Monday, January 11, 2016

The Website Obesity Crisis

Maciej Cegłowski posted The Website Obesity Crisis. "This is the text version of a talk I gave on October 29, 2015, at the Web Directions conference in Sydney."

It's a long but fun read about the bloat in today's web:

Or consider this 400-word-long Medium article on bloat, which includes the sentence:

"Teams that don’t understand who they’re building for, and why, are prone to make bloated products."

The Medium team has somehow made this nugget of thought require 1.2 megabytes.

That's longer than Crime and Punishment, Dostoyevsky’s psychological thriller about an impoverished student who fills his head with thoughts of Napoleon and talks himself into murdering an elderly money lender.

Racked by guilt, so rattled by his crime that he even forgets to grab the money, Raskolnikov finds himself pursued in a cat-and-mouse game by a clever prosecutor and finds redemption in the unlikely love of a saintly prostitute.

Dostoevski wrote this all by hand, by candlelight, with a goddamned feather.

As he points out the problems are spread across a variety of issues. I think he pretty accurately describes the issues (and in an entertaining way), I'm no so sure of his prescriptions. For example he says: "But the ad market is going to implode anyway when the current bubble bursts. The only question for publishers is whether to get ahead of this and reap the benefits, or circle down the drain with everybody else." Yeah, that's not going to work. It's their job and in their financial interest to delay the transition so that they make more money. The way to change things is to change the incentives.

Reading this I was reminded of seeing The Big Short. One of the causes of the near financial collapse was that people could sell off risk. As a result, they could sell things that would inevitably fail, make money, and get rid of the risk so that it failed on someone else. The fact that it got so out of control that when it failed everyone failed was lost on people at the time. An idea I heard shortly after the collapse was that it used to be that banks offered mortgages and if you defaulted they lost money, so they were invented to only offer loans to qualified people. Once you could sell them off, they were invented to make as many loans as possible, to high and low quality borrowers because they weren't at risk of default. That invented the system to create more fraudulent loans. Same with other mortgage backed securities.

So to fix the web you have to fix the incentives. I'm not sure what that is, but the bloat has to cost the creators of it more. While ad servers do pay for their upload bandwidth, maybe they should also pay for the consumers download bandwidth of those ads. After all the consumers didn't ask for the ads and supposedly the sales revenue those ads create are worth the bandwidth, so maybe the sellers should pay for it. Or the ad network companies, since they're the ones building the models us so that ads can be targeted to that we only see ones that we'll actually buy.

He also says "Let’s commit to the idea that as computers get faster, and as networks get faster, the web should also get faster." and while that's right, it's not complete. The argument would mean the web would still look like that in the 90s, with few images and few features. I like some of the new design and as bandwidth increases (and it has) it's fine for sites to make use of them. But his early metrics do have value. It seems ridiculous that the web page of a tweet (limited to 140 characters) should be 900,000 bytes or that a 400 word article on Medium should be 1.2MB. Then again, those do load pretty fast for me. :)

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