out there, myself included in that crowd.  It's more work, and you enjoy less exposure (I'm not actually comparing my blog to the likes of which you had prior to going to jail), but you have to put your money where your mouth is at some point.  Otherwise you're just another asshole complaining about Facebook on Facebook, or Tweeting about how much Twitter frustrates you.  I'd encourage you to go dark on social media.  Email your friends your link to your website on whatever they use (social media included).  Write thoughtful pieces outside of these new central publishing and content clearing houses.  Host your own content.  It's the only way the web you're lamenting the loss of can ever continue to exist.  That web needs people like you to continue your life there and not jump on social media for the quick "likes" and "hearts."