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.