The dominant narrative for the growth of the World Wide Web, the graphical, user-friendly version of the internet created by Tim Berners-Lee in 1989, is that its success has been propelled by Silicon Valley venture capitalism at its most rapacious. The idea that currently prevails is that the internet is best built by venture-backed startups competing to offer services globally through category monopolies: Amazon for shopping, Google for search, Facebook for social media. These companies have generated enormous profits for their creators and early investors, but their “surveillance capitalism” business model has brought unanticipated harms.
It doesn’t have to be this way, says Ethan Zuckerman:
A public service Web invites us to imagine services that don’t exist now, because they are not commercially viable, but perhaps should exist for our benefit, for the benefit of citizens in a democracy. We’ve seen a wave of innovation around tools that entertain us and capture our attention for resale to advertisers, but much less innovation around tools that educate us and challenge us to broaden our sphere of exposure, or that amplify marginalized voices. Digital public service media would fill a black hole of misinformation with educational material and legitimate news.
I few months ago, I got an email from Thomas about the new event he’s running in Copenhagen called Techfestival. He was wondering if there was some way of making the WorldWideWeb project part of the event. We ended up settling on having a stand—a modern computer running a modern web browser running a recreation of the first ever web browser from almost three decades ago.
So I showed up at Techfestival and found that the computer had been set up in a Shoreditchian shipping container. I wasn’t exactly sure what I was supposed to do, so I just hung around nearby until someone wandering by would pause and start tentatively approaching the stand.
“Would you like to try the time machine?” I asked. Nobody refused the offer. I explained that they were looking at a recreation of the world’s first web browser, and then showed them how they could enter a URL to see how the oldest web browser would render a modern website.
Lots of people entered facebook.com or google.com, but some people had their own websites, either personal or for their business. They enjoyed seeing how well (or not) their pages held up. They’d take photos of the screen.
People asked lots of questions, which I really enjoyed answering. After a while, I was able to spot the themes that came up frequently. Some people were confusing the origin story of the internet with the origin story of the web, so I was more than happy to go into detail on either or both.
The experience helped me clarify in my own mind what was exciting and interesting about the birth of the web—how much has changed, and how much and stayed the same.
The World Wide Web turned 30 years old this year. To mark the occasion, a motley group of web nerds gathered at CERN, the birthplace of the web, to build a time machine. The first ever web browser was, confusingly, called WorldWideWeb. What if we could recreate the experience of using it …but within a modern browser! Join (Je)Remy on a journey through time and space and code as they excavate the foundations of Tim Berners-Lee’s gloriously ambitious and hacky hypertext system that went on to conquer the world.
Neither of us is under any illusions about the nature of a joint talk. It’s not half as much work; it’s more like twice the work. We’ve both seen enough uneven joint presentations to know what we want to avoid.
We’ve been honing the material and doing some run-throughs at the Clearleft HQ at 68 Middle Street this week. The talk has a somewhat unusual structure with two converging timelines. I think it’s going to work really well, but I won’t know until we actually deliver the talk in Amsterdam. I’m excited—and a bit nervous—about it.
Whether it’s in a shipping container in Copenhagen or on a stage in Amsterdam, I’m starting to realise just how much I enjoy talking about web history.
In 2019 the web is not “sexy” anymore and compared to native platforms it can sometimes seems lacking, but I think that speaks as much to people’s desire for something “new” as it does to any apples to apples comparison. On measure – and that’s the important part: on measure – the web affords a better and more sustainable framework for the cultural heritage to work in than any of the shifting agendas of the various platform vendors.
If we continue as we are, who will maintain the maintainers?
In the world of open source, we tend to give plaudits and respect to makers …but maintainers really need our support and understanding.
Users and new contributors often don’t see, much less think about, the nontechnical issues—like mental health, or work-life balance, or project governance—that maintainers face. And without adequate support, our digital infrastructure, as well as the people who make it run, suffer.
Nothing boosts opens and clicks as well as an old school, plain-text email.
I feel vindicated.
People say they prefer HTML emails ..but they actually prefer plain-text.
This seems like a plausable explanation:
Think about how you email colleagues and friends: Do you usually add images or use well-designed templates? Probably not, and neither does your audience. They’re used to using email to communicate in a personal way, so emails from companies that look more personal will resonate more.
Now get off my lawn, you pesky HTML-email lovin’ kids.
Bodoni* is the first ever no-compromises Bodoni family, built for the digital age. Years in the making, this font family includes a whopping 56 font files, ensuring you will have the perfect Bodoni for every situation.
Paul Ford explains version control in a way that is clear and straightforward, while also being wistful and poetic.
I had idle fantasies about what the world of technology would look like if, instead of files, we were all sharing repositories and managing our lives in git: book projects, code projects, side projects, article drafts, everything. It’s just so damned … safe. I come home, work on something, push the changes back to the master repository, and download it when I get to work. If I needed to collaborate with other people, nothing would need to change. I’d just give them access to my repositories (repos, for short). I imagined myself handing git repos to my kids. “These are yours now. Iteratively add features to them, as I taught you.”
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.
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.
For publishers struggling to survive even with maximum ad surveillance, the Pi-hole team recommends a renewed focus on subscriptions, affiliate links, and curated endorsements for products and services that might truly interest users, similar to the way podcast hosts may talk about how much they personally enjoy a sponsor’s products. There’s nothing wrong with pitching people stuff they might enjoy, the team says. It’s just the constant, ever-intensifying surveillance that needs to stop.
Amber and I often have meta conversations about the nature of learning and teaching. We swap books and share ideas and experiences whenever we’re trying to learn something or trying to teach something. A topic that comes up again and again is the idea of “the curse of knowledge“—it’s the focus of Steven Pinker’s book The Sense Of Style. That’s when the author/teacher can’t remember what it’s like not to know something, which makes for a frustrating reading/learning experience.
This is one of the reasons why I encourage people to blog about stuff as they’re learning it; not when they’ve internalised it. The perspective that comes with being in the moment of figuring something out is invaluable to others. I honestly think that most explanatory books shouldn’t be written by experts—the “curse of knowledge” can become almost insurmountable.
I often think about this when I’m reading through the installation instructions for frameworks, libraries, and other web technologies. I find myself put off by documentation that assumes I’ve got a certain level of pre-existing knowledge. But now instead of letting it get me down, I use it as an opportunity to try and bridge that gap.
If you’re interested in contributing to open source to improve your communication and empathy skills, you’re definitely making the right call. A lot of open source tools could definitely benefit from improvements in the documentation, accessibility, and evangelism departments.
What really jumps out at me is when instructions use words like “simply” or “just”. I’m with Brad:
“Just” makes me feel like an idiot. “Just” presumes I come from a specific background, studied certain courses in university, am fluent in certain technologies, and have read all the right books, articles, and resources. “Just” is a dangerous word.
But rather than letting that feeling overwhelm me, I now try to fix the text. Here are a few examples of changes I’ve suggested, usually via pull requests on Github repos: