A short note about web standards

From your friends at Known


As a company, we have a mission. We’ve read lots of advice since we started about how you should show, not tell, your reason for being. That makes sense to us, but here it is:

Known empowers every group and individual to communicate from their own space on the Internet.

It’s a pretty simple idea: the Internet should be a level playing field for everybody, whether you’re a student in a developing nation, a lone hobbyist, or giant tech company. The Internet works best when everyone can communicate with everyone else, without censorship or uneven distribution. It’s an ideal we share with other open organizations like Mozilla.

One of the things that makes this work is standardization. Everything on the Internet talks the same underlying languages. It’s worked pretty well for the low-level networking protocols that move data; it’s worked well for applications like email; and it’s worked well for the web.

The web in particular has become the most powerful communications medium human civilization has ever known. That’s a pretty big statement, but consider the cultural impact of blogging and social media on society in a relatively short space of time. Facebook — undeniably part of the web — has, by itself, at least 1.44 billion people who use it regularly to talk to their friends, share photographs and learn about the world.

The web grew organically, like the Internet before it. Like any technology, it’s a little older now, and it’s missing a few things. There’s no agreed-upon concept of identity on the web, and no way to represent actions like “sharing” and “liking”. We are also in a multi-device world, rather than one where we access the web solely from a computer screen. Understandably, work is underway to upgrade and improve the standards we rely upon. Just as we need HTML to have an agreed-upon way to display information on the web, we now need a way to deal with these new uses of it.

Standards without grassroots adoption are just bureaucracy. It’s crucial that any new “standard” is broadly embraced without coercion.

These standards can’t be dictated by large corporations alone (although they’re an important part of the web ecosystem). If we want the web to continue to be the platform for innovation it has been to date, it must serve the interests of individuals: both individual developers, and people who rely on it to live and work.

In the latest version of Known, we shipped experimental support for Accelerated Mobile Pages. This is an answer to something called Facebook Instant Pages, which caches website content inside a mobile app so it can be displayed immediately. While Instant Pages content must be negotiated with Facebook, anyone can publish AMP content. So far, so good.

Unfortunately, AMP redefines the HTML standard with some custom tags. That’s not great. It also requires that we load JavaScript from a specific source, which radically centralizes website content. We assume this is a shim until these features are more widely supported, so we can live with that. What’s less impressive is that AMP whitelists ad networks that participating pages can be a part of. If you’re not generating ad revenue from one of A9, AdReactor, AdSense, AdTech or Doubleclick and want to have your websites load swiftly inside social mobile apps, you’re out of luck.

We’ve shipped support for AMP because we see potential here, and recognize that something should be done to improve the experience of loading independently-published content on the web. But attempting to bake certain businesses into a web standard is a malformed idea that is doomed to fail. If this is not corrected in future versions of the specification, we will withdraw support.

Elsewhere, we see other web standards efforts attempt to bake in certain ideologies or approaches. I think it’s important to understand that the web succeeded because:

  • It’s open
  • It’s easy
  • It’s agnostic

Here’s what I think that means in practice:

Open: Any new web standard must be created as part of an open process. Imagine if Marc Andreessen hadn’t been free to propose the img tag, for example. It also can’t be created behind closed doors, or solely as part of organizations that require an entrance fee. The conversations that shape the standards have to be open, too, which means being welcoming to newcomers and understanding of different personal contexts.

Easy: Any new web standard must be easy enough to understand and implement that a developer can get something up and running in an afternoon. HTML, HTTP and RSS all adhere to these principles. So do the indieweb protocols, which is why we support them and think they are likely to succeed.

Agnostic: Any new web standard should not give preference to any company or organization.

We believe in the web, and the Internet as a whole, as an incredibly powerful platform for innovation, business, communication and personal expression. To do that means standing up for openness and accessibility.

Like what we have to say? Follow us on Twitter, or go ahead and sign up for Known and start publishing all your social content from your own site.

Originally published at stream.withknown.com on October 13, 2015.