Big Mouth: Not so fast, internet

This article first appeared in issue 236 of .net magazine – the world's best-selling magazine for web designers and developers.

In his superb book How Music Works, Talking Heads’ David Byrne suggests that there’s too much music in the world. He doesn’t mean it in the sense that we need to catch up with what’s already been released before letting anybody make any more; he means that there’s no escape from it.

Every shop has speakers, every phone system its hold music, every EPG its soundtrack, every lift or mall or transport terminal its muzak and every bus the chukka-chiss of someone’s iPod turned up too loud. In the unlikely event that we find ourselves in a music-free zone, more often than not we’ll stick in the earbuds or turn on the car stereo.

We’ve gone from sonic scarcity to an abundance of audio, and that means we’re exposed to more music than ever before – but we’re paying less attention to it, and as a result music has to try harder to catch our attention. That’s where the so-called Loudness Wars come from, with mastering engineers using compressors to effectively squash entire songs into a small clump of frequencies in order to make them sound as loud as possible. In many cases, that means today’s winsome folkies produce records that sound significantly louder than older, more dynamic records by genuinely loud bands such as The Who, Pixies or Slayer.

Something very similar is happening online with information, and the more we move to a largely ad-funded content economy, the more we shall see content subject to its own kind of loudness war.

Breathing space

Online eyeballs are fast and fickle, and the more competition there is for those eyeballs the more compressed content will become in the dash to win them. It becomes a race to be first, not best, to be the most widely shared rather than the most useful or insightful. Hyperbole and link-baiting are the order of the day; insight, analysis, and even basic fact-checking come much later, if at all. The problem, of course, is that if everybody’s shouting, it gets harder to hear anything.

David Byrne suggests that to fully appreciate music we need time away from it – mental breathing space; a break from the bombardment to reset our ears. A few years ago, Rebecca Blood suggested something similar for information. In a world of ‘the Fast Web,’ she wrote, we need an online equivalent of the slow food movement: “Research would no longer be restricted to rapid responders. Conclusions would be intentionally postponed until sufficiently noodled-with. Writers could budget sufficient dream-time before setting pixel to page.” Jack Cheng picked up the baton this year, asking for a Slow Web that was “timely not real-time … knowledge not information”.

I happen to think they’re right: a Fast Web is a good thing, but it needs a Slow Web to balance it, to provide content for which traffic isn’t the only performance metric. The problem, though, is the same one music has been facing for some time. Who wants to pay for it?

Photography: Iain MacLean

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