The Web We Lost

Tracking interesting signals, ideas and questions in the innovation and tech space.

The rise of social networks, the app boom, the democratization of the Web. Praise is often sung of the leaps and bounds the tech industry has made in such a short period of time, but what have we traded for this shiny present? Tech blogger Anil Dash reflects back on what he calls “The Web We Lost,” painting a picture for those who may not recall, or be familiar with the way the Web used to be. Recalling the glory days of Flickr as the main platform for sharing social photos, when tagging was done by humans or even by apps and services using machine tags. When people decided whether their images could grant permission for artists, businesses or individuals to reuse and remix under the license of Creative Commons. When you could share content in a simple, documented format without business deals or complex contracts between sites. He reminds readers that only 10 years ago, single-sign-in services, no matter how transparent, would be “described as introducing a tracking system worthy of The PATRIOT Act.” Dash adds that “in the early part of this century, 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. Vendors spent years working on interoperability around data exchange purely for the benefit of their users, despite theoretically lowering the barrier to entry for competitors. This isn't our Web today.”

Dash claims that not only have we lost key features that we used to rely on, but that we’ve abandoned core values that used to be fundamental to the Web world. Not to discredit today’s social networks, which have brought in hundreds of millions of new participants and that have “certainly made a small number of people rich.” The problem, he says, is that “[T]hey 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.”

The current social Web, no matter how impeccably built, is nonetheless built on two fallacies. The first being that user flexibility and control leads to growth-stunting complexity, and secondly, that exerting extreme control over users is the best way to maximize the profitability and sustainability of their networks. Dash proposes eight steps to rebuild the positive aspects of the Web:

  1. Take responsibility and accept blame. We’re in this predicament because too much time and ego went into obscure internecine battles about technical minutiae rather than putting in the humbling work to make the social Web accessible, engaging and rewarding for everyone.
  2. Don't just meet the UX standards, raise the bar. Due to the profound entrenchment that these platforms already have across culture, the new apps have to be an order of magnitude better in user experience.
  3. Rethink funding fundamentals. VC will still be part of the startup ecosystem in the next wave, but the terms and dynamics can be profoundly different, supporting startups that are intentionally less efficient.
  4. Explore architectural changes. Digital storage was, until recently, prohibitively expensive. Companies and consumers can now buy off-the-shelf components or use the cloud rather than rely on one centralized service to keep data on-hand.
  5. Outflank by pursuing talent outside the obvious. Mix up the team; the best innovations have come from diverse, mixed-gender, mixed-background groups of individuals with a range of perspectives, not groupthink homogeneity.
  6. Exploit their weakness: Insularity. Learn from the mistakes of the past. Broadening their appeal from the start, new apps and networks can outflank the big players, paying attention to audiences that hadn't been properly respected last time.
  7. Don’t trust the trade press. Business tends to follow a few simple, repeating cycles, like moving from centralization to decentralization and back, or from interoperable communications to silos and back. But you can't trust the tech press to teach you about the tech industry; you'll have to know your shit.
  8. Create public spaces. Right now, all of the places we can assemble on the Web in any kind of numbers are privately owned. And privately-owned public spaces aren't real public spaces. They don't allow for the play and the chaos and the creativity and brilliance that only arise in spaces that don't exist purely to generate profit. They're also susceptible to being gradually gaslighted by the companies that own them.

These new companies will still make money, create great new technologies and impact culture, but Dash points out, “they’ll look different, both in terms of the people who make them, and the people they serve. [...]They'll be more durable, not optimized based on current fashions in financing, but because they're built on the accurate belief that there are people who care deeply about the Web they use, the works they create, the connections they make and the humans on the other side of those connections.”

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