Make the world small again

December 15, 2022

The world has gotten too big.

A lot of online services that we've come to rely on are too intent on serving everyone. In the process, they serve no one well. Similarly, governments are trying very hard to generalize and set universal rules and policies that ultimately cause more problems than they solve. I won't talk about that latter issue in this post, though, as that would make this far longer than it needs to be. So, online services.

Media Services

Streaming services like Spotify, Netflix, and so on have increasingly retired media that I'd really like to continue to have available. The reasons are varied, but usually boil down to licensing changes. For the past decade or so, I've put up with this because I usually only watch a given movie or show once every decade or so. Music streaming services like Spotify and Apple Music offer a huge wealth of music, but... even with all of that available, I tend to stick to particular genres or artists. Also, I have some eclectic tastes in music, and some of these songs have never been available on streaming services, or have been retired after licensing changes.

Yesterday, I saw a post on Mastodon that stuck with me. Here it is, reproduced in text form because I hate screenshots of text:

Kids this is a reminder to collect physical copies of your favorite media. Corporations will axe your favorite show/movie/book in front of its family and make it a felony to retrieve it. Have a library.

The author is It was posted on Dec 14, 2022 at 02:45. Here's a link to the post.

I think I've hit a tipping point where I agree fully with this sentiment. If you don't own something, it can disappear at any time, for any reason, and there's nothing you can do about it. A lot of these streaming services are starting to optimize for "waves" of content, and licensing titles for shorter periods of time.

I still want to digitally access all of this content. I don't really want to have a massive physical library, as that can take up a huge amount of space. My parents had a collection of over 400 VHS tapes and hundreds of books twenty years ago. They filled rooms with that. So that leaves me with building and operating my own private streaming service.

Which... is easier than you might think. I've set up a Jellyfin server and begun loading media that I already own into it. This works really well so far.

Now comes the long haul part, though - I need to build that library. I want to legitimately own all the media I load into that server, too, so piracy is right out. Movies and TV shows are going to have to come through DVDs and Blurays that I buy and rip from. Music, though, can come from all sorts of places, since I can buy MP3s directly. I'm particularly enjoying discovering new artists I like on Bandcamp and buying their albums.

Search Engines and Discovery

The mainstream search engines - Google, Bing, even DuckDuckGo - are getting worse and worse at finding meaningful and useful content. Twenty years of search engine optimization, clickbait, and design for algorithms has created a morass of content that increasingly looks designed for machines, not humans. The search engines encourage this, exacerbating the problem. When I search for something, the results are often recently "updated," very similar to a dozen other pages, and optimized to death. Trying to find a web page from the early 2000s that you know for a fact is still online? Good luck. The mainstream search engines probably don't even have it indexed anymore. They don't have infinite storage, and in order to limit their expenses, they cull the least popular (read: least algorithm-optimized) links from their indexes.

It's not all bad news. More and more people are beginning to realize this problem exists. New, independent search engines that index specific niches are popping up. They're small, but serve specific needs very well. One such search engine is Wiby, which specifically targets plain pages with no commercial content. It's really good for finding blog articles on topics that interest you. Another is Old'aVista, which indexes old personal websites.

Another thing that's starting to make a comeback is the web directory. Back in the late 90s and early 00s, web directories were the best way to find curated content that was directly relevant to your interests. They mostly disappeared once search engines hit their stride. Now that the web is too big for any one search engine to handle, though, web directories have an important use again.

I run one such web directory. It's called RPGGen, and it's meant for discovering websites that provide content generators for tabletop role-playing games. There are many others out there. For example:

Incidentally, I discovered all three of these through Wiby.

Social Media

Oh, social media. You were once so full of promise. Now, though, all social media is good for is sound bites, short videos of people or animals doing stupid things, and text that triggers various parts of our lizard brains.

The original promise of social media - keeping in touch with people you care about - is all but forgotten.

As it turns out, though, we never really lost the tools we need to keep in touch. I've started using email and even physical mail again to reach out to people. If I have exciting news I want to share with people I care about, I do so directly with each person. It's not much more effort than posting on social media, and it's much more rewarding.

I still use social media, but I'm not nearly as active on it as most people are. I have an account on the major social media sites, but I never use those anymore. The accounts are just placeholders, really. I have one friend who insists on using Facebook Messenger still, and that's honestly probably the only reason I still have a Facebook account. Twitter... well, I didn't really use it anymore to begin with, but once Melon Tusk bought it, that killed the whole thing for me. Unfortunately I still have to use Twitter to log in to two services that require social media login. I should probably fix that.

The other use of social media is broadcasting our presence and thoughts to the world in general. There's a better alternative for that too: the personal website. If you don't have the technical skills to maintain a static site like the one I have here, there are options for you - Neocities is one such.

Summary: Solutions for Each

So to recap, here are my solutions for each of the above three categories of problems.

To replace streaming services, build your own library. Use Jellyfin for media. Consider leaning into a physical library, if you have the space for it.

To replace mainstream search engines, use independent search engines and web directories.

To replace social media, use email, letters, and phone calls. Make a personal website for your web presence.

Let's make the world smaller again. Just for us.