How capitalism breaks the web

By Felix Salmon
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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I like it when people much younger than me sound a lot older. the “web we lost”? We didn’t lose anything, you just voluntarily stopped using things. You don’t have to use facebook or twitter or adsense or any of the things Dash lamented about. The web is what you want it to be, if you’re not happy with how it works for you, it’s pretty much your choice.

” “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,”

Blogging is very hard, but not because it’s difficult to set up your own blog. Seriously, Felix, how old are you? Go hire a teenager to show you how to set up a blog. The hard part, the really hard part, about blogging is the writing, which you seem to have no trouble with (even if I do disagree with you a few times a week). Writing is a lot of work, but setting up a blog with wordpress, or tumblr, or weebly, or squarespace, is relatively trivial. Bloggers tend to move to sites they don’t own not because of the difficulty of setting up and managing a blog (many of the bigger tech blogs use one of those platforms), but because of the audience, or the salary thing.

And for once I’ll agree with Andreessen, and thank him for his swipe at Romneyvision.

I don’t know if Dash needs to educate the masses about the limits of facebook and twitter; eventually those fads will get tiring for most (you can only withstand so much noise for a limited amount of time before you go deaf). Giving users flexibility and control doesn’t hurt profits, where does that idea come from?

Posted by KenG_CA | Report as abusive

I agree, but then I think the better question is: do we have any evidence that the Good Internet is *smaller* now? Like most of the capitalist machine in music, television, and hollywood movies, I think it’s an illusion that it has *supplanted* the Good Stuff. It’s just broadened the market to all the people who want crummy stuff.

Posted by mw1 | Report as abusive

I agree that Twitter, Facebook and other social networks have killed blogging. I blogged from 2005 to 2011 almost non-stop, but in the later years everybody has abandoned their blogging platform. In usability terms blogging is hard, there are so many steps you have to go through in order to put up a post out there using blogging platforms, and in Twitter or FB, a post or a picture is just a click or two away. What sucks about not being able to have a wide range of bloggers producing material publicly is that most of us will miss out in whatever they write in their social networks. Nowadays you gotta friend them or follow their pages in order to know what’s going on.

Like Ken says above, not everybody can write, so for those who didn’t like writing so much, posting a picture on Twitter or FB, or liking stuff is much easier to try to come out with a post for an open audience.

I miss the blogging days, I feel I was much more informed when the information was out there in the open web rather than the way it is now. It is a good thing that at least some professional bloggers like Felix, Tyler Co, Seth Godin, Penelope, still do their thing, because it would be a pretty sad world to only be able to follow your posts through a fb page that not always broadcasts the posts, or that can’t be placed in a rss feed reader.

Posted by Engels | Report as abusive

The whole issue with not letting people add links to your page is bizarre. The ‘nofollow’ attribute exists for a reason. (It would be nice, for instance, if Counterparties used it for its “Stuff we’re not linking to” category.)

Posted by absinthe | Report as abusive

This actually struck me when watching the Olympic ceremonies. The big section with kids using the internet to communicate. It tries to show us how the internet changed everything, and how all of young adults’ interactions use the internet. And they even featured Tim Berners-Lee, the Brit who started it all. Right? Or did he?

Tim Berners-Lee made HTTP and HTML, the open standards of the web. But these kids bouncing around are not using the web. They’re using phones, and on them they are using Facebook, Twitter and such, as we saw put up on the screen in graphics (LOL IMHO, etc.). They’re using the internet, but not what Berners-Lee made. Berners-Lee made a protocol, but all these other things are captive services. Berners-Lee or even the world may have made the web it was, but it is American companies stitching the openness back closed and monetizing things. All those services actually being shown were American services (companies), not world-wide protocols.

I remember seeing some n00b back in the early 90s acting the internet tough guy. He said to another internet commenter on some board “don’t mess with me, I have friends at Netscape, I just say they word and they’ll shut down your website in the blink of an eye.”. It was hilarious, as young teens who don’t really understand much frequently inadvertently are.

But now it’s real. Netscape couldn’t close down your web page because your web page was on a server you or someone else ran using an open protocol and anyone could view it. Netscape couldn’t shut people’s websites. But Facebook sure can close down your Facebook page. And Twitter can lock you out too.

It’s kind of depressing really.

Posted by stereoscope | Report as abusive

“or when everybody freely gave out their email address because no one worried about spam”

In my experience you can do this much better now than you ever used to be able to. Email spam has existed for ages, but I publish my email on my website without any obfuscation or anything and I don’t seem to be any more annoyed by spam than ever before, or than by anyone else.

Posted by RobinWinslow | Report as abusive

This open letter is right on.. the regulations in draft form are both chilling and wont work anyway. See their letter. — Eric Schidmt

Posted by Anonymous | Report as abusive

Well said KenG_Ca

Posted by fresnodan | Report as abusive

Felix, when I read these type of “gold old days” pieces, I hearken back to a piece the late Herb Caen, the legendary columnist of the San Francisco Chronicle, once wrote a piece about the worsening state of San Francisco and, in particular, one of its main arteries, Market Street.

In it, he lamented about how this thoroughfare was always under construction, how the city’s charms and enduring traditions were getting swept aside by outsiders, and how the place was becoming less and less hospitable to locals and long-timers, forcing Caen to wonder if, perhaps, San Francisco’s best days were behind it.

Ah, but Caen was setting us up for an unexpected upper-cut, as at the tail end of the piece, he reveals (I am paraphrasing), “Would it surprise you to know that I wrote this piece way back in 1954?”

Caen’s point was that then, as now, every generation sees their generation as the Real Generation and the Right Approach, when in truth, progress just moves forward.

Hence, the locals of San Francisco, circa 1954, saw a city losing sight of its traditions and therefore, its magic. In truth, the city was just moving forward with the times.

Tech is no different.

Posted by hypermark | Report as abusive

hypermark,

Mid-Market and the Tenderloin *still* haven’t recovered from the hollowing out that resulted from that endless construction. Caen wasn’t being grouchy – the specific projects he was writing about had long-lasting deleterious effects on those neighborhoods. It’s a classic case of botched urban planning and a legitimate gripe. I don’t think Dash’s complaints will be nearly as relevant in 60 years.

Posted by absinthe | Report as abusive