Recently, a lot of people that I admire and look up to have raised their voices, advocating for getting the Internet back to what it once was. An open web. A web we shared and owned together. The old web was awesome.
It sure sounds awesome. Currently, our networks and our personal data are controlled by major corporations with no respect for privacy. Silicon Valley, that so-called tech hotbed of “innovation” and “disruption,” is by most reports becoming a culture of inequality and vapidity. Getting back to the founding open standards the web is, I’m told, a solution to all of this. The web should be a place where we can own our data, where our best developers focus on solving the problems we need to solve as a democratic society. An open web accepts all people and creates a culture of inclusion.
Again, sounds great. As a webmaker, I want an open web. But as someone who has never experienced that, I don’t know where to begin in making it. I’m not sure simply reverting back to what we had is the right path if we want to include people who have never experienced the open web or understand its principles.
I had a Xanga in middle school, and I wrote a bunch of bad music criticism on various music blogs in high school, but I wasn’t cognizant enough to recognize what else was out there or understand what the web meant. I was a user of the web as I am now: I used services made by large companies so they could control my content. From Xanga to AOL Instant Messenger to MySpace to Facebook to Twitter, my main modes of participation on the web have been through major web corporations seeking to own my data and sell it to advertisers. Back then, I didn’t know any better. Now, it seems like I don’t have much of a choice.
Aside from the music criticism, my story is not unique. I know this because I used all of these products to communicate with my friends. For my generation — you know, the dreaded Millenials — the Internet has been about networking, about telling everyone about what is happening to you at any given moment. And as we age and our lives take different paths, we can stay in touch. This is the promise that the social web kept. We do not lack for ways of staying in touch, no matter the distance. Better yet, we’re pretty good at using these networks! We’ve become adept users of the web.
But we don’t know how to make these networks. We, as a generation, do not know how the web works or how to make it. More importantly, I don’t think my generation cares about knowing how the web works, as long as someone else is making it work. Hell, I know how the web works, but I’m still writing my post on Medium, where I control next-to-nothing, instead of my personal site, where I control everything, because it is easier and hopefully more people will see it. If we don’t care about how the web works, how can we understand why it is important to own our data? Why would we try if what we can do now is so easy?
When we talk about getting the open web back, let’s not forget the openness that comes from ease and power for the end user that we’ve created in the past few years. I’ve been around for conversations where more experienced webmakers talk about how they used to publish their content or put up their data servers. They owned all that data, and man, those were the days, but to me it sounded awful. Anil Dash reminisces:
In the early days of the social web, there was a broad expectation that regular people might own their own identities by having their own websites, instead of being dependent on a few big sites to host their online identity. In this vision, you would own your own domain name and have complete control over its contents, rather than having a handle tacked on to the end of a huge company’s site.
Are we suggesting everyone needs their own personal website and domain name on the open web? I understand the benefit of having a personal site — that’s why I have one — but everyone? That’s a tough sell. Making a Tumblr to do the same thing is so much easier. Anil’s follow-up post on how to rebuild the open web is smart: It acknowledges that the UX gains we’ve made on the social web are not to be forgotten. But we also have to acknowledge that not everyone wants in on this greater individual investment on the web. Some people will want to be passive users. We have to acknowledge that this is okay.
The open web of the past — at least, the one I’m told about — had its own barrier to entry: You had to care about your data and understand why it was important to own all of it. That’s not going to work this time around. People who have grown up not caring about owning their content and identity online are not going to start caring all of a sudden. Snapchat is successful for a reason.
We do need to fight and make the web more open. I do not deny this; indeed, I fully support the cause. But we need to think about what is going to work at the next stage of the Internet. What will create the most inclusive future? After all, it was our old open web that gave rise to our new social web.
Instead of reminiscing about how great the old open web was, yearning to go back to that, let’s talk about the present questions:
- How can we assure users of the web that their data and identities are safe online?
- How can we get social content back into the hands of its creators?
- How do we include everyone?
I don’t pretend to have all the answers, but here is a crucial aspect: web services cannot exploit the general user’s ignorance about the web. Even if users do not care about owning their data or understand what owning their data means, the web service cannot take advantage of that and sell their data. This is where the social web has failed us. The social web has exploited the ignorance of the average user of the web for profit.
The important step forward is that, while users own their data, they do not need to know what to do with it. The future open web must be easier to use than the current social web, and knowing what to do with your own data cannot be a prerequisite. We will have passive users of the web, and the web needs them. If we exclude them, we risk creating a walled garden that lacks the perspectives and experiences of different types of people. Where have we heard that before?