The Web has become an awful place to read
Monday, 27 September, 2021 — web writing
Somewhere in the past 10 years or so, the Web has become terrible for reading and readers. We don’t suffer from lack of writing quality, or quantity. Enough lands in my feed reader, via email newsletter, or on Twitter daily such that I will never want for something new to read. My queue of Instapaper articles or saved browser tabs will tell you this has been the case for some time.
No, I mean, the act of reading itself on the Web, in general terms, has gotten worse over time with outright hostility toward readers. The design of news sites, particularly regional and local newspapers that aren’t making the sort of nationwide play for subscribers that The New York Times or The Washington Post are have gotten worse.
I mean the slow accumulation of weight that modern sites have taken on. The sliding interruptions. Paragraphs that shift as you’re reading them because the surrounding ad positions have reloaded and the page text has reflowed. Autoplaying video, with sound, that “helpfully” moves itself to a bottom corner of your browser window as you scroll down the page. The newsletter modal after you’ve scrolled to read the second paragraph. It will offer a “Maybe not right now” passive aggressive dismissal.
It’s the alert message that tells you the site would like to send you notifications when they post new content. “Yes” or “Maybe later”. Never, “No, thank you, do not ask me again.” I’ve already breezed past the persistent cookie banner with several questions. I’ll come back to that.
The newsletter thing bugs me, because I see it so often on sites. Do I want, right now, to interrupt what I was in the middle of doing, to subscribe to a newsletter. Friends, I was in the middle of reading. I have seen it, too, where I go to site, having clicked on a link, from the newsletter, and see the admonishment to subscribe to the newsletter. I think because sites and their advertisers view newsletters as higher quality and thus more valuable than Web traffic. That feels right, but, also seems like punishing a reader instead of rewarded them with fewer obstacles and interruptions for doing exactly what the newsletter asked of them.
What a site could do, should do even, is shift the reader analytics tracking they’re doing for ad placements to smoothing the reader’s path. Skip showing that newsletter reader your subscription call to action.
The cookie banner bugs me severely. Ostensibly, this is a site telling you they’re saving your customizations and want to tailor recommendations to you. I think a lot of that, specifically, is bullshit. Being able to track what you read between different properties, that an ad provider can show you retargeted ads, from site-to-site. That it will do. It will also help feed Google Analytics and whatever profile Facebook has for you and whichever other ad tech vendors a site makes use of.
The analytics practice is a lot. Google gets to know tons about you as a reader. Sites get free analytics tools, but, that’s essentially a side-business for Google in exchange for acquiring more information. I think, too, site managers and owners don’t know how to treat or read the analytic data they have because they keep pivoting to video.
The other regrettable practice that comes out of this is click-chasing by lots of “news” sites rewriting stories from somewhere else. This is completely different in spirit from the early 2000s weblog practice of linking and adding some context or explanation for wonderful things. Jason Kottke still does this, and bless him for it. No, this practice leads to the Rolling Stone rewrite of an incomplete local news story, and then everyone riffing off of that. Rolling Stone and other sites do rewrites like this to attract traffic for ad positions.
Meanwhile, browsers like Firefox, Brave, and Safari have taken to reporting on what invasive techniques they’re blocking from sites. By comparison, Google’s Chrome is still advertiser friendly. It certainly helps Google’s business. Chrome, Firefox and Safari had lots of available ad-blocking plugins. Site ads become more intrusive and annoying. For a time, a lot of sites carried straight-up malware in their ads, because websites outsourced everything about the online advertising side of the. Malware ads carried readers away from the site reading to some tar pit with even worse practices trying to get victimes to install something nefarious or part with banking information.
It got worse. Advertising networks bought the ad blocking browser plugins and turned them into ads. Websites added plugin detectors to block readers from reading if they wouldn’t let the site’s advertising try to grift them.
Another contemptible practice is not even loading the whole article at once. Instead, a few paragraphs, separated by ad positions and then some manner of “Click to read more” button. I haven’t figured out the why here. The expensive page-retrieval and load has already occurred. Maybe it’s a manner of protecting against reader modes or other weird robot mitigation. It seems related to a largely disappeared trend to split web articles across multiple pages.
Now, let’s say a reader makes it well into an article, perhaps to the end. I hope that reader is expecting chumboxes, because that’s what’s there. In the past, a news article would have three or six terrible ads for get rich quick or lose weight fast schemes. Now, those lousy and deceptive visual ads will darn near infinitely scroll on some websites. Famous crypto surgeon knows the 30 second routine to clear out your offline wallet. Do this once everyday, and throw away this vegetable.
What I find frustrating is news sites have made putting any sort of news article in context much harder than it ought to be. Stories typically aren’t updated to point at newer, more complete information. It’s rarely possible to know if a particular article contains the most recent information a news organization has. But, somehow, simultaneously, looking through archives in a systematic fashion or even just browsing to past-days news is nigh impossible.
Substantial responsibility for the reading experience decline I’m describing lays at the feet of the news industry through a combination of the collapse of advertising revenue and a disinclination to maintain in-house expertise.
In 1999, at the beginning of my brief reporting and editing career, the newspaper I worked at, the Press-Tribune of Roseville, Calif., did not have an internal library. The company that bought it joined it with several other local newspapers in the foothills and suburbs east of Sacramento and cut staff, including the librarian. They sold off the presses, sublet the now empty half of the offices formerly occupied by the press, and printed the papers from a central facility in Auburn. Our work computers has small hard drives, even for the time. We could only keep two or three editions of the paper’s QuarkXPress files around before our managing editor came around and removed anything but established templates. After the paper went to press, a week or so later, we had no company-maintained record of what we’d printed. This working arrangement was pretty informative for where the rest of the news industry ended up by 2021.
The way this plays out online is archives start off terribly, and get worse over time. Newpapers change online publishing systems and URLs change, and it’s rare for a paper or news site to either redirect old urls or migrate the articles at the old address to a new system. The New York Times_ does it well, as does The Atlantic magazine. Lots of local news sites, however, do not, and our communities, local and online, are poorer for it. The attention sites pay to their site design has declined, apart from finding more opportunities to interrupt readers.
Readers deserve better.