Treating the Symptoms

If you haven’t seen it yet, the folks behind The Browser Company recently introduced a new app called “Arc Search”. Its key feature? It’ll browse the web for you.

What happened? “Surfing the web” used to be — and still can be — the funnest part about being on the web!

How did “surfing the web” become “doomscrolling”? But I digress.

When you tap “Browse for me”, the app goes out to the internet, consumes numerous websites on your behalf, and then creates a custom web page amalgamating what it found — a custom webpage for every search query.

Interesting, but not that different from what Google has already been doing for a while where it pulls information out of individual web sites and puts it into its own search results.

Now I do appreciate that people are trying new things. I always love a novel take on an age-old problem.

But critique is valuable too and through that lens I appreciate Ben’s recent post “Stripping the web of its humanity”. He articulates what struck me the first time I tried Arc Search:

Finally, obviously, the sources themselves are automatically browsed by the app but don’t see the benefit of a human visitor. Real people sometimes pay to access content, or donate to support a nonprofit publisher, or watch an ad. Those things can be annoying but pay for the content to be produced in the first place. If we strip them away, there’s no writing, information, or expression for the app to summarize. A world where everyone uses an app like this is a death spiral to an information desert.

What’s ironic here is that Josh Miller, CEO of The Browser Company, tells the story on Twitter of why they built Arc Search and one of the big impetuses for building the product was based on this observation:

we realized...the mobile web is so broken & frustrating

Perhaps, you could argue, Arc Search fixes the problem of browsing the mobile web from a technology perspective.

But the state of the mobile web is not a technology problem. It’s a people problem. People and incentives.

And while I appreciate as much as the next person technology that bypasses people problems — popup blockers, ad blockers, tracking blockers, etc. — I am under no illusion that these don’t solve problems. They treat symptoms.

The incentives for publishing anything on the web continue to receded more and more — as Baldur points out in his piece about the web’s broken social contract:

Our incentive recedes in lockstep with the increasing dominance of generative AI content. As it recedes, fewer and fewer people and organisations will contribute to the digital commons. More and more stuff will be locked behind a paywall.

The incentives are increasingly being structured so that the free and open web will become neither.