Different Ways of Fixing the Web

Several articles in the last several weeks have bemoaned the decline of the web. Yesterday, Alan Levine linked to several of them but then  suggested that the web feels fine to him, and Mike Caulfield commented that many of the features we now view as integral to the open web owe their existence to people who perceived problems with the way the web worked and tried to fix them.  Mike notes that comments and RSS and WordPress were all attempts to fix something about the web that was not quite right.  I’d add Facebook to that list.

( I’ll give you a moment to recover from your swoon or fit of rage)

Just as the comment box tried to solve the problem of conversation or RSS tried to solve the problem of curation, Facebook tried to solve a problem, “How do I use the web to connect to a group of people that is important to me?”   For lots of people, especially non-early-adopters, this is a more important to solve than how to curate information.  There’s a reason Facebook has billions of users. For many people, the ease with which the web allows them to connect to other people is more important that the ease with which it allows them to manage information.  People like Alan have, for a long time, reminded anyone who would pay attention of the importance of story, even on the web.  What makes a story uniquely compelling?  The characters.  Story is so important and so powerful because it puts people (or aliens, or anthropomorphized animals, you get the idea) at the center.  Something like Facebook or Google+, in its own convoluted way, is an effort to put personal connection at the center of the web.

So, why do most of the people I know love RSS and hate Facebook?  Because Facebook did its problem solving in a non-open way, encouraging people to trade their data for “free web hosting and PHP doodads,” as Eben Moglen put it. To anyone who can install fedwiki on a VPS using npm, the bargain Moglen describes seems as bad a deal as he says it is.  To people without those skills, the deal doesn’t seem as bad.  Companies like Reclaim Hosting and Known are doing great work lowering the entry threshold so that more people can manage their own digital identity and realize how bad Facebook’s deal is.

Even so, the open web tools are great for digital homesteading, and not as great for networking.  Tools like Known or other IndieWeb implementations are focusing on POSSE (Publish Own Site, Syndicate Elsewhere) and trying to leverage the network effects of proprietary platforms like Facebook and Twitter rather than supplant them.

The existence and success of those proprietary platforms is an effort to solve another “problem” with the web, how to make money off of it. The Vox article to which Alan links addresses this issue directly.  Most web users seem unwilling to pay for content or for their own hosting.  Ergo, we end up with the system of data harvesting we have.

Would the web be better if the problems of social networking and monetization were solved in an open way?  Of course it would.  Goodness knows people have tried the former. Remember friendica, diaspora, appleseed, etc. Sites like ChangeTip are trying to solve the latter   Hopefully someone will succeed eventually.

My sense is that most of the distress over the decline of the web is actually well founded concern that the key problems of the web in 2015 are being solved in proprietary ways that create huge walled gardens rather than with open federated protocols.  That is, in fact, the key problem to solve.



3 thoughts on “Different Ways of Fixing the Web

  1. Alan Levine (@cogdog)

    Thanks Jason for framing this much more elegantly than me. I’d say that largely people make decisions based upon some mathematics of what benefits themselves the most (one might extend it as evolutionary desire to thrive) at the least cost of time / effort.

    I’m not convinced many in the general population are moved to make such choices based on a sense of social good or morally on a higher ground. That sounds pessimistic.

    I might question if every development is rooted in “solving a problem” or more likely, the initial problem pursued is not the one currently driving things. I can only project, but I doubt Zuckerberg et all were only trying to solve a problem of hooking up co-eds, not trying to give the world a simpler web experience. And as a company that grew from that, the problem they are trying to solve is how to become a dominant corporate entity; the making the web easier is more of a vehicle that gets them there.

    Or so I think.

    One thing I abhor more than the “web is boring” cryfest is the apologists who bemoan Facebook but still feed the machine. At least be honest and own your subservience.

  2. Jason Green Post author

    My understanding of Facebook has changed in the last six months since I started “feeding the machine”. Until a few months ago, almost all my Facebook friends were people I knew in high school and college. I posted rarely, and could via Facebook remain somewhat aware of what they were up to.

    Then I became involved in local community theatre . A few of the people I’ve met doing shows are on Twitter. I don’t know of anyone who runs their own domain. All but a handful are regular Facebook users. The conversations and communities surrounding the half a dozen community theatre organizations in my area “live” on Facebook. So, I feed the machine, because that’s where my connection to these people is.

    I hesitate to generalize, but I suspect that most of my Facebook friends , old and new, would see paying for hosting and taking the time to set up a personal domain, even if that’s putting up withknown via a couple of clicks in installatron, as being more hassle than it’s worth, mostly because the benefits of control are perceived as having little value, even though the costs of personal cyberinfrastructure in money and time are also low. In one way, that’s a good problem to have, because the challenge, rather than being technical, is one of persuading lots of people that the control of one’s own digital identity is valuable.


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