Thought Experiment: The TextNet

On the forums I follow, there has been a growth in people begrudging the “JavaScript-ization” of modern web content. On one hand I can absolutely agree – why should loading a text-only recipe take dozens of megabytes? At the same time I feel it is a boon to allow for more efficient development (i.e. allowing developers to focus on development instead of design). But I think that those naysayers are onto something. So what would it look like if we banished all JavaScript from (a segment of) the internet?

The proposal

The TextNet, a text-only portion of the internet. A new .text TLD is introduced. With a covenant that only plain text and HTML can be served from such domains.

What does that mean?

JavaScript doesn’t run. It can still be loaded, but it’s just a static text file, like everything else. Same for images or files: You can Base64 encode them, but they will not display. CSS would either be forbidden or restricted to a simple subset.

What effects would this have?

Fewer advertisements

First and foremost, conventional advertisers would not be attracted to it. Without images for ads, or JavaScript to track users, there is no way to run advertisements. This would prevent the advertising-driven formatting of content. Slideshows of content, “Click to read full article”, and clickbait would disappear, as there would be no financial incentive to format articles in that way. Who instead would create content? I expect you would see two groups creating content:

Indirect Beneficiaries

Businesses or professionals, creating content for indirect benefits. This could include providing access to news in emergencies (for example when cell towers are overloaded, as text uses little bandwidth, and could still be loaded). For example, NPR and CNN take this approach. Here they do not benefit directly by providing ad-free articles. Rather they gain a reputation for being available even when a user can not load competitors’ sites. Professionals self-promoting also fall in this group. Such technical blogs are intended to develop a brand, and signal to employers that the professional is competent.

The Hobbyists and Artists

The other group would be those creating content for the joy of it. The medium of plaintext imposes a set of constraints that allows people to focus their creativity. Similar to using a reduced palette and canvas in pixel art, text forces one to focus on the content they produce, instead of the decoration that surrounds it. This category includes both art and technical writing on niche topics, such as programming for a Game Boy.

In effect, removing advertising as a form of funding content creation would disincentive the creation of low-quality content. In turn this increases the signal-to-noise ratio of the content.

Unconventional consumption

Sneakernet

Since plaintext is lightweight, the entirety of the TextNet could be save to a single thumb drive. While the sneakernet currently exists, being able to save a copy of everything would mean that any and all links within the content would work. This would allow for a more natural “exploration” of the internet by those without conventional access.

New Ways of Interacting

The magnitude of JavaScript and CSS in modern webpages means that today’s web browsers can be used to run entire operating systems in them. The trade-off to this is that you require the resources to run an entire operating system within a browser. By reducing the required overhead from arbitrary scripts and styles to text, new classes of devices could be used to interface with the internet. eReaders would become first-class citizens, allowing months of internet browsing on a single charge. More whimsically, teletypewriters could make a comeback. Print off the web pages you want to read, and when you are done you clear the browser history with a paper shredder.

Conclusion

It is hard to know how a new, restricted medium would be treated. Especially when the goal of such a medium is to encourage the creativity that emerges from restriction. However I feel that such a medium would be a net positive to the world, allowing broader access to the internet, and renewed interest for those burnt out by the current madness.

Written Dec. 19, 2017