We’ve got to make the damn websites work

Is it the most transformative thing we can do on the web in 2024?

When leaded gasoline was introduced in the early 1920s, it was a real innovation. Every engine suddenly ran better, performed better and lasted longer. Consumers rushed to it, and for decades leaded gas was the gold standard. Then we learned more about the harmful effects of lead and lead pollution. By the mid-1960s we knew it was terrible stuff, dangerous to the public health, and still it wasn’t entirely phased out in the US until 1996.

Similarly, asbestos was seen as a breakthrough innovation when it was introduced. This stuff was amazing -- fire-resistant, an excellent insulator, durable and cheap. We used it everywhere in construction through most of the 20th century. It took 35 years from the first Surgeon General warning about the stuff until the EPA finally banned the stuff in 1989.

On the web today, we’re living in the age of leaded gasoline and asbestos. We’ve introduced innovation after innovation, disruption after disruption, but the thing we’ve disrupted most may be the web itself. Usability is at an all-time low. Sites are painfully slow. Basic functionality baked into the HTML spec for decades is broken. We optimize for marketing or developer experience while the people using the sites are left baffled by simple content that won’t load, back buttons that won’t work, and other erratic, janky behavior.

And that’s before we even talk about dark patterns, surveillance, disinformation, out-of-control AI energy usage and the other big, big problems caused by the web and technology in 2024.

We have reached a point where the most disruptive, digital transformation possible — the biggest innovation around — would be to simply make the damn web sites work.

Right now, they don’t work, at least not for the people using them.

And that’s at a personal level, before we even talk about the global lack of privacy and security, broken or non-existent accessibility, misinformation and hate speech and the growing environmental impact of crypto and AI tech.

Taken as whole it’s clear: Our never-ending focus on disruption has become destructive. We’ve coined and popularized the already overused term “enshittification” to describe our technological hostility to our own users, and yet we ply layer upon layer of AI and crypto solutions so we can monitor and manipulate those users.

What if we didn’t?

What if “human-centered” meant something beyond being a buzzword in the UX department? What if we put the same effort into making things work for users that we put into tracking them? What if we fixed the damn websites?

That would be transformative.

Hat tip to GSA Commissioner Robin Carnahan, for first saying “we’ve got to make the damn websites work.”

Photo is of a 1919 Red Cross-organized "Cleanup and Health Parade", from the Library of Congress.