This isn’t a “the web is doomed, DOOMED, I tells ya” kind of blog post. It’s more in the “the web in its current form isn’t sustainable and will collapse into a simpler, more sustainable form, possibly several” genre.
Baldur points to the multiple causes of the web’s current quagmire.
I honestly have no idea on how to mitigate this harm or even how long the decline is going to take. My hope is that if we can make the less complex, more distributed aspects of the web safer and more robust, they will be more likely to thrive when the situation has forced the web as a whole to break up and simplify.
Andrew looks at AMP from a technical, UX, and commercial perspective. It looks pretty bad in all three areas. And the common thread is the coercion being applied to publishers.
But casting the web aside and pushing a new proprietary content format (which is optional, but see coercion) seems like an extraordinarily heavy handed way to address it. It’s like saying I see you have a graze on your knee so let’s chop off and replace your whole leg. Instead, we could use the carrot of a premium search result position (as AMP has done) and make it only possible to be there if your site is fast.
He’s absolutely right about how it sounds when the AMP team proudly talk about how many publishers are adopting their framework, as if the framework were actually standing on its own merits instead of being used to blackmail publishers:
It is utterly bizarre to me, akin to a street robber that has convinced himself that people just randomly like giving him their money and has managed to forget the fact that he’s holding a gun to their head.
I linked to this a while back but now this great half hour documentary by Jessica Yu is ready and you can watch the whole thing online: Tim Berners-Lee, the birth of the web, and where the web has gone since.
In the scenes describing the early web, there’s footage of the recreated Line Mode Browser—how cool is that‽
The hiding of URLs fits perfectly with AMPs preferred method of making sites fast, which is to host them directly on Google’s servers, and to serve them from a Google domain. Hiding the URL from the user then makes a Google AMP site indistinguishable from an ordinary site.
As well as sharing Charlie’s concern, I also share her hope:
I really hope that the people who are part of Google can stop something awful like this from happening.
I know many people love Medium’s editing interface, but I just can’t believe that so many writers and publications have turned toward a single centralized commercial entity as a proposed solution to what ails the publishing industry. There is tremendous strength in independence and decentralization.
Anchor seems to be going for the YouTube model. They want a huge number of people to use their platform. But the concentration of so much media in one place is one of the problems with today’s web. Massive social networks like Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube have too much power over writers, photographers, and video creators. We do not want that for podcasts.
“It’s almost too easy now, and too unsatisfying that you only can put your work in a community full of advertisements and full of tracking,” she said. “I think there will be this urge, on the one hand, to have a local internet of small communities, and, on the other hand, a decentralized internet again.”
“You can still make websites nowadays,” Heemskerk said. “People think it’s complex, but it isn’t —you just register your domain and make your website and that’s about it.”
“I Was Devastated”: Tim Berners-Lee, the Man Who Created the World Wide Web, Has Some Regrets | Vanity Fair
Are we headed toward an Orwellian future where a handful of corporations monitor and control our lives? Or are we on the verge of creating a better version of society online, one where the free flow of ideas and information helps cure disease, expose corruption, reverse injustices?
It’s hard to believe that anyone—even Zuckerberg—wants the 1984 version. He didn’t found Facebook to manipulate elections; Jack Dorsey and the other Twitter founders didn’t intend to give Donald Trump a digital bullhorn. And this is what makes Berners-Lee believe that this battle over our digital future can be won. As public outrage grows over the centralization of the Web, and as enlarging numbers of coders join the effort to decentralize it, he has visions of the rest of us rising up and joining him.
No matter where I go on the Internet, I feel like I am trapped in the “feed,” held down by algorithms that are like axes trying to make bespoke shirts out of silk. And no one illustrates it better than Facebook and Twitter, two more services that should know better, but they don’t. Fake news, unintelligent information and radically dumb statements are getting more attention than what matters. The likes, retweets, re-posts are nothing more than steroids for noise. Even when you are sarcastic in your retweets or re-shares, the system has the understanding of a one-year-old monkey baby: it is a vote on popularity.
The Internet is a place for the people, like parks, libraries, museums, historic places. It’s okay if corporations want to exploit the net, like DisneyLand or cruise lines, but not at the expense of the natural features of the net.
It is common to refer to universally popular social media sites like Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, and Pinterest as “walled gardens.” But they are not gardens; they are walled industrial sites, within which users, for no financial compensation, produce data which the owners of the factories sift and then sell. Some of these factories (Twitter, Tumblr, and more recently Instagram) have transparent walls, by which I mean that you need an account to post anything but can view what has been posted on the open Web; others (Facebook, Snapchat) keep their walls mostly or wholly opaque. But they all exercise the same disciplinary control over those who create or share content on their domain.
Professor Alan Jacobs makes the case for the indie web:
We need to revivify the open Web and teach others—especially those who have never known the open Web—to learn to live extramurally: outside the walls.
What do I mean by “the open Web”? I mean the World Wide Web as created by Tim Berners-Lee and extended by later coders. The open Web is effectively a set of protocols that allows the creating, sharing, and experiencing of text, sounds, and images on any computer that is connected to the Internet and has installed on it a browser that can interpret information encoded in conformity with these protocols.
This resonated strongly with me:
To teach children how to own their own domains and make their own websites might seem a small thing. In many cases it will be a small thing. Yet it serves as a reminder that the online world does not merely exist, but is built, and built to meet the desires of certain very powerful people—but could be built differently.
Here’s the talk I gave at Webstock earlier this year all about the indie web:
In these times of centralised services like Facebook, Twitter, and Medium, having your own website is downright disruptive. If you care about the longevity of your online presence, independent publishing is the way to go. But how can you get all the benefits of those third-party services while still owning your own data? By using the building blocks of the Indie Web, that’s how!
The nature of human nature is that it changes. It can not, therefore, serve as a stable basis for evaluating the impact of technology. Yet the assumption that it doesn’t change serves a useful purpose. Treating human nature as something static, pure and essential elevates the speaker into a position of power. Claiming to tell us who we are, they tell us how we should be.
I’d love to see some change, and some introspection. A culture of first, do no harm. A recognition that there are huge dangers if you just do what’s possible, or build a macho “fail fast” culture that promotes endangerment. It’s about building teams that know they’ll make mistakes but also recognize the difference between great businesses opportunities and gigantic, universe-sized fuck ups.
What was once a rich selection of blogs and websites has been compressed under the powerful weight of a few dominant platforms. This concentration of power creates a new set of gatekeepers, allowing a handful of platforms to control which ideas and opinions are seen and shared.
Tim Berners-Lee on the 29th anniversary of Information Management: A Proposal.
Two myths currently limit our collective imagination: the myth that advertising is the only possible business model for online companies, and the myth that it’s too late to change the way platforms operate. On both points, we need to be a little more creative.
While the problems facing the web are complex and large, I think we should see them as bugs: problems with existing code and software systems that have been created by people — and can be fixed by people.
An astoundingly great piece of writing from Paul Ford, comparing the dot-com bubble and the current blockchain bubble. This resonates so hard:
I knew I was supposed to have an opinion on how the web and the capital markets interacted, but I just wanted to write stuff and put it online. Or to talk about web standards—those documents, crafted by committees at the World Wide Web consortium, that defined the contract between a web browser and a web server, outlining how HTML would work. These standards didn’t define just software, but also culture; this was the raw material of human interaction.
And, damn, if this isn’t the best description the post-bubble web:
Heat and light returned. And bit by bit, the software industry insinuated itself into every aspect of global enterprise. Mobile happened, social networks exploded, jobs returned, and coding schools popped up to convert humans into programmers and feed them to the champing maw of commerce. The abstractions I loved became industries.
Oof! That isn’t even the final gut punch. This is:
Here’s what I finally figured out, 25 years in: What Silicon Valley loves most isn’t the products, or the platforms underneath them, but markets.
Paul weighs up the pros and cons of using silos (like Twitter and Facebook) and using the Indie Web. This bit made me want to stand on my desk and cry, “Oh captain, my captain!”:
“The market has proven that consumers want freely available social networks that are easy to use, and used by everyone else. Only centralised services can provide this, not familiarity with a command line and a succession of acronyms and protocols”, says my not entirely fictional naysayer.
I’m not sure this argument follows. While the human desire to connect and communicate easily with each other has been proven many times over, it’s becoming clear that all-encompassing centralised networks are not the solution. That way lies algorithmically-skewed streams of consciousness, layered upon sordid business models and Californian ideology. Fuck that.
The web is agreement, but that doesn’t mean we agree to use the same websites.
If you are one of those old or young bloggers, please join in. Drop Facebook, drop Twitter and drop Medium for original thought. Own your traffic. You can use them to engage in discussion. But don’t get lost in there. Write daily. Publish as often as you have something to say. Link to other blogs.
This is the clickbaitiest of titles, but the post has some good sobering analysis of how much traffic driven by a small handful players. It probably won’t make you feel very cheery about the future.
(For some reason, this article uses all-caps abbreviations for company names, as though a stock ticker started generating hot takes: GOOG, FB, AMZN, etc. It’s a very odd writing style for a human.)