A Small Ode to the Web

High Bridge, New York
Yes, mobile browsers suck and crash too often. Web pages take too long to load. Too many publishers make it an Olympic sport to read a story to the ending killing pop-ups and dodging auto-playing videos.

And all the other complaints, too.

But, last Sunday night when I stumbled across this Vulture story about 100 jokes that shaped American Comedy, I had to stop and say thank you to the Web.

The piece is a compilation of 100 jokes from American history, from 1906 to the present. Each changed society and comedy, breaking new ground and cultural barriers. There’s a nifty JavaScript timeline that lets you jump by year; but for the most part, it’s just HTML and embeds.

And it’s miraculous.

I’m far from a historian of comedy, so I’m not going to argue over the editorial choices; instead, I’m going to be a simple fan-boy.

I learned a lot from this list – in no small part because the SoundCloud and YouTube clips that accompanied each selection let me experience the joke accompanied by context..

That includes the opener – a 1906 joke from black comedian Bert Williams (who I was ignorant of). Thanks to someone who took the time to upload the likely now-in-public-domain recording, this bit of history just loads in a webpage on a mobile device.

And the piece goes on from there – to classic bits like Who’s on First to lesser known vaudeville from Burns and Allen to a brazen, hilarious Bernie Mac performance at the Apollo in the 1990s.

This experience wouldn’t have been possible without the web and embeds (and fair-use and Section 230 of the DMCA).

Perhaps a documentarian could have made this as a film. But getting the rights to these clips would have been an epic adventure in hearing lots of Nos and negotiating rights by regions, etc. It would have been nigh-on impossible.

Sure, it’d be nice if the piece had easier anchors for linking to individual jokes. Maybe there’s a few too many ads.

But, my goodness, this is a fine bit of cultural education and critique, wrapped up in a package that anyone can download and experience.

I’d also wager that the knowledge required to put this together owes quite a bit to the web and the now-widespread availablity of cultural commentary.

The culture of publishing on the web and net has changed substantially in the last 20 years; not the least of which is the ever-increasing velocity and volume of publishing. Most recently, we’ve seen the embrace of the Facebook platform, including videos that don’t need audio and Instant Articles.

It’s not like Vulture is immune to that need for ever-increasing *flow*: for instance, with a single web search, I found 3 pieces that Vulture put up Super Bowl weekend about BeyoncĂ© dropping her “Formation” video unexpectedly on a Saturday afternoon.

That fits quite neatly into the model that Robin Sloan first articulated, called Stock and Flow, distinguishing between media intended for quick consumption in the now (Flow) and the content that lives a long time and makes your reputation (Stock).

In 2013, Alexis Madrigal (then of The Atlantic) predicted that we’d hit Peak Flow, where the torrent of the steam became just too much for readers to keep up.

Madrigal’s piece is a bit of Stock that’s worth revisiting in 2016; I think he called the peak prematurely, but his instinct is right. Reverse chronological feeds lead to perverse incentives; low-quality clickbait, and eventually, reader frustration at never being able to reach the end or keeping up.

Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat et. al are where Flow is king. The Web is where Stock reigns; and the Web’s deep linkability and searchableness has make Stock better and live longer.

Both Stock and Flow serve the needs of any site’s community, but it’s Stock that builds a community long-term.

It’s pretty common at the end of the month for publishers to measure the number of page views per contributor. But it’s harder to answer this question: “What did we or this contributor do this month to serve and build our community?,”

Long-term, though, that’s the essential question. Pageviews are a poor stand-in for answering this question honestly.

But it’s pretty clear when you see it. The Vulture story will keep giving, long after it’s been published and fallen out of favor on Facebook.

Which is another way of saying the Web ain’t dead and we shouldn’t forget its virtues.. The Web is great, especially at Stock – even if we also all believe the Web sucks and should be better.

So we got that going for us. Which is nice.

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