Webrings Are Not the Answer
An honest truth: webrings suck.
2018/10/13 update: GOODMODE saw this piece, agreed completely, and updated their original accordingly. Honestly, even if they didn't agree in the end, I'm glad they at least saw it and mulled it over. I was trying not to dig in with this one, because I get the sentiment, I just don't think webrings fix the problem.
I'm not especially happy with the way this reads, especially the thinly-veiled Districts shilling at the end (sorry), but in short: if you like a site, you should tell people about it. Tell people about all your favorite sites. You don't need a webring for that, right?
Either way, thanks for reading, Bug. On with the original piece.
I enjoy reading thinkpieces. Thinking isn't a thing that happens much on Neocities, so when I see other people do it, I genuinely appreciate it and take the time to read their thoughts. (Working on Districts has also brought a lot of fascinating sites to my desk, ones you've never heard of because Kyle Drake is a cruel bitch.) I'd certainly hope for the same.
This piece, much like my "In Defense of Discord" piece, is a response to one of those, but unlike that, I'm writing this not out of righteous indignation but in honest disagreement to a piece I mostly agree with. mariteaux-sans-barbs, if you will. Introducing GOODMODE's "The Impersonal Web", a very well-written and very long piece on why social media is the most grotesquely inhuman thing to happen to the internet. Again, mostly in agreement. Go read it.
Where this piece loses me is this little bit buried towards the back:
(waves a cane) Back In My Day there were things called webrings. Nowadays people hear that word and glaze over because it's an old fashioned concept, but I'm rediscovering the appeal of webrings more as time goes on. Search engines aren't helping us to connect with each other any more. So it's up to us, and I think webrings can help people as frustrated as me to take back the web.
Dear God, no. Please no.
Webrings are a really unfortunate fetish of nostalgiaminers, an awkward throwback to a time before search engines made worse by old code and a very generous view of the early web. Webrings are absolutely not the solution to the problem of the impersonal web. Webrings are clunky, likely to break, a nightmare to actually navigate, and even in the context of static HTML sites banding together for exposure's sake, there's better options.
I write this in the hopes that, if you've bought into the webring hype, you'll reconsider.
For those of you not buried in the scrap heap of 90s web terminology, lemme get you up to speed: independently-operated sites used to chain themselves together into categories called webrings. Webrings often focused on a broad topic and operated in a literal ring: the footer of a site would contain a forward button, a back button, and a link to the top level of the ring, generally. This allowed the end user to hop between sites with ease, discovering a whole load of sites in one go.
So what's not to like? People find people find people. Bring 'em back, yeah?
1. Webrings are clunky.
Painful navigation is the name of the game with webrings. There's no easy way to hop around a webring. To get back to the starting site, you'll have to hit back a bunch of times or go through your browser history.
2. Webrings require offsite code.
Every implementation of a webring I've seen so far requires an offsite backend. Your entire ring could go down thanks to some other site shuttering, one that's not even on Neocities. What a disaster.
3. Webrings are beyond susceptible to link rot.
If one site dies, the entire ring is ruined. You no longer can get to any site past that one, and if there's two or more breaks in the chain, the ring no longer works whatsoever. On Neocities, one person closing up shop is enough to kill the ring.
4. You have no clue what you're getting next.
It's pretty much on the honor system that whatever site happens to be next in the webring isn't an absolute waste of your time.
5. Webrings require a maintainer, which isn't always possible with a bunch of separate sites.
Building off the previous point, webrings need one person to be on top of them, pruning dead links and adding new ones to the ring. If your maintainer disappears (which happens all the time around here), the ring is, again, useless.
Bringing me to my final point...
6. Neocities absolutely cannot make webrings work for shit.
Bug cites OurSpace as an example of a "good" webring, ignoring the very purpose of such a thing: to group sites based on theme. OurSpace fails precisely because of this reason. Its only purpose is to group personal sites. As I explained in my "Neocities and a Lack of Passion" essay, not everyone should have a site, and the actually interesting people buried there do themselves a disservice being associated with the ring.
Other prominent examples of webrings on Neocities: Station Square, which uses code from a late 90s tutorial on the topic (so it's guaranteed sturdy and stable), Hyperlink, which went dormant ages ago and was later revived by a gang of absolute units before being ultimately put out of its misery, Cool and Good, which was based off stolen Station Square code at one point and is a hodgepodge of stolen ideas (OurSpace's general uselessness, Hyperlink's multiple-rings-in-one approach)...need I list more?
Webrings on Neocities, like the rest of the site, have absolutely no concept of quality control. If the people behind them don't just outright run off, you can expect to find a lot of chaff (if you don't bump into a dead site, that is).
So what's a better solution?
Yahoo-style site directories, in my opinion. It's a much simpler idea that's easier to maintain and works a lot better in practice. Here's what such a concept's got going for it:
1. A list of sites feels natural and fun to browse.
All we do around here is browse (when we're not making, anyway), and there's nothing more natural to browse than a big list of sites in a directory, is there?
2. Site directories require nothing but static HTML.
Truly! Maintaining a site directory requires only Notepad and cursory knowledge of HTML. It's pretty great.
3. Link rot will not kill the entire directory, only the site in question.
When one person drops out of the list, we just get rid of the link. Easy, no muss, no fuss. Even if that never happens, at least none of the other sites are affected.
4. Descriptions mean you can roughly judge what you're getting before you get it.
Sure, you can potentially still get a dull, irritating, and disappointing site with a directory, but at least you can close it and go right back to browsing.
5. Site directories are much less reliant on a central maintainer.
If the maintainer runs off or dies, the directory still exists, as do the rest of the sites in the listing.
6. No one on Neocities has tried making a site directory.
Well, not strictly true, there's been exactly one attempt at it, with the former OpenBooks site. I wouldn't count it as such, though, because it was really just a list of sites the owner of the site liked. Fact is, a big reason why I consider webrings a meme is because they've been done over and over, to no avail. A directory? Less so.
And the big thing?
7. We can all make a list of sites.
Go ahead, do it right now. Do it on your site. Just list some you like. There we go, a bit more personal than a webring, isn't it?
If your concern is that we can't promote the people who need promoting, I think a list of sites (or an outright directory) is the best way to do it. At least then, I can judge the maintainer right then and there, rather than being blindsided with a load of terrible sites Pizza Squeeze picked out.
Ultimately, I don't like operating on the logic that "old is better", because that leads to nostalgiamining. If we're operating off 90s web logic, though, like Bug says in the piece:
I miss when you could leave a comment on a thinkpiece and someone other than a nazi would respond.
Hope this was satisfactory, Bug.