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Reweirding the Web

A dozen years ago (how can it be so long? How can he have been so prescient?) Anil Dash wrote “the Web We Lost“.

This isn’t our web today. 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.

Dash lamented an earlier Web, one I was very much part of, before social media, an ironically much more personal web–quirkier, far less commercial and corporate. It was a Web whose organising principles and values were closer to anarchism (a political philosophy much maligned over the last century or so) than late stage capitalism.

Even then, before the almost complete dominance of tiny number of technology companies Dash’s lament seemed quaint, perhaps even naive.

But in recent weeks and months, a number of pieces in this spirit have gained some traction. Less than a year ago, “the death of the homepage” seemed to be a forgone conclusion (its death had been announced perhaps prematurely many times before as those search results will attest.)

But it seems the homepage might be having its revenge.

Now, the yearning for better days past can be a dangerous thing–nostalgia is a powerful force for inertia, and, well, (CW) we know how a desire for making things great again turns out.

But dammit there was something about those early, exploratory days of the Web. The values of sharing, experimentation, generosity that persist in many ways still, as we will see. But which have also been exploited relentlessly by those who build on the Web, take advantage of this immense public good, without reciprocating, or even paying lip service to the values that enabled their success and wealth.

Cory Doctorow struck a nerve with ‘enshittification‘, an idea that in less than 18 months has spread to the likes of the Financial Times and was the American Dialect Society’s word of the year for 2023.

And when Tim O’Reilly, populariser of the concept of Web 2.0, champion of technology companies and the internet economy for decades describes the most successful technology companies as Robber Barons, well, this is not just some counter-cultural moment, it has penetrated much deeper.

So a recent wave of thoughtful re-imagining what the Web might be I find positive.

In We can have a different web, Molly White, scourge of crypto bros everywhere, presents a positive perspective

Many yearn for the “good old days” of the web. We could have those good old days back — or something even better — and if anything, it would be easier now than it ever was.

The thing is: none of this is gone. Nothing about the web has changed that prevents us from going back. If anything, it’s become a lot easier. We can return. Better, yet: we can restore the things we loved about the old web while incorporating the wonderful things that have emerged since, developing even better things as we go forward, and leaving behind some things from the early web days we all too often forget when we put on our rose-colored glasses.

So, how might we do that? Maria Ferrell and Robin Berjon use the analogy of ecosystems and ecology, and argue for the rewilding of the internet.

Rewilding the internet is more than a metaphor. It’s a framework and plan. It gives us fresh eyes for the wicked problem of extraction and control, and new means and allies to fix it. It recognizes that ending internet monopolies isn’t just an intellectual problem. It’s an emotional one. It answers questions like: How do we keep going when the monopolies have more money and power? How do we act collectively when they suborn our community spaces, funding and networks? And how do we communicate to our allies what fixing it will look and feel like?

Meanwhile late last year Anil, whose Web We Lost opens this piece wrote in Rolling Stone “The Internet Is About to Get Weird Again“.

this new year offers many echoes of a moment we haven’t seen in a quarter-century. Some of the most dominant companies on the internet are at risk of losing their relevance, and the rest of us are rethinking our daily habits in ways that will shift the digital landscape as we know it. Though the specifics are hard to predict, we can look to historical precedents to understand the changes that are about to come, and even to predict how regular internet users — not just the world’s tech tycoons — may be the ones who decide how it goes.

But what might this look like in practice? It seems so overwhelming–on the one hand the largest companies in human history, more powerful than most nation states. On the other hand you. Or us. How can we make even the tiniest dent in this all?

Well, here are a few ideas and hopefully a bit of inspiration.

Save the Web by Being Nice

First, something simple. Andrew Stephens has a very similar idea to Molly. And a solution. Be nice.

The good news is that the web isn’t actually dead dead, just mostly dead.

The very best thing to keep the web partly alive is to maintain some content yourself – start a blog, join a forum and contribute to the conversation, even podcast if that is your thing. But that takes a lot of time and not everyone has the energy or the knowhow to create like this.

The second best thing to do is to show your support for pages you enjoy by being nice and making a slight effort. There are different levels of Niceness but roughly from least to most effort:

  • Liking or upvoting a URL on a forum or social media that someone else posted.
  • Commenting on a URL somebody else posted saying how much you enjoyed the content.
  • Posting a URL on social media/discord server yourself, suggesting that others might also like to read it.
  • Dropping a quick note of appreciation to the author via email or DM.
  • Actually paying money for the content via Patreon, etc.

So be like Waymond, be nice to save the Web.

Federate all the things

I think we’ll look back on the era we allowed so much of our lives to become centralised, controlled by a tiny number of increasingly powerful corporations as an unfathomable choice. Was it inevitable? It certainly seems like it was. But we overlook examples like Wikipedia–yes centralised and gate kept in complex ways, but a very different model.

Imagine Wikipedia as a private corporation. Perhaps starting with the best possible intentions. A mission to “collect all the world’s knowledge” or some such.

Years pass. The imperative to show strong growth to shareholders and ensure the share price continues to grow sees ‘innovations’. Anyway you get the picture. Then one day some billionaire decides it’s become too woke, and needs to be saved and buys it. It would take a far longer piece than this to imagine how all that might play out, but I think it’s hard to see it playing out well.

But Wikipedia isn’t owned by a corporation. It has strongly resisted the seemingly obvious funding path of just a small number of display ads to fund all its costs, relying instead on a donations model.

It’s not perfect, but it is an example of how avowedly avoiding the models of funding most internet based properties of any scale use has lead to something native to the Web, and a net positive for the world.

Federated systems like Mastodon (somewhat like Twitter or Threads), Pixelfed (federated photosharing), and other services based on protocols like ActivityPub (a W3C standard) promise a different kind of model for how social media (and other online servicies) might re-emerge. A social media that is adaptive, not reliant on a small team of people to address its challenges (safety being a principle one, that even well funded and well intentioned teams struggle with, and which within corporations ultimately takes a backseat to the whims of CEOs and needs of shareholders, as we’ve seen to pretty devastating effect with Twitter’s demise). A social media where you can take your presence elsewhere, rewarding the servers and administrators that align most closely with your values.

I’m not a utopian, but I am an optimist. So my first suggestion would be to at least dip a toe in these waters. It might take a little getting used to, but I can’t ever imagine returning to commercial social media except where absolutely required (so many child oriented logistics are still organised on big social company platforms). So why not create a mastodon account (quite a few folks in the Web world are on the IndieWeb.social server as am I) and follow me, and say Hi–I’ll be happy to introduce you to any followers! Or, if you’re there already say Hi!

Digital Gardens

Maggie Appleton, wonderful keynote speaker at Web Directions Summit last year wrote a couple of years ago a “newly revived philosophy for publishing personal knowledge on the web“.

They’re not following the conventions of the “personal blog,” as we’ve come to know it. Rather than presenting a set of polished articles, displayed in reverse chronological order, these sites act more like free form, work-in-progress wikis.

A garden is a collection of evolving ideas that aren’t strictly organised by their publication date. They’re inherently exploratory – notes are linked through contextual associations. They aren’t refined or complete – notes are published as half-finished thoughts that will grow and evolve over time. They’re less rigid, less performative, and less perfect than the personal websites we’re used to seeing.

Gardens focus less on polished complete pieces and more the exploration of ideas. Less daunting perhaps.

RSS and Blogging

Blogging is still very much a thing, as is RSS. So if you’re not using some sort of feed reader I really recommend it. I use Feedly, which has a free tier (100 feeds, 3 folders, more than enough to get you started, and you can export OPML from one fee reader into another so you’re not locked into any given app or service.) But there are many many options. To get you started, Chris Coyier published an OPML feed of blogs relevant to web developers. You can import this to any feed reader you choose.

The small/indie web

The indieweb movement has been around for quite some time. It’s an idea, and it’s a set of technologies and practices. Some of the very early web folks I met a quarter of a century ago are involved. But anyone can be!

It is a community of independent and personal websites connected by open standards and based on the principles of: owning your domain and using it as your primary online identity, publishing on your own site first (optionally elsewhere), and owning your content.

The small web is an idea of Aral Balkan, long time activist and technologist.

The Small Web is for people (not startups, enterprises, or governments). It is also made by people and small, independent organisations (not startups, enterprises, or governments2).

On the Small Web, you (and only you) own and control your own home (or homes).

Disenshittifying the Web

Inspired by Doctorow, and irked at a recent experience creating QR codes, I started my own little efforts along these lines–The Disenshittify Project.

While the enshittification of the Web (and beyond) might seem far greater than any individual can even make the slightest dent in–you, we, can deshittify the Web one small piece at a time. Something you like or use or do that’s become enshittified? Disenshittify it.

I started by creating two little apps a QR code creator and a password generator, unencumbered by ads, that don’t track you, don’t use your data in any way, just do that one job hopefully well. Looking for a fun project? I’ve got a list of things you might think of building in the spirit of the project.

Reclaim your web

More than at any time in the last decade or so I feel there’s a desire for this more personal web, and the tools and ideas to make it happen. So reclaim your little plot of the web, make it a bit weirder, a bit better. And connect with others who are doing likewise. It’s what drew me to the Web 30 years ago. One of the best decisions I ever made.

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I’ve been admiring the Web Directions events for years, and was honored to be part… What a fantastic event!

Ethan Marcotte Inventor of 'Responsive Web Design'