How the web saved and failed us
I've been intrigued by the role that the web played during the pandemic, so it's high time to reflect on the good and the bad.
Naturally, this is my own perspective, and I have little to no hard data to go off of for much of this. The pandemic brought a lot of our lives into alignment, but also created stark contrasts. I am certainly aware of my privilege through this time.
Also, I am looking specifically at the web, experienced through browsers. Naturally, apps played just as significant a role as the web, but I'm a web developer. I'm most interested in what was good and bad about the web, and how we might use that going forward. Plus, the web is better.
News and information
This, to me, is the area of most interest. In so, so many ways, we failed. I don't think that this was a failing of the web itself, but rather how we publish to it, and the incentives at play. It's sort of terrifying to think that we primarily made our way through on clickbait. Stemming from this, I think where we failed most was clarity. The internet is such a noisy place, with everyone posting everything all the time. It felt as if things were popping up completely at random. The CDC was maintaining up to date guidelines, but I never personally looked at them for some reason (hmm, no idea why). Using archive.org, we can watch how they changed over time, such as this example from March 28 where they were still only recommending a face mask if you were sick and emphasizing hygiene theater. Where were we supposed to look?
Adding to the noise, everyone had to publish their own set of guidelines (can't wait for those links to break). By and large, the same guidelines applied, no matter where you went, so the overwhelming amount of /covid-19 webpages were just noise. I read none of them, even for places I did go. Some even created entire websites dedicated to it, which is so overwhelming. Many of these seemed to be references for the few people who needed to know (basically internal communication) and marketing fluff to show people that they still cared about taking their money.
On the other hand, what a great relief it was to have the latest information available. In hindsight, I did not need to follow along nearly as closely as I did, but the internet made it possible to be very up to date. I checked the news throughout the workday, then came home and watched TV news with my parents and heard about all of the things that I'd already read, some of them already out of date. I felt as though I had the best information I could, something only possible because of the internet. It was also incredibly easy to do research. If one source posted something I hadn't heard before, I looked to see if anyone else was talking about it. This is not enough, but better than relying on the scripts that TV news feed us.
So, communication was good and bad, but the biggest issue was that many people were too busy trying to survive to keep completely informed. It should have been dead simple for them to do so, and while our leadership was the main problem with this, we still have trouble relaying only the most important message on the web. News websites always have the same level of information density, and are available 24/7. Social media feeds never have quieter times and louder times. Email newsletters, news podcasts, etc all come out every single day. There's money in being always on, which doesn't translate into usefulness.
Ordering food and groceries
I don't feel I need to give too much background here, I think it's amazing how quickly local restaurants were able to shift to taking online orders. It seemed, very quickly, that everyone was running on Square or other platforms. This speed was specifically made possibly because of the web. No one could have spun up an iOS and Android app quickly enough.
Plenty of chain restaurants had mobile order apps before this, which makes sense for their scale, but it still doesn't make sense for a single location restaurant to waste time and money on an app.
As for ordering groceries, it was much rockier. Some grocery chains had infrastructure in place beforehand, some of which were ready to go, some of which were not. In the case of groceries, browsing the selection is typically done most comfortably on a larger screen. Issues arose here with the handoff to a mobile device, bringing the tension between web and app to the forefront. Place the order on the web, but let them know you've arrived on the mobile app? Not so easy.
The downside of much of this, whether it was Square, ToastTab, Instacart, or what have you, was that this served to further funnel money to tech companies and away from local economies. Square, naturally, is thrilled by this trend (emotion added by me). I'm not sure that we should start spinning up local bespoke platforms, but it's a shame that we continue to find new ways of exporting money from small towns.
While it might feel like everyone was shopping online in the last year, they weren't. Most people were still purchasing goods in store, but this varied greatly by industry. Overall, however, e-commerce use quickly trended upward. This seems to have accelerated a trend that was already growing. Like groceries, this brought the issues to the front. For clothing, people like trying things on to check color and fit. For furniture, it's nice to feel the fabric, sit in the chair, check the color. Or, at base level, it's nice to know how big something is, something that continues to be ignored by most sellers.
I think, more than ever, we were aware of our local shops. Hearing that some were in danger of disappearing forever, we recommitted to buying books from local bookshops, also made possible by the web. Like ordering food, this required depending very heavily on platforms. Bookshop.org had barely gotten themselves going by the time the pandemic started and their business skyrocketed. I would not have wanted to be on call to keep those servers running. Shops that had this infrastructure in place beforehand, like restaurants that did, were best positioned, but it was the web that made it possible for everyone else to come online quickly.
Of course, I must mention the global supply chain, as well as the workers who make it possible. We are still running low on some items, and worker conditions are still bad. Largely, this experience has pulled the curtain back. Through eCommerce, it’s easier than ever to sling something around the planet, without awareness of what it takes to make it happen. It seemed magical before, but the cost of that magic may be more than any of us really wants to pay.
Google heat map
I haven't heard stats on usage of this, but I found myself using Google's "live busyness" graphs to determine if locations were busy. Before heading to the grocery store, I would check to see if it was having a particularly busy day. Simply searching for a location usually shows you the graph, sometimes higher up on the page, sometimes further down.
In general, I used it to see when places were less busy, which, unsurprisingly were on weekdays and close to closing time. I often made my trips on weeknights around 7 or 8pm. I'm not sure if the graphs were actually useful, but it did feel like at least something to reference. I was definitely too worried in general, though.
While we're here, worth mentioning that these graphs are made possible by Google's mass surveillance of their users, and while the article linked above mentions their technique for keeping this data private, it still demonstrates just how much data we're handing over to tech companies. That is, of course, just the tip of the iceberg, as we found out from spring breakers in Florida.
I had to go to the DMV during the pandemic and watched through the plexiglass as someone filled out a form on a website for me. That's all I'm going to say about that.
At various points during the pandemic, I turned to YouTube to watch videos of people going about things in the real world from the past. It was strange, a mix of escape, imagining the world as it once was, but also was a bit too much of a reminder of what limitation we were living under. I think YouTube's affect on society goes under the radar too frequently, but it feels like the most prominent mirror (of the good and bad) that we have. Being able to rewind the mirror was interesting, at the very least.
Worth mentioning here is the broader video via web landscape, as its usage increased. While app usage didn't change too much, web usage dramatically increased for Netflix, YouTube, and Twitch. I don't want to assume too much about everyone else here, but my usage of these services increased, and helped regulate my emotions. I revisited movies I hadn't seen in a long time, I watched series that weren't too challenging, and, as I mentioned, escaped into the past on YouTube. These are all, of course, mixes of app, TV, and web usage, but I think the trends we saw are a good indication that cross-platform solutions are important and we shouldn't assume a single platform will work (cough, Quibi).
So, what does all this mean? I don’t know that a single north star has appeared from all of this chaos, but I think it points to the continued necessity of the flexibility of the web as a platform. We must protect its openness, it’s accessibility, and continue to make things easier to use. We need to bring more people online, increase their connection speeds, and make sure that they can reap the benefits. We need to protect privacy, give people the option to opt out of being tracked, and work on more sustainable business models. Lastly, we need to make sure that the web remains a blank slate, where anyone can join. Where we can connect, support, entertain, learn, and make tomorrow better.