Dead tools

4 minutes estimated reading time


This post on dead tools came along due to two incidents. The first incident was cleaning out dead links of online tools on my social bookmarking account. (A social bookmarking account is a searchable online storage of links that would otherwise be favourites in your browser. This allows the links to be catergorised and become searchable. Creating an index of useful and trusted links.) The second incident was going through the verification resources created by American investigative journalist Craig Silverman.

UNIX - Server

Before 2010, I worked on very digital focused projects and used a battery of free online tools. In 2010, I started using Sysomos MAP, a paid for social media monitoring tool. Since then I have seen a steady decline in tools with many becoming dead tools.

Too big to care

In terms of dead tools – Google exemplifies the ‘too big to care’ category of dead tools. I documented the closure of 30 Google services that were useful in a post back in 2014. The one that probably has the biggest effect on online society was the demise of Google Reader. Google Reader would have made online media bubbles harder to fall into than they are now with social media. Google Now – the product that was considered the spiritual successor to Google Reader was the model for how to build a media bubble around the consumer – it used algorithms to give you more of the news that you liked over time and this goes beyond relevance which tools like Newsblur focused on in their training function. In 2006, O’Reilly had published a book called Google Hacks that documented useful things that you could do with Google services. The book is now largely of historical interest.

Since I wrote the Google services post, the company downgraded and made its search keyword planner and display advertising planning tools less useful, to the point of being useless. Google’s search function has become less useful and consumers have noticed. Google Search no longer allows Boolean operators. For instance

"Ged Carroll" + "game theory" 

would have been able to use as a search previously and is no longer be allowed as a search. The Atlantic went as far as asking is Google dying? Earlier on in the year there was a similar discussion on Hacker News and Reddit among technologists.

Much of this comes down to the law of large numbers, Google only cares about really big niches. So Boolean operators have come out so Google doesn’t have to maintain them. Instead Google has been focusing on things like which is nearest coffee shop to your smartphone that it can provide as a recommendation. Google has pivoted from organising the world’s information to becoming a user’s life OS.

Open web to closed web

When I started using these tools the web had become a web of data. Platforms were generous with APIs and platforms like Flickr had allowed an ecosystem of useful tools to be developed on top of their APIs. Social networks offered more limited APIs which have closed up over time. This is the reason why the number of third party twitter clients have become severely diminished. From a research perspective, this also means that tools lost their data sources, which led them to become dead tools. This is why social media monitoring became all about Twitter, data sources from Instagram and TikTok are much more limited – for instance Instagram allows only single word or hashtag search.

Bellingcat have tried to improve the situation somewhat, particularly with geographic based searches and there have been guides that try and squeeze more information out of TikTok.

Natural ebb and flow

Tools like software programmes often disappear when the people who have created them are no longer able to maintain them. Often these tools will have been developed by a single person to deal with a problem that they had run into ‘scratching an itch’. Life throws up other challenges and interests. It is remarkable that I have relied on some services for over two decades, which is a lifetime ago for the current generation of programmers who think that Tumblr is a distant memory.

Tools aren’t dead yet, but we have passed a golden age in the useful web for now. Hopefully new tools will arise over time to replace the dead tools we’ve lost.