Maybe the Internet Would Suck Less If It Was Really Slow

Slowww.ml, the 'very slow website,' takes your browser back to the 90s
October 26, 2020, 4:50pm
A loading bar that says "forever."
Image via Getty Images

When my parents first connected our home computer to the World Wide Web, I could navigate to nick.com, start the process of loading the web page, go get a snack, and come back before the page fully finished loading. As a kid, it was a laid-back way of online life.

Slowww.ml, a project by Terence Eden, takes me back to those dial-up days with a website that's intentionally super-slow—loading a page at about 175 bits per second.

"It might be a meditative exercise about frustration," Eden wrote in his description of the project. "Could it be a way to show off some modern HTML5 features in a quirky way? Most likely, lockdown has sent me gently loopy."

A 968 byte image of a bunny takes about 40 seconds to load, and a two-second audio clip takes a full minute before you can listen to it. Video would be impossibly slow to load, so Eden inserted a CSS-animated bunny image instead. To my information-overloaded 2020 brain, the page's entire effect is endearing and annoying at the same time. It took about six minutes, start to finish, for me to load it all on Chrome. 

"Back in the early days of the Internet, people argued that there was no need for modems which ran any faster than this," the words crawl along the page one character at a time, which the page's HTML formats text as it loads. "About 20 characters a second is as fast as the average person can read. Why transmit information any faster? Nowadays, we want everything instantly. But sometimes it is nice to have d‍e‍l‍a‍y‍e‍d g‍r‍‍a‍‍‍t‍‍‍i‍‍f‍i‍c‍‍‍‍‍‍ation." 

Eden, a hacker living in London, writes that he set this as the speed because that's the pace at which most adult humans can read—but that might still be overestimating our ability to actually process the words we're reading, a task most can do at only 50 bits per second.

Eden told me that he was inspired to create the site one day when his Wi-Fi went out, and he was forced to use his comparatively-slow mobile connection.

"As I watched pages load bit-by-bit, I began to wonder just how slow you can make the web and still have a usable experience," he said. "I read an article on Usenet years ago saying that faster modems were a waste of time—because they loaded content faster than a human can read. Obviously that's ridiculous—but do we need gigabit per second 5G connections just to read a blog? I'm obsessed with compression and efficiency. We should all strive to make the most efficient web that we can." 

On average, households in the US using broadband are downloading at around 161 megabits per second, or 161,000,000 bits. In the last 60 seconds of trying to write this paragraph, I've clicked around to at least five different tabs and sent three Slack messages. Every page and application keeps pace, loading as fast as I can navigate. It's arguable whether I'm processing any of it or just reacting from muscle memory, but pages keep loading scads of information for my eyeballs to pass over anyway.

As experts have argued before, one possible problem with the internet today is that it's too fast and frictionless. With information going across our screens faster than we can process it, it's easy to consume and share misleading information, or sacrifice our own privacy by agreeing to terms of use we don't fully understand or falling for phishing scams. A slower internet could mitigate some of those problems, but is mostly just a fun joke those of us lucky enough to have access to broadband can entertain. Millions of U.S. residents, especially those in rural areas, lack access to the fast internet they need to work and go to school.

"The majority of Internet users don't have the blazing fast speeds that some of us are used to," Eden said. "For some, 2G access to the Web is as good as it will get for a while. It is up to every technologist to work hard to make a beautiful experience for everyone - no matter what their connection speed."

The second time I loaded Slowww, I did my 2020 modern-day equivalent of walking away to snack: I set it running in another tab, and opened a separate tab to write this blog. With a dozen other sites and email apps and tweets picking at my attention while the Very Slow Website plodded away, the effect of a slowed-down web wasn't nearly as relaxing as I remember it.