Tuesday, December 18, 2012

The Web (Some People Think They've) Lost...

Blogger Anil Dash is getting a decent amount of attention for posting about "The Web We Lost".  He highlights a number of ways in which the more open social web of a decade ago has gradually been replaced by the more tightly controlled social web of today, and argues that people need to be reminded about "what the Web means".

We've lost key features that we used to rely on, and worse, we've abandoned core values that used to be fundamental to the web world. To the credit of today's social networks, they've brought in hundreds of millions of new participants to these networks, and they've certainly made a small number of people rich.

But they haven't shown the web itself the respect and care it deserves, as a medium which has enabled them to succeed. And they've now narrowed the possibilities of the web for an entire generation of users who don't realize how much more innovative and meaningful their experience could be.

It's an argument that's certainly been made before.  Reminiscing with nostalgia about the Internet of the 1990s where practically everything was freely and openly accessible, then turning with dismay at the "walled gardens" of sites like Facebook, which are essentially private clubs that deny access to their content to the rest of the Web, the argument is put forth that today's social web leads to corporate turf wars where the user winds up with reduced interoperability and where someone else owns all of our personal content.

However, I would take issue with a few of Dash's points.  First of all, if we're harkening back to the late 90s, a lot of people's entire experience on the Internet took place completely within that original social web giant, AOL - which was one of the greatest walled gardens of all time.  You can even make a plausible argument that the walled gardens of today are more open and accessible than the walled gardens of the past.

Second, the examples of Flickr and Technorati are used to show how photos and other social content used to be more easily tagged, searchable, and discoverable.  But even most social network users of today, who notoriously pay very little attention to privacy, would be aghast at the thought of all their photos and content being instantly discoverable to any Web user outside their approved social network of friends.  The market actually met a need that the older sites weren't adequately servicing.  And, yes, there of plenty of cases where Facebook photos get copied and shared publicly anyway, but at least the site doesn't make that the default as a matter of policy.

Additionally, it seems like an exaggeration to say that Google AdSense has corrupted hyperlinks forever.  While, of course, there's widespread monetization, that's a pretty cynical view.  Also, his claim that a decade ago, "if you made a service that let users create or share content, the expectation was that they could easily download a full-fidelity copy of their data, or import that data into other competitive services, with no restrictions", is really not how some of us remember things.  Dash seems to be romanticizing a bit here.   

My favorite point, though, is this...

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. This was a sensible reaction to the realization that big sites rise and fall in popularity, but that regular people need an identity that persists longer than those sites do.

I personally love this idea, to a large extent follow this path myself, and even recommend it to students.  But not everyone has even the elementary technical skills to necessary to maintain their own website with constantly updated content.  And just because people generally choose to use a walled social network rather than hosting much of their online social identity in an open-Web approach, there's absolutely nothing stopping them from doing so if that's what they want.  It's an individual choice.  No one's hand is being forced.

The modern social web shouldn't be looked at in strictly binary terms where it's either a positive or negative development, and people shouldn't have to make the choice between which is better, the social Web of today versus the social Web of a decade ago.  We're fortunate for the benefits that today's incarnation has brought us, yet we'd probably all see some benefit from at least a few of the walls in those walled gardens to open up a bit.  Ideally, we need both approaches existing concurrently, side-by-side, with users being empowered to make their choices uninhibited.



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