Whilst the following piece is cynical I am hopeful for a future return to The Innocent Web. I see it happening all around me on Substack and in The Soaring Twenties Social Club. I see artistry being pursued and this makes me very happy. See this essay as a warning signal. A shot across the bow. A reminder to get back to something meaningful. Let’s commence.
I have been down in London for the last couple of days. I say “down” as I’m from “The North” and it’s useful to remind you of my roots at any available opportunity. I am, after all, from Yorkshire. We had a lovely time, saw a few shows and wandered around.
Last night we were wandering around Edgware Road. I was walking with my girlfriend as a woman approached from the other direction. She was hunched, timid-looking. She had a bunch of roses and I could see what was coming next from a mile away.
She reached my girlfriend and the hunch disappeared. She straightened up and handed my girlfriend a rose and smiled. My other half—being a nice person from a Northern town—smiled back and accepted the rose.
As soon as the rose was accepted the old woman’s face became serious.
“What do you mean 2 pounds?”
“2 pounds for the rose.”
“I haven’t got any change. I don’t carry cash.”
“1 pound then.”
“I haven’t got any change!”
“50p. I need to feed my family.”
“I’m sorry. I have no cash. Just take the rose back please.”
My downtrodden better half gave back the rose and walked quickly away, whilst I gave her a knowing smile.
You see, the rose was never the rose. The rose was the misdirection. The rose was always just an illusion of a nice gesture. The rose itself was an excuse to play to someone’s innate desire to reciprocate a nice gesture.
Let’s return to the rose in a little while. First, allow me to give you a rushed, potted and probably incorrect history lesson about the World Wide Web.
The innocent web
The World Wide Web was originally designed as a research tool for academics. As you might expect from a research tool, it was specifically designed to be read and also written. It was mostly black text on a white background with the ability to link writings together—a key part of what made the whole idea of HyperText quite revolutionary.
In those early very un-hedonistic days of the web you’d be hard-pushed to find anything that wasn’t designed to be read. Articles and research papers were written with the express desire of them being read. Revolutionary, I know.
The whole web was a place full of very useful things. You could believe what you read. It was written by intelligent people. It was backed by research. Of course they still had agendas and we could debate for days about the idea of whether research really reveals the truth…but there was an effort. A desire to write useful things. Revolutionary, I know.
And then even when the normies arrived on the web people were writing lovely little blogs and taking part in lovely little forums to discuss lovely little interesting things. There was an innocence to it all. Nobody truly understood where this whole thing might go.
The web was the place to read and to write. We could trust what we read and we trusted what we saw because there was no obvious agendas being pushed. A young and innocent place.
The sticky web
Fast forward to now, well over two decades later, and you’d be hard pushed to find anything that is written to be read on the web. The article, the essay, the research paper, is a dying breed amongst a web that is still mostly comprised of words.
We now have more videos than we could ever consume in a lifetime. More words than we could read in a million lifetimes. More websites than we could ever discover. Information overload is now in the dictionary. So is phishing, disinformation and probably fake news.
Between Twitter masquerading as news, news websites masquerading on Twitter, personal blogs masquerading as news, news masquerading as personal blogs, Facebook posts masquerading as personal opinions and personal opinions masquerading as fact we officially entered a zero trust zone.
The web is now a place where we can’t trust what we read and we can’t read the things we could trust because we’ve had our attention spans eroded.
The article is now The Rose
But it goes deeper than that I think. Now we can’t trust anything most writers aren’t even trying to write things we can trust. There’s always a reason for the article existing. Every article is The Rose, pretending to give you something whilst asking for something in return.
Oftentimes it feels innocent. You might get asked for your cookies or you might have to view an advert. You might be asked for an email address to get useful access to something.
But that’s the problem.
The article is not the article. The article is now The Rose. So effortlessly addicting. So full of engagement tactics and psychological tricks that there’s no room for artistry. No room to write for writing’s sake, or make for making’s sake.
Then again, there’s no reason for artistry. No value to becoming good at something. If I can get more eyeballs on an average article by using a few physiological hacks why would I spend extra time actually getting good?
Artistry is being strangled by The Rose.
The Rose 2.0
At some point in the last 22 years of me using the web it transformed from an open book to a dangerous rose. Just like the rose that my girlfriend innocently took, every interaction looks well-meaning and beautiful.
We are surrounded by thousands of beautiful roses every day that we are compelled to take. That cat video looks fun. Those Twitter notifications should be responded to. Those emails should be dealt with. That “7 steps to a healthier happier you” should be read. Then maybe it should be shared.
It’s only after we take the rose that the true price is revealed to us. You see, the rose used to be a rose, but now?
The rose is just a misdirection.