I wish I was joking. 2022-01-14
That appalling joke has been doing the rounds for a few years now – but apparently 1024×768 really is my New Year’s Resolution, since I just made the mistake of allowing Linux Mint to update itself, and now it won’t do anything higher.
Oh well, while I’m being old and grumpy, I might as well get something else off my chest:
You know what I miss? Web forums.
Any of us tinkering in a technical field will, at some point have hit a problem and headed to the internet in search of help.
The chances were better than even that somebody, somewhere, will have hit the same problem before, found a relevant online community, and asked for help. Sometimes they’ll have been given a helpful and relevant answer – sometimes not, of course (“Who were you, DenverCoder9…”) – but either way, a quick search would generally give you some sense of how many people have been there before you, how much difficulty they’ve had in solving their problem, and there’s even a strong possibility of finding a new community dedicated to whichever topic currently interests you.
All that is changing, however. Web forums are going out of fashion. This started several years ago with groups springing up on facebook, and the trend has continued with project-specific discussions taking place on Slack and Discord to name but two others.
What do these platforms all have in common?
They’re not crawlable.
At first glance that might not seem significant, but it has has surprisingly far-reaching implications.
While I’m quite sure the owners of various web forums never set out with the intention of contributing to a global knowledgebase, that’s nonetheless exactly what happened: every question asked on a forum became neatly and helpfully filed under its own thread title, keyword-indexed and accessible for future reference thanks to search engines. Furthermore, in many cases the Wayback Machine at archive.org will have preserved conversations (and often other resources linked to in forum threads) long after the original websites and forums have been shut down.
To give you two examples: last year I had a problem on the Minimig core whereby the virtual Amiga’s clock would run fast, depending on the screenmode. A pretty obscure problem – yet a Google search for “Amiga CIA TOD clock” led me to a thread on English Amiga Board which gave me the information I needed to solve the problem.
When my laser printer at work throws a fault code, googling the code will generally score a hit on the CopyTechNet forum, and give me a rough idea of what’s wrong. (Not that I’ll be trying to fix the machine myself – it’s on a maintenance contract – but I still like to get a rough idea of the nature of the fault immediately, since it helps me anticipate the amount of downtime, and plan around the breakdown.)
Both of these obscure searches lead not only to answers, but also to resources where other answers may be found in future.
In contrast, I recently hit a problem with the GHDL Yosys plugin, and when searches proved fruitless, I asked in a Discord group and was directed to another resource where I might be able to find help. Which is great – but because information posted on these more modern platforms remains invisible to anyone not part of the particular enclave in question, (and their search facilities generally only narrow the needle-search-space down to one particular haystack) the next person who searches for the same thing won’t be able to follow my trail.
In short, at the risk of sounding overly pessimistic, I think there’s a very real possibility that we’ve witnessed the peak of the internet’s usefulness as a technical resource, and it’s now in the past.
Happy New Year!