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The Bulls*** Web

Ever wonder why a high-speed internet connection doesn't always result in high-speed web browsing? The answer is what tech writer Nick Heer calls "The Bulls*** Web."

A little history for you from his recent post on the topic:

My home computer in 1998 had a 56K modem connected to our telephone line; we were allowed a maximum of thirty minutes of computer usage a day, because my parents — quite reasonably — did not want to have their telephone shut off for an evening at a time. I remember webpages loading slowly: ten to twenty seconds for a basic news article.

At the time, a few of my friends were getting cable internet. It was remarkable seeing the same pages load in just a few seconds, and I remember thinking about the kinds of the possibilities that would open up as the web kept getting faster.

And faster it got, of course. When I moved into my own apartment several years ago, I got to pick my plan and chose a massive fifty megabit per second broadband connection, which I have since upgraded.

So, with an internet connection faster than I could have thought possible in the late 1990s, what’s the score now? A story at the Hill took over nine seconds to load; at Politico, seventeen seconds; at CNN, over thirty seconds. This is the bulls*** web.

The biggest culprit is Javascript, and the damnable fact that (if you ask me, anyway) browsers aren't mere web browsers anymore. Chrome, Edge, Safari, Firefox, etc -- they aren't just for looking at websites. They're now independent platforms capable of doing all sorts of things on (and to) our computers.

Here's what Nick found on just one slow-loading CNN article:

• Eleven web fonts, totalling 414 KB

• Four stylesheets, totalling 315 KB

• Twenty frames

• Twenty-nine XML HTTP requests, totalling about 500 KB

• Approximately one hundred scripts, totalling several megabytes — though it’s hard to pin down the number and actual size because some of the scripts are “beacons” that load after the page is technically finished downloading.

For once I'm not picking on CNN. All this over-design and over-scripting can be found on almost any website, including the one you're reading right now. Part of it is the increased interactivity afforded to us by modern browsers. There's that outdated word again: Browsers. I'd call them "web interactivity platforms" for accuracy's sake, but that's too big a mouthful. "WIPs," maybe?

And don't forget that interactivity cuts two ways. All that Javascript lets you do things Netscape Navigator could only dream of 20-plus years ago, but it's also enabled websites, search engines, ads, media platforms, and social media platforms to track your every click and hover. Those trackers even share your metadata with sites and platforms you've never visited.