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The Independent Web of 2hu, Or: A Dream of Eastern Turnpikes

One of the things I'm more and more passionate about as the years go by is maintaining an independent, less centralised Web, the sort that I grew up with before the era of 'social' (giant misnomer) media. Yes, you could certainly argue that the Web is still generally not affixed to any particular hub, but let's be real: the attention share is still ultimately directed towards content siloes, usually social networking services. In a way, funnily enough, this creates a diffusion of people with similar interests, as they're encouraged to break off into further and further subdivisions, the equivalent of gated communities online, even in spaces that are supposedly 'social' in nature. There are certainly valid reasons for this effect, but it's also detrimental when it comes to discoverability and community-building, not to mention creating barriers to finding relevant information. Those who are already inside a particular circle are able to navigate it at the expense of those who may be suited to it but are left outside. This can be observed in numerous ways, such as the locking of information about games inside Discord communities, where no search engine can hope to retrieve it, or innumerable topics that are lost in the churn of nonsense on Reddit. These centralising forces sell themselves as providing 'convenience' when they do anything but.

Similarly, I confess I'm out of touch with Touhou as fan culture. This is partly on purpose, as I don't care to engage with what most people have defined as 'fandom' in recent years. Nonetheless, there are times when I am made vaguely aware that there are things happening out there that aren't simply noise made for the sake of noise. It's time like those when I feel keenly the sense that I am 'not on the pulse', and I feel lost as to where I'd even begin to look out for it. As I stay away from social network services of all stripes (save the Fediverse, though my involvement there is very limited), the most I can do is look at things like the Touhou Wiki or Danbooru. Someone might on very rare occasions point out an unaffiliated website of some interest, but those are fleeting chances. Overall, I get the sense that Touhou as a whole has far less presence in the main than it used to, leaving discussion about it and activity around it in farther-flung channels that aren't easy to discover. This is a rather sad state of things if you think about it. Closed-off communities will inevitably lose members in a slow-motion death spiral, unable to replenish the lifeblood lost as it flows out. Whilst it certainly may not be a good idea for all communities of a common interest to intermingle, conflicts arising from differing sets of values expressed, I think it would behoove those of us who truly love Touhou to reach out and forge connections; there is probably a whole essay I could write on how THP needs more diversity of viewpoints, but I'll leave off here for the sake of relevance. Without it, I fear enthusiasms will cool over time and Touhou itself will become moribund and lifeless.

Before I get to my main point, let me divert to a slight history lesson. Some who were on the Web twenty or more years ago might remember when web indexes were still mainstream. Perhaps some of those will even remember what it was like to be a western anime fan back then, with the abundance of Geocities and Angelfire pages dedicated to this series and that, often linked together in webrings. If one was particularly interested in such things, there really was no better place to look than Anipike, the web anime turnpike. Imagining itself as a sort of on-and-off-ramp connecting curious seekers to curated curiosities, Anipike was a relatively massive index of anime fansites, official websites, forums, collections of images, lyrics sites, and so on and so forth. Everything was indexed in somewhat sprawling but well maintained categories, letting one wander along as one pleased, narrowing down the scope as needed to find something of interest. Unlike a search engine, this was all hand-curated by a team of humans. Perhaps such a scheme could have introduced bias here and there, but it was worth it for the relative quality of what was included in the lists of links. Besides, the whole point wasn't to keep you captive, unlike modern search engines, but to start you off on your journey, leaving you to follow further links elsewhere and make your own discoveries. Was it foolproof? Heavens, no. There could be cruft that was placed in the lineup. Sometimes, it was clear that editorial scrutiny could be cursory at best. Still, if you wanted to find anime websites, the nascent Googles and Yahoos of the time weren't exactly better, perhaps about as helpful as they are in the present moment, the explosion of LLM-driven SEO nonsense creating a crisis of discoverability that will have ripple effects for years to come. And the relative lack of commercialisation on the Web meant that the stakes were pretty low for fans who just wanted to talk about what they loved, so the chances you'd get steered to a content farm of a dubious nature was low, anyway.

Just as we had indexes like Anipike for anime, now being replaced by low-key independent efforts on Neocities and similar, I feel like a similar effort for Touhou would be an interesting and helpful tool for the wider community of fans. Imagine clicking through categories looking for, say, fanfiction and you come across a list of sites that isn't just limited to THP or some links to profiles on well-known sites. Maybe there's someone out there who has a whole self-hosted collection of writing none of us has ever seen. Maybe there are artists out there who have their own homepages instead of posting on Pixiv or wherever. We don't even have to limit ourselves to strictly Touhou pages, either. There could be links to relevant historical material, websites of related IRL locations, pages about danmaku games, and so on. The ideal would be having a majority of the content be directly Touhou-related, of course. More than that, instead of being just a bunch of links to official news pages and the like, the goal would be to serve as a coordinating point between lots of fans. People should be able to find and reach out to one another in ways that don't involve massive social networking services or other contrivances. So, much like Anipike, this would be the turnpike of Touhou.

Having said all that, there are two main challenges to making such a lofty dream a reality. The first is arguably the harder to overcome, and that's the relative lack of independent Touhou sites out there. At least, from what little I'm able to do from a search engine, I've found precious little out there that's easily accessible. In a way, it's a bit of a chicken-and-egg problem; without some number of independent sites, there's little reason to index them, and thus there's little reason to create them, either. I don't have much of answer for that problem, unfortunately. The most I can think to do at this moment is simply convey my vision and hope that it reaches a few people out there. More abstractly, I think it's a problem that can be solved gradually by education: i.e., teaching people out there about the necessity of independent websites for a healthy Web and a lively fan community, and possibly helping people set up their own web spaces, just as I've done my own. Of course, the second major issue is actually creating such a turnpike. That in itself is something of a multifaceted problem of technical know-how and resources, the former of which isn't impossible but might require a lot of time, the latter much more challenging without outside help. Setting up this little personal homepage was, whilst not the most difficult thing in the world, hardly a trivial effort; I had to have my good friend Teruyo coach me through much of the setup. I'm not sure I would be able to single-handedly set up a theoretical Touhou turnpike unless given many years to do so, years I'm also unsure the fandom has left. Resources like hosting costs might not be difficult to cover starting off, but I wouldn't be able to manage them out-of-pocket forever, especially if there was any degree of traffic. Besides, I like to think about scalability, and that's where things would get hamstrung. As things sit, I'm not sure how begin tackling the technical or the funding sides of the problem. Relying on donations is already a tricky prospect for THP, so I don't see such a manner of operating being too feasible for this effort, at least, not in the immediacy. Overall, it's just at the level of a daydream, albeit one I've had for a while, going all the way back at least 2015 or thereabouts. That said, who knows where life will take us.