Despite recent attention to the implications of giving Facebook full access to our online lives, I don't think it's shifting the average person's thinking about their use of a centralized, closed-off version of the web. For most people, the affirmation that there is no real alternative to Facebook doesn't mean they leave Facebook, it means they keep using it until something else comes along.
Of course, there is an alternative to Facebook and other walled gardens: the open web. The alternative is the version of the Internet where you own your content and activity, have minimal dependence on third party business models, can discover new things outside of what for-profit algorithms show you, and where tools and services interact to enhance each other's offerings, instead of to stamp each other out of existence.
But most users don't care about the principles or implementation of an open web, at least not in those terms. Most people don't see themselves as ever having left the open web behind, and if you told them to try to get back to it, they wouldn't know what to do or why it was worthwhile.
No matter how much it might be in their long-term self interest, it's not up to the casual Internet user to figure that out. Instead, it's up to the developers, designers, entrepreneurs and technology leaders to create a version of the open web that also happens to be the best version of the web.
We need to build tools and networks where the functional appeal outweighs the cost of "switching." We need to design services and platforms that don't ask a user to learn a new system or culture, but that instead scream, "this is where you belong." It's our job to create import, export and migration tools that make the transition away from the closed web as seamless as possible; no long lists of steps to follow, nothing more burdensome than creating an account somewhere.
We need to make sure open web tools appeal to the a user's interest in easy sharing and resharing of content, in maximizing visibility while protecting privacy, in having conversations and interactions that, whether intimate or public, help us grow and learn as humans.
Showing everyone how to start their own blog or website isn't enough. The Facebook news feed and threaded Twitter timeline have too much weight now as standards for online interaction. The tools of the open web need their own built-in network effect that facilitates discovery, interaction and even virality. Having your own private swimming pool is fun for a while, but eventually most of us will want to return to the public, bustling scene at the edge of the river or ocean.
I think the good news is, there are so many areas where the closed, centralized web is limiting or failing people that there are equally many paths to success in (re)building the open web.
If the closed web is a place where hate speech, harassment and bullying thrives, the open web can be, needs to be an experience where it does not.
If the closed web is a place where people are asked to give up control in exchange for feeling known, the open web can be an experience where they have both.
If the closed web is a place that encourages superficiality and exploitative interactions, the open web can be an experience grounded in authenticity and accountability.
If the closed web thrives on fear of missing out, the open web can be an experience where self-expression and individuality are celebrated.
And so on. But it's up to the technologists of the world to move these ideals from theoretical to real in the lives of every day users, subscribers, members, customers, supporters, and investors.
As people who build things, we also need to hold each other accountable when our default posture isn't one of openness and interoperability. We should ask each other to use and build on open standards, provide powerful APIs, publish and maintain in-depth documentation. We should share vulnerably when we come to forks in the road that might pit openness against profitability and sustainability. We can help each other if we want to.
It's tempting to think that rebuilding the open web is about convincing people to change their behavior or use different tools. Instead, it needs to be about creating online things that are compelling and accessible in their own right, that inherently empower the user in every way we can imagine now, and that leave the door wide open for adaptations and evolutions that haven't been imagined yet.
What are you doing to rebuild the open web?
8 thoughts on “Bringing people back to the open web”
- I help where I can with a self-hosting platform for web apps (Sandstorm.io).
- Warn people about the dangers of centralized platforms and participate in decentralized ones.
Discussion on Hacker News: https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=16904466
It's weird to think people use social networks as primary content hubs. I've always treated them like the roads which gets people to my content rather than the building my content is in.
I guess people don't feel the need to own things anymore. People do seem happy with the Netflix model rather than Blu-rays, so I guess I just never considered how low other people's priority is to have control over their content.
p.s. I just skimmed the article, my apologies if I misconstrued.
I also love being able to post actual comments on articles. When did this stop being a thing?
Just a generation ago there was understanding that we had let too much power accumulate into too few large, multi-national corporations.
Then we got a chance to start over with the internet and new digital companies. How quickly we repeated the same mistakes. Now we have trillion dollar tech companies and wonder if they've gotten too big, too centralized.
I look forward to a write-up on your decision to move your photos from Flickr to self-hosted-- another vote for the open web!