The Quiet Web

12 February 2021

About twenty years ago I stopped subscribing to cable television. It wasn’t an act of intention, but rather economics. I couldn’t justify the ever-rising costs given what little time I had to watch television. That doesn’t mean I stopped watching television completely. I could still get the local public station, and the local library had a variety of videos, so there was still plenty to watch. But it did mean that I wasn’t bombarded with ads all the time.

At first, I didn’t notice their absence. It wasn’t until months later when I visited the in-laws that I was again exposed to commercial television. It got tiresome rather quickly. If you’ve cut the cord you may have experienced a similar thing. When you remove the constant interruption and background noise of advertisements, your expectations about media resets. What was once normal is now annoying.

On the Internet, you can’t simply move away from ads, because the modern web is ad-driven. There are countless posts about how to use ad-blockers and such to filter them out, but that just hides them. The web is so strongly centered around ad revenue that you feel their presence even when you don’t see them. Headlines bait you into clicking, even the topics are determined by what gets views. As a result, content is often loud and bombastic, sensational and superficial, because that’s what gets views. But buried in the twilight corners of the web there are sites that take a different approach. Together I would call them the Quiet Web.

I first came across the term quiet web on a post by Manuel Morale, who wondered how one might define it. While I don’t think there is a definition that universally applies, I’ve found a definition that works relatively well. Exclude any page that has ads. Remove them if they use Google Analytics or Google Fonts. Remove them if they use scripts or trackers. It’s a hard filter that blocks the most popular sites. Forget YouTube, Facebook, Reddit, or Twitter. Forget the major news sites.

So what remains? The most popular website that passes is Wikipedia. There is also Mastodon, which is an open-source alternative to Twitter, and Lemmy, which is an open alternative to Reddit. And there are personal websites.

Most personal websites don’t pass the test. They are either ad-driven or managed on platforms like Blogger or WordPress. But the quiet personal sites are diverse and interesting. They range from a eco site that runs on solar power (and can go offline when the batteries run low) to a pastor musing about faith. Most of the sites have a minimalist style, but some are edgy, and some have a bold retro style. Many of the bloggers are tech-focused, but there are also web comics and travel journals.

The quiet filter isn’t perfect. There are plenty of quiet sites that use Google Analytics just because it’s an easy way to see if anyone is reading. And some sites pass the test while still having a bombastic style. But the filter does reveal hidden treasures. Sites that are thoughtfully and personally written. There’s often intentionality to them that is refreshing to read. I find my own ideas are challenged more on these sites, and that’s a good thing.

The biggest downside of the quiet web is that it can be difficult to find. You can’t simply Google topics of interest. Instead, you have to dig a bit. Go down rabbit holes until you come across an interesting quiet page. It takes time and effort. It’s easier just to doomscroll on Twitter. But the effort is worthwhile. As you gather more of the quiet web into your readership, you will notice the negative effects of the traditional loud web more. And once you get used to the quiet web, you may never want to go back.

Update: Manuel Morale has made a new post with his thoughts about this one. You should definitely check it out.