Exploring the Small Web

August 31, 2022
Confidence: highly likely

A few weeks ago I wrote a little ditty about how awful the internet has gotten, compared with the web of my youth. It garnered much more attention than my usual musings, and, as a result, lots of people chimed in. They shared with me great websites, sympathies, and tons of unsolicted advice, some of which actually happened to be good!

The good news: I was right — there still is tons of cool stuff on the web; it’s just hard to track down if you aren’t already in the know. This post collects all the stuff I’ve learned recently about finding cool stuff on the web in 2022.

The Small Web

Turns out there’s a name for this thing I’ve been seeking, it’s called the small web. The small web is a bunch of decentralized individuals who want to use the internet as a medium of self expression, where they can do weird and wonderful things. Like the low tech magazine, whose website runs on solar panels and therefore might be offline. Or the guy who reviews the privacy policies of web browsers. Or this dude who puts way more effort into making coffee than has ever been justified. Or, how about a website dedicated to really awful video games? Or, my personal favorite, the implementation of cooker clicker using no javascript.

Amazing stuff, truly.

So, where does the small web hang out? A huge chunk of it is on neocities (geocities for the modern age.) Haphazardly clicking around on neocities, however, shows that not everything on the small web is a gem! There are a ton of angsty teens’ homepages. But that’s OK. We used to call being online surfing the net because you’d sometimes catch a cool wave, but most of the time be waiting around in the deep hoping for something interesting to come along. It was a lot more experimental, both on the side of content creators, and for consumers. On the consumer side, you spent a lot of time hitting the back button.

Per capita, there are far fewer teens hanging out on the tildeverse, which is allegedly a loose collection of old-school *nix hackers and academics. The stuff I found there is a little more polished, but significantly less weird. It’s the sort of place you find arcane technical blogs and professors’ websites which haven’t been updated since the 90s — that is, if you can find anything at all. Tilde sites are often a byproduct of being a user on a shared computing system, many of whom are members for reasons other than to host a website. I personally haven’t found much on the tildeverse, but several of my friends swear by it.

The reliably best stuff I’ve found, however, has all come from webrings, which are a bygone piece of web history/technology. A webring is a what it sounds like: a ring of websites, each with a “next website” link. Webrings are a great way of rapidly getting to bizarre parts of the internet; keep hitting “next” until something tickles your fancy. GEORGE is a particularly weird one, and something that’s very clearly not an artifact of the boring-ass monotonous web. I haven’t managed to find a webring-webring — that is, a webring whose constituent members are themselves webrings — which is very clearly a huge opportunity in the market. Someone get on it! However, I did find a list of webrings which isn’t nearly as satisfying a concept.

Alternative Search Engines

You probably already know about Google and Bing. And maybe even Yandex. Lots of people yelled at me in my last blog post for not knowing about searx, which isn’t particularly relevant to my gripes, but in the words of a comedian I just met: “it is what it is.”

That stuff’s all tired and blase. Have you heard of marginalia, which lets you control which categories of websites you’re looking for. Or how about gigablast, which combats dead links by finding archived versions of them? Or how about mojeek, which seirdy figures is the best alternative search engine out there?

Turns out there’s a ton of innovation in this space, along which lines I have a personal announcement to make some time in the near future. But that’s getting ahead of myself.

Combating the Monotonous Web

After a month of exploring weird stuff on the internet, I’ve realized that the number one way that webmasters (to use a throwback term) can help combat the monotonous web is to just link to sites you think are cool.

You’ll notice there are more links in this post than usual. That’s not by accident.

Search engines discover sites by automating surfing — that is, they just click every link on every page, and see what they find in the process. On a more human level, if you like my stuff, you’re pretty likely to like the stuff I like. And so, to be part of the change, here are some websites I find unusually interesting:

  • Paul Graham’s essays — fascinating musings on doing important work with your life.
  • mitxela who makes weird and delightful DIY gadgets
  • Bob Nystrom — high quality blog posts on game design and the mechanics of writing books
  • Mark Jason Dominus for whom there are no words. A true 21st century polymath, whose blog spans from etymology to abstract math.
  • LessWrong which taught me most things I know about the art of thinking.
  • Slate Star Codex which taught me how to write, and whose clarity of thought I aspire towards.
  • Dominic Cummings who gives an unprecedented look behind the usually closed-doors of politics.