Ever since I learned about Project Xanadu, Ted Nelson’s quasi-utopian dream and the first hypertext project, not a week goes by that I don’t somehow end up thinking about it. I found it in 2014, when Nelson released an open demoof the project after 54 years of development. Back in the 1960s, he had originally conceived in of it as a “super executive’s console,” used to access interconnected documents but not necessarily connect with other machines. While Nelson himself was prescient about many, many aspects of computing, Xanadu, after a number of fits and starts over the course of decades, exists (publicly, at least) mostly as the demo, sets of rules, and some historical information on the project’s website.
What delighted me about it, besides the project’s long and involved history, was how inefficient Xanadu seemed. Nelson might rankle at that description, but I mean it with admiration. At its best, Project Xanadu seemed to propose an internet of winding paths, where finding the precise piece of information you were looking for was entirely possible, but not prioritized to the exclusion of all the miscellany and context that surrounded it.
I thought about Xanadu again a couple months ago after reading Dan Nosowitz’s brief, elegiac essay about how he doesn’t know how to waste time online anymore. It was really evocative, which admittedly may be because Nosowitz’s experience of the web sounds a lot like my own: posting on and/or lurking message boards, browsing link repositories (like Fark, or Metafilter, or Arts & Letters Daily if you’re feeling a bit fancier), and finding blogs that served no purpose except to be read. He even points out that Facebook, when it still played host to forum-like discussion threads and hadn’t yet transformed fully into a transnational geopolitical entity, was born as part of this world.
This era of hanging out online wasn’t really like Xanadu, and the famously web-loathing Nelson would probably be annoyed at the comparison, but it felt as close as I’ve ever seen. Even if it wasn’t context provided by two-way hyperlinks the way Nelson imagined, what you came across was surrounded by a context that might teach you something new, or lead you to discover something interesting. The web felt awash in contextual information, ephemera, and useless oddities.
And then it didn’t. Nosowitz’s diagnosis of how the internet changed is brief, but compelling:
What happened is that the internet stopped being something you went to in order to separate from the real world — from your job and your work and your obligations and responsibilities. It’s not the place you seek to waste time, but the place you go to so that you’ll someday have time to waste. The internet is a utility world for me now. It is efficient and all-encompassing. It is not very much fun.
He’s right that the internet was a distraction, although I’m not sure I agree that escape was from the real world. There was more space between the real world and the internet before the ubiquity of WiFi and connected devices, but message boards were still about meeting people with the same problems as you, or who might listen to your problems, or even just kibitz about music, make jokes, or roleplay a Jedi. It was a way to experience the real world through a lens that might not be entirely your own, to the degree that was possible. The internet wasn’t for you, it was for you and many others. Going online was the difference between sitting alone at home and wandering around a neighborhood.
But the neighborhoods started to drain. When your town doesn’t have an exit off the highway, fewer people visit. Seven years ago, Virginia Heffernan noted this change, using the same metaphor, in the New York Times, describing message boards dying out as they failed to make money, their members left for Facebook, or both.
After all, who needs a forum when you can talk to people you already know on Facebook? What good are sites like Metafilter or Fark when the news or information you might find on them crosses your various social media feeds? Why click through on some weird website when a Google search will excerpt the information you’re looking for and put it in a box at the top of your search results?
Technically, the internet has landed in a place of success. After all, the model for platforms like Google or Facebook is to give you what you want as quickly and efficiently as possible so that you can be served the thing they’ve determined you’ll want next as quickly and efficiently as possible — usually in ad form. We got so good at it that we no longer expect the internet, or at least not websites, to surprise or delight us.
Instead, we jump from walled garden to walled garden. There are still creative weirdos putting stuff online, but they’re likely posting exclusively to Instagram, or YouTube, or reddit, and users mostly see what filters to the top. What’s lost in the process is whatever you might have found that neither you nor an algorithm might guess is interesting. Some song in a forum thread you idly clicked on, a news item about something you’ve never expressed interest in or heard of that you read because you had 5 minutes to kill and it caught your eye.
The pre-platform internet wasn’t some sort of digital Eden. There was plenty of boring, loathsome, and unfulfilling stuff. But the sorting was part of what made it interesting. One of the things that made sites like Metafilter particularly wonderful is that they forced people to think about and articulate their tastes, thoughts, and feelings not just based on what they liked, but things they had encountered and hated. Showing your work was part of the fun. The promise of platforms now is to do that for you, to become the one place you need to go, which makes them increasingly indispensable, but gives users less of a say.
The internet as we use it now is, for the most part, what the large platforms want it to be: an engine for serving us what their various systems think we want, or what we wanted before, or what our demographics want en masse. It is, as Nosowitz puts it, a utility world, including in the way it tries to give us leisure, catharsis, or fun. But that means hiding context and almost any of the possibility for surprise that comes with it. Perhaps the fun that came with that was an accident of design, a bit of chaff discarded as the internet evolved towards only providing the tiny wheat kernels of precise search results.
But man, that sure was good chaff.
Ethan Chiel is a contributing writer for Track Changes. He read message boards a lot from roughly 2000 to 2016.