Within the last year, and increasingly during recent weeks, a recurring theme in writings from web design commentators has been that the web is in an unhealthy state and needs some care.
Maybe most prominently, Anil Dash's "The web we lost" from November 2012 is a wake-up call to everybody working with the web to recall where it originally came from and the opportunities it provided:
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 possibilites of the web for an entire generation of users who don't realize how much more innovative and meaningful their experience could be.
More recently, Jeremy Keith has summarised the debate in his article "In dependence". It is so comprehensive that I rather not reference all the other articles but recommend to read through the text and review the sources linked. One main concern he expresses is the same as that of many others:
Many of us are feeling an increasing unease, even disgust, with the sanitised, shrink-wrapped, handholding platforms that make it oh-so-easy to get your thoughts out there …on their terms …for their profit.
Identifying a new frontier
A lot of the ongoing debate is about the content silos built by a handful of big commercial players. While Facebook, Google, Twitter et al. undeniably have contributed to the rapid spread of access to online interaction (as Anil Dash credits and which in itself is anything but a bad thing), the issue is the underlying strategy to create walled gardens where users are promised social satisfaction at the price of selling their privacy, the ownership over their content and ultimately the control about their representation on the internet.
At the same time, Jeremy Keith points out the two biggest challenges in this quest for a better web of tomorrow - or should it rather be called a renaissance of the web:
Of course independent publishing won’t be easy. Facebook, Pinterest, Medium, Twitter, and Tumblr are all quicker, easier, more seductive.
Publishing on your own website is still just too damn geeky. The siren-call of the silos is backed up with genuinely powerful, easy to use, well-designed tools. I don’t know if independent publishing can ever compete with that.
So here we are with two main challenges:
- powerful platforms that provide easy access to a web far from its original design's freedom and that deliberately limit the potential that openness could provide (yet providing a critical mass of audience, appealing to individual users and institutions alike), and
- the problem that the open alternatives (most prominently: ownership over content and identity using self-controlled websites and independent interactions - as promoted by the Indieweb movement) still require a good command of technological knowledge that many do not have and most are not willing to acquire; for institutions and enterprises, taking the leap to leave the mainstream and develop an alternative strategy is often seen as too big a risk.
The issues at hand
The question is: How can the designers who shape and create the web and its interactions (and therefore having the skills and power to "fix the internet"), contribute to tackling these issues?
How can we demonstrate and promote the value of the investment in developing independent presences on the internet for both individuals and institutions?
How can we spread the word on both the opportunities of doing things differently and the risk of moving everything into the silos of the big few?
And how can we contribute to lowering the threshold for "non-geeks" to participate in an independent web or for enterprises and organisations to take the leap and build on the power of the web itself?