I spewed my anger at how The internet is shit, and it’s getting worse the other day. Yesterday, I saw an update video from the Browser Company, the folks behind Arc browser, which is now the primary browser on my Mac. These guys keep teaching their browser new tricks using AI.
While I’m not sold on that idea (more on that soon), their heart is in the right place: keeping Google and its ads and annoying pop-ups out of the picture entirely. In this video showing off the new features, there’s an example of what’s broken with browsing today.
For a while now, I wondered why every page I open starts the same way: a lengthy introduction that looks like a boilerplate of the last one I read, telling me everything I already know. For example, if I search for “how to skip the introduction in web pages,” the first result is a page with a huge header image, and then (ironically) a couple of paragraphs introducing the problem. The actual content starts a third way in, after a couple of ads, because of course. We’re so used to this by now that we can’t imagine a different way. By the way, I used Duck Duck Go to search.
Back in my day… (but seriously, ask anyone over 25), we wouldn’t have so many crappy results flooded with ads. The sites that start with “15 reasons why…” would be labeled as “content farms,” and you’d know to stay away from them; I think some search engines even filtered those out.
The problem, of course, is Google and SEO. Websites make money from Google (usually), and to make the most profit, they need to be at the top of the search results. Once there, the practice is typically to splash you with a couple of ads before you get to the main content to ensure their highest-paying advertisers will be satisfied that their ads made it to your rolling eyeballs before you click away in dismay.
Arc browser wants to get around this with what they call (for now) Arc Explore: " ‘A tool for automating a browsing journey from end to end,’ with the promise that you can ask for information on any subject or question and Arc will scour the internet and use AI to generate a summary with links and information" (from The Verge). I don’t like the idea of using AI because AI can (and will) also be manipulated. We will just end up with “AIO” instead of SEO. It’s fixing a problem with another potential problem. The solution, rather, is humans.
But with humans, we have two problems. First, we’re lazy and don’t bother searching as much as we used to. When did you last search for something with your desktop computer and go beyond the second or third page of your search engine? Do you know - and use - search filters for what you need? Or do you just pull up your iPhone and ask Siri to do it for you?
The second problem is finding human-generated results. Even if there is a place where a bunch of humans have good, thoughtful answers (say, an independent forum of a sort), chances are this place won’t be at the top of the page or even show up at all unless you specifically know what to look for. Reddit is one example that, for the time being, is still working OK (Reddit is full of humans, but how the company is run is a different story), but even results from there can get buried.
Over at geek land, AKA fosstodon.org, I often learn about “digital gardens” or human-created databases. Usually, these are self-made wikis or help pages. Private and personal blogs often have good content about specific (and often hard-to-find) content. For example, consider this post from Hollie about growing out hair. It links to my response, how to care for a blad head. Internet forums are built around the same idea, but finding them today and then finding a specific topic inside these forums is a chore compared to “just Google it.”
Fun fact: there used to be a day when you could ask your librarian to help you search a topic online, and not only they’d help you, but they’d also advise you on how to quote your sources correctly and where to find more information. Today, Google and AI are filling in that role. The big difference is that Sally from your library will not try to sell you tickets to a vacation in Florida when you look for information about mashed potatoes because Sally doesn’t get a dime for doing so. It’s just extra work you don’t care about, and she doesn’t have the time for. But there’s something else important here: human interaction.
When you talk to Sally, you may also notice that there’s an interesting book resting on the counter. You stand in line, and the man in front of you is asking her about Nicholas Cage, which reminds you of an article you read about him the other day, and you might join the conversation. You might also notice that Sally has a cup of coffee from Starbucks next to her, and you’d enjoy sharing a local gem of a coffee shop you discovered the other day that makes cheaper and better coffee.
In the age of productivity and AI, all this “extra noise” is cut off. We don’t need it, so it’s irrelevant (but a vacation in Florida is, apparently). We’re starting to find out how lonely we all feel without these. That’s also what bothers me with Arc and the Browsing Company. The middleman is not the problem; it’s/who/ the middleman is. I understand the enthusiasm, but it’s misplaced.
I don’t want to finish another post on a negative note, so let me remind you that human-generated information is still alive and well - you just need to look harder. You know what? This gives me an idea for a fun challenge. Whenever I search next, I also want to see if I can find a human response by asking other folks. It may take longer, but I’d like to see what the human answer would give me versus the Google/DuckDuckGo one. Why won’t you try to do that with me? We might end up with a bunch of random, interesting questions and answers.