Tools for taming the web: prologue

In a previous post, I talked about how I felt that the web had become an unruly mess, and promised a further article outlining a few of the ways we could help to disentangle ourselves from it’s clutches with tools that helped to remove the years of tarnish, grime, and occasional extra licks of paint from the websites we visit and allow us to if not increase our enjoyment, at least reduce our frustrations.

Well, sadly it took as long as I feared it might and hoped it wouldn’t, and it’s still in progress, but in truth it is a good thing that I was so laggardly in completing it, as since the time of writing the original article a number of changes have taken place in the areas I was intending to cover that would have made it instantly out of date, and the scope for what was already becoming a veritable leviathan of a post increased considerably.

So, sorry about that, and this time I will merely say it will be ready when it is ready.

Back to the cyber-future

The Web has come a long way since I first started using it in around 1993. Almost all of the many and various advancements over the years have been welcome evolutionary advancements, with the odd revolution thrown in for good measure. Taken year by year, surfing the Web has been easier, faster and more enjoyable with the passing of time. It would seem churlish, foolish even to complain about the riches the modern Web provides. But as with many things that change gradually, it’s only when you take the long view back that you realise that whilst the journey was great, you’ve ended up at the wrong destination.

So it is with how I feel about the Web. This isn’t about specific technologies, companies or standards, it’s about how something comes to be defined by the huge amorphous mass of humanity that started to use the Web, and to bend it to their will without an overarching design plan. The Web, is a mess. Surfing it has become an exercise in frustration rather than a source of pleasure. What would have simply amazed us 10, or even 5 years ago, now irritates us. There is no wonder people are going App crazy, the Web is bloated, ungainly, and ugly and is increasingly seen as something to bypass wherever possible. Luckily the great unwashed have seemingly seen fit to spare us the ongoing horror of sites like MySpace but even the staid and predictable site of the victor in that particular sphere is fast becoming a den of Web iniquity. Facebook website? No thanks, I’ll use the Mobile App, spare me from your distracting sprawl!

My Eyes! It Burns!

I’ll take one of my favourite tech sites (which I shan’t name, but you may recognise) as an example of what I mean. It’s got a nice logo, it’s got clever navigation, a good colour scheme, a professional look and feel in general, and distinct sections inviting me to do all sorts of clicking around. Sounds good, and to be honest in the grand scheme of things it IS good, but when you start to cast a critical eye over proceedings you start to realise how much of what you have just been presented with actually distracts you from the what you went there for, the whole point of using the site which is to see the stories they have carefully researched and written for your reading pleasure.

So, I manage to ignore the cruft, and select an article to read. It loads in a snap and I am presented with what should be the content I am interested in reading. What I get is a web page that has 12 distinct areas, of which only one is the article in question. There’s the site logo, the traditional navigation bar for the site as a whole, a large logo and headline for the section of the site that it is in, a “Top Stories” section with repeated navigational links and headlines for the various sections, still further a section with seemingly random other articles imploring me to “Read more”, job ads, an advert, tools for adjusting site options like font sizing etc, Facebook links with MORE site article links, social networking options asking me to like/tweet/dig and so on and so forth, a picture and link for a featured article and finally ANOTHER LINKS SECTION for non-article content related pages for the site (“About Us” and so on).

60 hyperlinks for various aspects of site navigation including a full duplicate set, once via text, once via icons 20 hyperlinks to other articles (2 of which are linking to the very page I am on) 14 social hyperlinks 4 links to job adverts Over 50 further links for various actions such as printing, viewing comments for the article in question or links to other sites etc (admittedly some of these are in a drop down menu or three) 13 pictures total, of which only 2 are a part of the article Dozens of icons variously preceding links and sections, often repeating the same generic tiny picture over, and over again.

Squeezed in on 3 sides by all these 150 plus links and assorted gubbins is the article I wanted to read.

And let me me fair here, I am not pointing this site out as a worst offender, far from it, in fact I consider this to be a good site, on the basis that there is only 1 Ad (it’s static, not at the top and not overly large, in fact compared with the sites own link flotsam and jetsam it’s almost too subtle to be noticed) and the article is presented as a single page without being needlessly chopped into tiny fragments in order to bait us into loading more ads (if there is one phrase I would wish to rid the world of it is “Read more, after the jump”…).

Can you say information overload?

Let’s step back and take a long hard look at our websites. It’s not a pretty picture is it? Imagine a time before the web when newspapers and magazines were our go-to for reading content. Now imagine every single page of your rag of choice, your weekly TV guide (remember those?), your monthly periodical were each and every one of them surrounded by an identical frame of this sort of crap. It’s like having the contents page on EVERY page, like each and every article being simultaneously given the front page treatment with red top logos and the page 2 treatment with subscription and publication information etc with the inside pages double ad spread to boot all at the same time. It would be in short, virtually unreadable.

So far so bad, but what can we do about it? Well, luckily for us one of the more recent trends in the Web is the ability to commit acts of cyber vandalism on the sites of our choice. Safari extensions exist to remove all traces of Facebook from webpages, or to hide comments sections and so on (of course on the flip side are the ones that are there to ADD comments to such sites as have deliberately avoided them to spare us from the banal thoughts of people such as myself). Various plugins and such for browsers far and wide enable us to customise these carefully constructed mazes of information and bend their contents to our own will. Remove this, add that, move the other.

This, of course, it to be welcomed in the manner of welcoming all such evolutionary changes. But it’s not a real solution, requiring as it does for us to manually be in control of amending those sites that offend us most, with no guarantee that it will work when the site tweaks it’s design at some future point, or even that such a workaround is even available for your favourite awful website. It’s as though we don’t see the problem for what it is, just the opportunity to make things better. I don’t want to be messing around like this. I just want to read the words behind the headline that brought me here without my eyes being and brain being bombarded with unwanted and unnecessary stimulus.

Calling all APIs

One of the revolutions of recent years has been Apps. Surfing the Web was such a powerful metaphor that it became ingrained into our way of doing things. You see a Web, you surf it. You see what’s there, you take it for what it is and you move on, and on. But Apps have turned this way of getting our content on it heads over the past couple of years. OK, we still visit sites manually, whether through force of habit, or via tools like Safari Top Sites, and Opera Speed-dial etc, we click links in emails and Twitter and we go to the full fat websites often. But increasingly we are using Apps and APIs to bypass the “surfing” aspect of using the modern Web.

I think I have only visited the Twitter website a half dozen times. At least 9 out of 10 times I check into Facebook for a quick browse around, I’m using the iPhone app instead of the website. Many websites have specific apps that are duplicating the content we would find through a browser, without duplicating the structure and the navigation. Mobile versions of websites are cleaning up our interfaces without giving us sub-par experiences. All of these modern methods help the content to spring free of the bounds of the website, but it’s still a fragmented approach. An app per website? We’re going to look back and cringe over this one. No-one wants to fill their mobile devices with this type of thing, and we’d all be mad to move our browsing to mobile devices just to clean up our websites. Talk about fixing your headache via amputation. It’s overkill, we need a simpler way, a way of reducing the complexities of our websites, and at the same time converging our desktop and mobile surfing habits.

The same content, looking consistently acceptable regardless of how you access it.

This is the promise of a raft of (relatively) new products and services such as Readability and Instapaper. Via the power of a couple of bookmarklets in your browser, or a sharing option via a hyperlink or even from your RSS reader, you can send any web article to be divested of it’s oily rags, scrubbed up and presented to you in a smart respectable shirt. Better still, you can queue up your content to be read offline at a later date, like some sort of personalised internet that only has one website and no adverts. It’s like having the old internet back, but without the nasty typography and inconsistent page rendering. Or Compuserve… One method, the whole internet.

In Part 2 of this article I intend to discuss this new form of using the Web, via Apps and API calls, and to take an in-depth look at 4 competing (and occasionally complementary) methods for achieving it. I’ll have a ponder on everything from website ad revenue, to getting your Dad to actually enjoy using the Web.

Thanks for reading this far, and I hope to not keep you waiting too long for Part 2.