How capitalism breaks the web

December 18, 2012
Anil Dash's nostalgia for the web we lost.

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I share most if not all of Anil Dash’s nostalgia for the web we lost. Once upon a time, in the wake of the dot-com crash, there was a real feeling that the mammals would supplant the dinosaurs, and that the web would increasingly become a real network of individual sites, rather than being dominated by a handful of enormous portals. There were lots of companies working to that end, including Anil’s own company, Six Apart. And those companies cared deeply about empowering the mammals:

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.

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.

But an interesting set of things happened to the blogosphere. Firstly, it became professionalized: as early as 2002, Nick Denton was paying other people to blog for him, and in the other direction, a lot of professional journalists started using blogging tools. The network of non-professional individual bloggers which Anil and I remember from 2003 didn’t last long; while it still exists, it’s not much bigger now than it was then. What’s more, the individual bloggers who do exist tend not to blog on their own websites: instead, they use some hosted service or other. (Six Apart itself was part of this trend.)

And there’s a very good reason for that. Back in October 2003, I wrote a post entitled “Blogging is hard“, which explains just how difficult it was to set up your own blog on your own website. Very little has changed since then, except that many sites have disappeared: except for the links to my own content, pretty much every other link in the post is now dead. Owning your own identity, it turns out, is an ongoing thing: if you let it lapse, then your identity pretty much disappears. Even Top Geeks like Marc Andreessen and Nick Denton let their individual blog archives rot away, unloved.

So it’s easy to understand the appeal of services like Twitter and Facebook and Pinterest and Instagram (and even MySpace, back in the day): they’re Not Hard, and they stay up without any work on the end-user’s part. If self-expression is the new entertainment, as Arianna Huffington likes to say, then the new entertainment industry is giving people the ability to express themselves as effortlessly as possible.

Now Anil’s point is that in doing so, these companies don’t need to break the web; instead of being “web-hostile”, he says, these sites could just as easily have embraced and respected everything the web stood for, with open standards and people owning their own content and so on and so forth. But the fact is that we had lots of services which did just that, including Six Apart, and they never got anything like the traction that the big social-media sites have achieved.

I asked Marc Andreessen what he thought of Anil’s post, and he replied saying this:

It’s a nice idea but it’s the web version of Mitt Romney’s rose-colored nostalgia of a Ward-and-Harriet-Cleaver 1950’s American past that never existed.

It’s also a variation on a theme I’ve been hearing since 1993 that the Internet was much better before the great unwashed arrived via {AOL, Hotmail, Geocities, Yahoo, Friendster, MySpace, etc.}.

This is also a good point: as the number of people online has exploded, there’s always going to be a feeling that things were much better and more civilized back when Usenet was actually useful, or when links hadn’t been monetized by Google, or when everybody freely gave out their email address because no one worried about spam. But any network becomes messier as it grows, and one of the things that Facebook and Twitter and Instagram and Pinterest do is that they declutter the web and make it user-friendly.

For the billions of people coming online today, the web can be just as hard, just as daunting, as blogging was to me in 2003. Anil wants to “re-educate” them and to “teach them that there is so much more to the experience of the Internet than what they know”. But the fact is that most of them don’t really want to be taught such things. Anil and his readers (and my readers, for that matter) are atypical in caring about this stuff. I would loathe to live in a world where Facebook was my main window to the rest of the internet, but hundreds of millions of people find that world very comforting and personal. And while Anil is right that Facebook could, if it wanted, be much more web-friendly, I think he’s wrong that doing so would make Facebook even more profitable than it is now.

I would love to live in Anil’s world — the world where giving users flexibility and control doesn’t hurt growth or profits. As Andreessen told me, I’m a person who “doesn’t believe in capitalism”. In the capitalist world, however, it’s very easy to see that we’ve tried it Anil’s way, and we’ve tried it Mark Zuckerberg’s way, and Zuckerberg has proved that the way to win capitalism is to break the web. More’s the pity.


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