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Maybe good things should not be easy to find.

Where have all the websites gone?:

Somewhere between the late 2000’s aggregator sites and the contemporary For You Page, we lost our ability to curate the web. Worse still, we’ve outsourced our discovery to corporate algorithms. Most of us did it in exchange for an endless content feed. By most, I mean upwards of 90% who don’t make content on a platform as understood by the 90/9/1 rule. And that’s okay! Or, at least, it makes total sense to me. Who wouldn’t want a steady stream of dopamine shots?

The rest of us, posters, amplifiers, and aggregators, traded our discovery autonomy for a chance at fame and fortune. Not all, but enough to change the social web landscape.

Jason is right—blogs never went anywhere. Neither, for that matter, did RSS. There does seem to be a minor resurgence of blogging—or maybe just of think-pieces about it—but people have been writing on their blogs and personal websites all along. The problem is that they have all been really hard to find.

I think he’s got the right idea here, that we used to know how to do this.

When I first joined Twitter in 2008, the list of people I followed was basically The Two Degrees Of Leo LaPorte, i.e., people who were guests on This Week In Tech, which is where I first heard about Twitter. I gradually expanded the list of people I followed and tended to it fairly closely over the years. Between this method and the fact that I mostly used third-party Twitter clients rather than their native app or their web interface, Twitter was pretty great for me for a good number of years. I never had the experience that so many people complained about, where ads, trending topics, and suggested follows overwhelmed my feed and made it tedious and unusable. The stuff in my feed were the accounts that I had sought out and chosen to follow and I regularly muted topics and unfollowed accounts that I didn’t want to see.

I think these habits came pretty naturally to me because I had developed them in the early days of using RSS to follow blogs and other websites. Starting with an initial and pretty basic set of sites to which I subscribed in my RSS reader, I gradually expanded my subscriptions based on the stuff that people I liked and found interesting linked to. If a particular site started getting tedious, I unsubscribed.

In both cases, I consistently had a feed of posts that were useful, interesting, and amusing, and none of it came from algorithmic recommendations. It took a lot of work and attention over a long period of time on my part, but it was worth it. Even through the worst of the 2016 and 2020 election mayhem, my Twitter feed remained pretty reasonable—again, with regular maintenance and pruning—and my RSS reader was fine.

Twitter, of course, is gone now. I wiped out my account when Elon Musk bought it and have not looked back. I moved to Mastodon and my strategy there has been the same: start with a relatively small number of people to follow, see who they’re linking to, try following some of those people, and keep branching out from there. And always pruning and maintaining.

My point in relating all of this process I have gone through is not that it is the right process for everyone. Rather, it is that there is no easy solution to how to find interesting stuff on the web. It is work, and it takes attention over time.

The good websites are out there. They always have been. They’re hard to find, and we have collectively bought into—or have been deliberately lured into—this idea that they should be easy to find, that technology will solve this problem for us. Technology will not solve this problem, and that is okay. We should stop trying to make it solve this problem; I am skeptical that we should even be trying to solve it. I don’t think we should be trying to take the humans out of the process.

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