How ad-supported social platforms have taken the web out of the World Wide Web (and reasons to believe it might return)
Ever wondered why some LinkedIn posts say ‘Link in comments’?
It’s because the LinkedIn algorithm downweights posts with links in them. So, by linking to this post from LinkedIn (rather than reposting it there minus the links), it will be seen by fewer people.
What does LinkedIn have against links, I hear you ask? Well, they take eyeballs away from LinkedIn, where they can’t be monetised (at least, not by LinkedIn). So content creators are incentivised to post their content directly to LinkedIn without any links.
Of course, LinkedIn isn’t the only social platform adopting this tactic; Twitter and Facebook both appear to favour posts without external links.
Instagram and TikTok go one step further and don’t allow any links in posts, leading to the even more user-unfriendly ‘Link in bio’ convention.
It’s a far cry from the origins of the web, where freely linking between different domains was a foundational tenet, encouraging attribution, source checking and the discovery of new online spaces.
It’s symptomatic of where ad-supported social platforms have led us - to the digital equivalent of half a dozen Hotel Californias, where the exit signs are hard to find and the whole experience is designed to keep us wandering the corridors for as long as possible.
Of course, without interconnecting threads, a web ceases to be a web. According to Sandvine, the web now accounts for less than 10% of global internet traffic, whilst video, social and gaming apps account for 72%. We appear to have slept-walked from the World Wide Web to World Wide Walled Gardens.
All of the social platforms are awash with screencaps of content from the other platforms, often without attribution or Alt text (making the content invisible to those reliant on screen readers) and rarely with a link.
Meanwhile, the tech giants have failed to embrace RSS, a key foundational technology for connectivity between domains. Google shut down Google Reader in 2013 and Apple iOS devices shrug their shoulders whenever a user has the audacity to tap on an RSS link (displaying a ‘Cannot Open Page’ message).
There are some glimmers of hope however.
The growth of ad-free publishing platforms like Medium and Substack, where inline links abound, points to the potential for scale publishing platforms outside of the global tech giants’ social silos.
And whilst a painful onboarding experience may continue to keep Mastodon from going mainstream, its recent rapid growth (almost exclusively as a result of the dumpster fire that is Elon Musk’s Twitter) has given more people a taste of what a social platform not reliant on advertising revenue could be like (although content moderation remains a challenge). Post also looks interesting, although you’ll have to get in line behind the 350,000 people already on their waitlist.
Meanwhile, Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey appears to have had a road to Damascus experience and is now a vocal proponent of more open approaches, including his Bluesky decentralised social protocol, which is promising “algorithmic choice” and which therefore wouldn’t have to prioritise on-platform engagement at the expense of interconnectedness.
There’s also reason to believe that the huge number of talented employees laid off by tech companies in recent months might lead to a flourishing of new online platforms that are more interconnected and which learn some lessons about where ad-dependency tends to lead from MAMAA (Meta, Apple, Microsoft, Amazon, Alphabet).
I was also heartened to see the level of interest in Phil Gyford’s new blog directory, ooh.directory, which attracted almost 200,000 unique visitors in just four days after launch.
Maybe the web isn’t dead. It’s just been hibernating…
Thanks for reading Dan’s Media Sandwich! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.