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25 Years on the Web
18 April 2024

Introduction

On 18 April 1999, I uploaded the first version of Ted Marcus’ Virtual Light Table to the “personal Web space” of my dial-up Internet account. It had four Travel Photo Essays: Grand Teton (which also included a few pictures of Yellowstone), California Deserts (which after later additions and rewriting became Joshua Tree and Death Valley), Mono Lake and Bodie, and Indian Country. Including the grab-bag gallery that became the Scenery and Fine Art sections, it had 97 pictures. There were also a few incomplete commentary articles.

Twenty-five years later, there are 101 Travel Photo Essays and 2,108 pictures. All the original 97 pictures have been replaced with newer versions that take advantage of improvements to my hardware, software, and skills. This momentous(?) occasion offers an opportunity to reflect on what has changed— on this site and elsewhere— over those 25 years.

But my reflections won’t be self-congratulatory. For one thing, the growth of this Web site has slowed significantly over the last few years. That’s mainly because, for various reasons on which I’d prefer not to elaborate, my travel opportunities are now limited to day trips from the rather isolated corner of Southern California where I live. As Southern California truly is one of the most fascinating travel destinations in the world, with enough places to visit and photograph for a lifetime, that shouldn’t be a serious limitation. Unfortunately, the horrible traffic congestion for which Los Angeles is also renowned makes any such exploration more of an ordeal than a pleasure. And most recently, I’ve had to effectively give up travel and photography, also for reasons on which I’d rather not elaborate.

I have also been questioning the continued relevance of this Web site, in light of the enormous growth of the Web and the devaluation of photography that I will discuss. It doesn’t help that Google now gives strong ranking preference to sites optimized for mobile devices, the phones and tablets they insist are now the dominant way people around the world access the Web. This site was never intended for viewing on a small smartphone screen, something that did not even exist in 1999. I’m not even sure how I might make a “travel photo essay” appropriate for a phone screen.

Probably the only way I can make this Web site “mobile-friendly” is to discard it. And then not merely redesign it, but completely reconceive every aspect of it from square zero to create a site specifically designed for enjoyment on a phone. One day I may indeed pursue that project, as it would offer me an exciting challenge and learning opportunity.

I could start with a new gallery for the many people around the world who dream of visiting Southern California. They could enjoy my pictures of their dream destination on their phones, with very concise explanations they could swipe to float above each picture. That might even motivate me to get on the freeway to visit and photograph some new and interesting places. Or better yet, delegate that stop-and-creep to a Lyft or Uber driver, who can endure all the stress and aggravation while I kick back and read, snooze, or review my pictures.

But for now I’ll leave this site as it is. Despite all the changes, enough actual humans still visit this site and look at my pictures to make it worth keeping. And that’s what ultimately matters.

The Devaluation of Photography

In 1999, digital cameras were just arriving on the market. Because their sensors had rather low resolution, “serious” photography was still done on film. That film could be converted to digital images with one of the new affordable desktop scanners. It was also fairly easy for a photographer with a catalog of decent pictures to sell them on a Web site.

As I used to joke when asked about it, I made enough money selling pictures to cover the costs of paying taxes on that income. That somewhat understated things, but I never intended photography to be a business that generated significant income. That would take all the enjoyment out of it. What actually mattered (and still does) was that my pictures weren’t just sitting in slide trays in a closet, and could be seen and (I hope) appreciated by more than my immediate family and friends.

Soon enough everyone would carry a camera in their phone, and share images to social media as well as to Web sites that offer full-resolution images free for the taking. Everyone was now a photographer, and could share their memories and selfies widely and profusely. This democratization, and its resulting proliferation of photographs available for free, drove down the value of most photography to essentially zero.

Thus, nearly all the messages I now get in my Virtual Mailbox— the ones that aren’t spam, that is— are requests for free full-sized versions of my pictures. Sometimes they ask me to do special work for them (also for free), such as making the picture a particular size or crop. Or they tell me to send it immediately to meet a tight deadline. Most explicitly mention they can’t (or won’t) pay for it. Or that have no budget for photography, but might be willing to include a photo credit if I ask nicely. I reply by politely explaining that I don’t give away my pictures, and suggesting where they might find what they’re looking for. If they don’t explicitly say they want my work for free, I quote them an appropriate price. In both cases, I neither expect nor receive any further correspondence.

Receiving those requests for free pictures is a good thing, in a way. It tells me that people still find my site and my pictures. And they apparently appreciate my work enough to want it for themselves, even if they don’t appreciate it enough to pay more than the current market price (zero) for it.

Microstock and Corporatism

The artistic and technical quality of images available for free runs the gamut from awful to excellent. To provide an easier experience and better product for those looking for great images that cost next to nothing, Internet entrepreneurs came up with “microstock.” Microstock Web sites have extensive collections of pictures, categorized and indexed by keyword and possibly vetted for quality. Buyers can search for and download the pictures they want, for unlimited “royalty-free” use, at a very low price. An image might sell for as little as $1, of which the photographer might receive as little as five cents.

Some photographers claim to make significant income from microstock. Their portfolios include tens of thousands of pictures, often of a highly specialized nature, to which they continually add fresh images. If they make many thousands of sales each month, those nickels and dimes will add up. But does that really amount to adequate compensation for all the work and expense involved in creating those images? Especially when the owner of the microstock site is getting 10 to 20 times more compensation?

It’s thus entirely plausible that a multinational corporation could buy a microstock image for $1 and use it several times for worldwide promotions that bring in millions of dollars in profits from sales (on which they may pay little or no taxes). The microstock site owner gets 95 cents. The photographer gets five cents. Before taxes. I can imagine a CEO or a private equity partner reading this, nodding his head, and exclaiming “Yes! That is exactly how wealth should be distributed!”

Microstock exemplifies an unfortunate development that has accelerated over the last 25 years: An economic system of global corporatism that creates spectacular, continually-increasing wealth for a few corporate executives, private equity partners, and large investors. But it offers a continually-diminishing pittance to the people who actually do the work of producing the goods and services the corporations sell. (And of course, those executives and investors are champing at the bit for technology to advance to the point when they can replace those people with robots and AI.) Worst of all, this system greatly favors rent-seeking financial activities that exclusively enrich the wealthiest participants over the production of goods and services that benefits the overall economy. That means things like buying back stock, mergers and acquisitions for market domination, buying up scarce housing and charging exorbitant rents to people who are thereby precluded from home ownership, and jacking up the price of old off-patent pharmaceuticals.

Please note the important distinction between corporatism and capitalism. Contrary to what Fox News might tell you, capitalism does not require the extreme and ever-increasing inequality of wealth and opportunity that defines corporatism. Marx and Engels were correct in observing that unregulated capitalism inevitably produces inequitable concentration of wealth, even though their communist solution to that problem has always been unworkable. And forms of capitalism in which government acts to ensure opportunity for anyone willing to work for it— as opposed to facilitating the redistribution of wealth into the pockets of the richest campaign donors— are not “socialism.”

Corporatism also corrodes and destroys democracy, as the people who are left behind justifiably believe their country’s political and economic systems are failing and even betraying them. Some of those people simply avoid voting, in the belief that none of the candidates represent their interests. But others become enthralled with charismatic authoritarian demagogues who blame economic distress on immigrants, minorities, and “the Other,” and who offer empty promises to “be your voice,” “drain the swamp,” and particularly to restore lost “greatness.”

The wealthy beneficiaries of corporatism may consider the destruction of democracy irrelevant, or perhaps even beneficial, to their relentless quest to acquire ever more wealth. But that seems very short-sighted. After all, the conservative majority of the United States Supreme Court “interpreted” the constitution as entitling them to buy politicians, elections, and policy. In their Citizens United decision, those justices declared corporations persons and money as speech. That effectively gave corporations and billionaires superior rights compared with ordinary individuals. They alone have the means to use the “free speech” of money to influence elections, and to buy “access” to elected officials unavailable to the voters they ostensibly represent. You can call it “bribery” or “corruption,” which it would be in any other context. But as long as they fill in the proper paperwork on time it’s the perfectly legal exercise of a constitutional right, though one reserved exclusively for a privileged few.

Those privileged few conveniently forget that under authoritarian regimes, even the wealthiest and most powerful are fully subject to the whims of dictators or juntas. Russian and Chinese oligarchs enrich themselves at their peril: If they fall out of favor with Czar Vladimir the Greatest or Emperor Xi Jinping, the drop is very far and very hard. Sometimes it’s literally a fall out a window.

Yes, I have veered far off course. And some photography still has real value in the marketplace. That includes bespoke images created for the fashion and high-end advertising industries, formal portraits, and weddings. Some respected photographers still command high prices for their art. But “market forces” have driven the value of most photography, including the kind I do, down to essentially nothing.

Making a Name for Myself

As I’ve mentioned, the first version of this site was “hosted” on the “personal Web space” my dial-up Internet provider included with their service. Internet providers in those days usually offered users a few megabytes of space to host customers’ personal Web sites. That feature disappeared after the consumer Internet access market consolidated into the phone/cable monopoly or duopoly through which most Americans now connect to the Internet. (And Americans pay a higher price for lower-speed connections than in many other countries. That’s largely because the “socialist” governments in those other countries promote universal access for their citizens, while the American government promotes corporate mergers and consolidation.)

I don’t remember the actual URL, but it was something like http://www.formerisp.com/pages/~trmarcus. That convention of user names beginning with a tilde goes back to the earliest days of the World Wide Web. If you see a URL like that, it’s a site that has been around a long time! And it probably hasn’t been updated in a long time. But an address like that was neither memorable nor conducive to becoming “a major presence in global e-commerce,” as the brochure from my long-vanished Internet provider put it.

A company called Network Solutions then had a monopoly on registering sites under the .com and .net top-level domains, essentially the only top-level domains available to Americans. Their price for domain registration included substantial monopoly rent. (“Monopoly rent” has nothing to do with any board game. It means the higher price a monopoly is able to charge for its goods or services in the absence of competition.)

I found out that a British company called Planet Three Limited were offering registration under the .cx top-level domain for around £10 per year. So I registered lightbox.cx, which redirected to the personal space. .cx is the top-level domain for the Australian external territory of Christmas Island, a speck in the Indian Ocean. That island is now best known as the site of one of the remote detention camps where the Australian government warehouses migrant refugees in deplorable conditions, a practice ostensibly necessary to deter other asylum-seekers from attempting to invade Fortress Australia. When Planet Three Limited imploded in 2000, the authorities on Christmas Island took over and did away with those cheap registrations. Fortunately, this development coincided with the end of Network Solutions’ monopoly on .com and .net.

I decided I didn’t want a new domain name that included ted, marcus, or any other form of my name. I made a list of over 50 names. It being the height of the dot-com boom, everything on the list was already taken. I went for tedsimages.com mostly out of desperation, but I’ve grown to like it over the years. A whois query shows that I first registered it on 21 July 2000.

Under the Internet’s current anything-goes deregulation, top-level domains have recently proliferated like kudzu. In theory that means anyone should be able to get whatever domain they want, if they’re willing to accept it under the likes of .biz, .guru, .pink, .ninja, or .rocks. In practice, everyone still wants .com and .net, which have the cachet of long usage and recognition. Many of the new top-level domains have been completely taken over by spammers and scammers.

Logs and Hosting

Besides the cumbersome URL that regularly changed as my Internet providers consolidated in mergers, a significant shortcoming of personal Web space was the lack of access to server logs. A server log records each page, picture, or other file a visitor accesses, along with by the IP (numerical) address of their computer on the Internet. If the visitor reached the page from a link on another site, including a search engine, the log records that URL (the referrer) as well. Server logs do not record personal information about visitors beyond their IP address. It’s often possible to identify the country, region, and city where the IP address is located, but nothing more specific than that. Some Web sites use other means to identify and track their users, but I don’t do that.

Logs are essential for Web site owners. They provide information about which pages visitors are viewing and how long they spend on a site. That can indicate which pages are the most popular and interesting to visitors. Logs are too voluminous to examine directly, except in special cases. Instead, a log analyzer program reads them and creates a report summarizing aggregate visitor information. It lists the pages visited and the number of visits, referrers, and (formerly) search queries.

To get these logs (along with other benefits), I needed to move from personal Web space to a hosting company. Then my Web site would connect directly to a server (shared with possibly several hundred other users) without redirection. Its location would remain the same no matter how many times my Internet provider changed hands.

I discuss my experience with hosting, and particularly with shopping for hosting, in a separate article that, I hope, will help readers looking to host their Web sites navigate their way through through the jungle and avoid the traps and pitfalls.

Lots and Lots of Bots

Search engines used to include the user’s search queries in the referrer information that appeared in Web site logs. They stopped providing search queries around the time Edward Snowden unveiled the American National Security Agency’s secretive mass surveillance programs. Removing the search queries was ostensibly a measure to protect users’ privacy. But it more likely had to do with the realization that giving away information they could sell did not serve their shareholders’ interests. It’s still possible to get some search information from Google’s “Search Console tools.” But that’s much more cumbersome and less informative than a ranked list of search queries extracted from log files.

What the log files can still tell me is that the overwhelming majority of “visitors” to this Web site are bots, software “robots” that harvest content from Web sites. If I pore through the log files, I can easily identify a bot because it downloads only the text of a page, without the pictures and style sheets that would accompany it for a real human visitor. Or else it downloads one or more (or many) pictures without the pages that include them.

Unfortunately, the log analysis software doesn’t reliably distinguish bots from real visitors, which makes it hard for me to know how many actual human beings are viewing my content. The software does have a provision for specifying “known robots,” but I just don’t have the time to keep that list updated as bots continually appear and disappear. I also can’t tell which pages humans are visiting. The page statistics include bots along with humans. Bot visits greatly outnumber human visitors, and vacuum up content indiscriminately. Along with the loss of the search queries, this problem is upsetting and discouraging.

So what are all those bots? I’ll classify them into four types: Search engine “crawlers,” scrapers, spammers, and hackers.

Search engine “crawler” bots collect the text and images that search engines index for user queries. (They’re called “crawlers” or “spiders” because they “crawl” the Web by following its links.) The bots from Google, Bing, and DuckDuckGo are very much welcome. The ones from Yandex in Russia, and Baidu, Huawei (Petal), and ByteDance (TikTok) from China, are not welcome. I have never received significant human visitors from those countries; and I suspect those search engines support other kinds of bots that mostly originate in those countries. There are also “crawlers” for numerous other search engines from around the world, whose purpose and possible benefit to me are hard to determine.

Scraper bots typically visit for a few minutes at a time, to vacuum up (“scrape”) only the text of hundreds of pages, or sometimes hundreds of pictures. Occasionally they’ll vacuum up every page on my Web site, and then leave without even saying thank you. Many of them have IP addresses in China, Russia, and various Eastern European countries. That’s what leads me to suspect their owners get lists of files for their drive-by plunder from Yandex or Baidu.

What do scrapers do with all that content? Some of it helps spammers defeat attempts to block them. Chunks of scraped text get inserted into spam e-mail, in a tiny or invisible font, to deceive spam filters. Scraped text is also pasted into link farms— fraudulent Web pages containing ads, malware, or links to ads and malware. The scraped text deceives search engines into indexing those pages, and may also deceive advertisers into paying for fake robotic “clicks.” Purloined pictures make the pages more appealing to any human visitors brought there by the deceived search engines.

Not all scraper bots work for spammers and crooks. Some of them belong to companies that sell their services to corporations, governments, and educational institutions. They patrol the Web looking for trademark infringement, derogatory material, or plagiarism. Still other scrapers belong to government security services, looking for illegal or subversive material or perhaps compiling profiles and dossiers about Web sites and their owners. Developers of AI chatbots also scrape the Web for materials to train their “large language models.” Given the amount of misinformation, propaganda, and utter rubbish on Web sites and blogs, it’s no surprise that those AI models are prone to making up fake information and “hallucinating” nonsense. Even if their purpose is possibly more “legitimate” than camouflaging spam or tricking people into installing malware, these scrapers consume bandwidth, impair performance for human visitors, and freely help themselves to content. They take rapaciously, but give back nothing.

Spammer bots visit a Web site only to plant referrers (addresses of pages on their sites that supposedly contain links to mine) in log files. Web site owners used to make their log files accessible to the public, and to search engines. This “referrer spam” was intended to boost the spammer’s search engine rankings when “crawlers” digested the log files. Now that log files are almost never visible, these bots advertise to Web site owners who see the links in their log reports. Those links often belong to outfits that purport to promote Web sites and/or improve their search engine rankings. One of the services they typically offer is referrer spamming.

Hacker bots probe Web sites for vulnerable software. Most often they’re looking for files related to WordPress, a very popular platform for blogs and Web sites. If they find one of those files, and it’s a vulnerable version, they can exploit the vulnerability to inject malware that hijacks the site. Once hijacked, it becomes a bot that scrapes or spams Web sites, spews spam e-mails, or even hijacks visitors’ browsers to help the hackers guess WordPress administrative passwords.

The unwitting owner of the WordPress site thus “donates” server resources to the hacker or spammer. That victim bears all the risk and hassle of running out of bandwidth or resources, or of being shut down or otherwise sanctioned for the abuse. Meanwhile, the hacker operates with anonymity and impunity. If a hijacked site gets shut down, the hacker just moves on to another vulnerable site. WordPress is not the only target, but it’s the most common because so many sites use it. Many hacker bots have IP addresses in— you guessed it— Russia, Eastern Europe, and China.

This site should not be vulnerable to hacking, as it does not use WordPress or any other well-known software. The incessant probes from hacker bots merely show up on a lengthy list of failed page requests in my log analysis software, because I don’t have what they’re looking for. But some years ago, a hacker did hijack a standard script I was using to send me the e-mails from my Virtual Mailbox contact page. The hacker sent out several thousand spam e-mails before I discovered the breach. I no longer use that script.

The important point is that if you have a Web site that uses WordPress or any other common software platform, it’s essential to religiously check for software updates, and to install them immediately was soon as they’re available.

More drastic measures are possible. Since so many hacker and scraper bot “visits” were coming from China, I have configured my server to deny any request from a Chinese IP address. Those visitors (bot or human), along with those from several specific IP addresses associated with abuse, get a message in English and Google-translated Chinese. The geographical blocking is only partially effective, but it’s still useful. At least it makes me feel like I’m defending my property and fighting back against, if not a real threat, a significant nuisance.

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