2014 – time to fix the internet?!

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.

and

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?

  • Michael Dlugosch on Twitter:

    @sebastiangreger High time "to fix the internet" for real. Your analysis is good - I'll work on the implications a bit. Need 2, 3 days, ok?

    2014-01-07

  • Sebastian Greger on Twitter:

    @scrutinizer20 Great, I am looking forward to hear your point of view! Take your time, this is anyway a long-term endeavour

    2014-01-07

  • Trackback from Last Exit Westend » Blog Archive » Publishing content on the Web: we need to redesign “social content”:

    […] has published a post recently, where he wraps us the recently emerging discussion about the dominance of “content silos […]

    2014-01-14

  • Michael Dlugosch on Twitter:

    @sebastiangreger Sorry, it took me a tad bit longer to gather my thoughts. I've put the article here: http://www.westendintie.net/michael/blog/2014/01/publishing-content-on-the-web-we-need-to-redesign-social-content/

    2014-01-14

  • Sebastian Greger:

    Thank you for your comments. I fully agree that audience and identity - and their ownership - have to be an integral part of this debate. To me, your example of about.me illustrates how the prevailing logic leads to solving the silo problem by building another silo. Who would really want to build an "identity" on a VC-funded platform that may cease to exist at any point (as happens to most startups at some point).

    A truly free (as in "open", not "freemium") solution would be an open source software like about.me to be run on any server (while it could still be offered as a hosted service as well, e.g. like WordPress). Obviously, the challenge remains that this kind of approach - while restoring openness on the web - may have a hard time to get traction with the masses.

    While I don't see an answer to that challenge (yet), I believe that there is great value in a discourse about deliberating the trinity of content, audience and identity. The current models of building identities, audiences and content at the mercy of commercial interests (monopolization/monetization, as you mentioned) just seem to contradict their very nature.

    2014-01-15

  • Michael Dlugosch:

    You have a bunch of very valid points here. Let me pick two for a start:
    - If that “open source software like about.me” would use an established metadata format that stands a slight chance to be recognized and valued by search engines as relevant for people searches, it may at least connect with a few users out there. And occasionally spread from there.

    - If it was available in a few common formats (and: yes. Me personally would appreciate a WordPress plugin a lot. Call me lazy! Let’s contact the folks from ghost.org. They may like it, too!), via GitHub or so, and if the supported platforms were selected carefully, it would be a valid step towards the right direction.

    I can’t really tell whether “schema.org” is a force to be reckoned with, or yet another industry scam. If it is the former, it may be worth trying. If it is the latter, your particular approach is far more fruitful:
    (1) creating genuine content [content!], (2) hosting it on a domain that is tied to your name [identity!], and (3) posting it to channels where a potential audience is loitering [audience!] seems to represent the best approach that we currently have.

    Here’s why:
    Ad 1: those crazy people who are searching for particular topics beyond the main stream would know how to craft a reasonable search string for finding contents beyond the beaten path.
    Ad 2: If your name was a mark that mattered: domain matches still outperform any other keyword matches for your name (as of Nov. 2013, when I last checked SEOMoz’ survey results. Insights from there: For your particular name, your domain match comes first. For my name, my acquired SoMe stuff comes first. Bottom line: Who would have thought that my name is such a commodity. And: I need to regain control over my name online – possibly at the expense of my namesakes. For now).
    Ad 3: “Producing genuine content – or just teasers (Ha!)” might make a difference for an audience that is likely to feel more and more bored to death by streamlined, marketing-infused messages that are just meant to “generate Reach” in mainstream Social Networks, but are not set out to “start a discourse” somewhere else.

    The point is no longer: who’s right, and who’s wrong. The point is: are we ready to continue discussions although we may lack what VC-funded platforms are offering so easily: “an audience”?

    2014-01-16

  • Webmention from Identity, content, audience and the (independent) web // Sebastian Greger:

    […] which a draft hypothesis has started to emerge for me. In a first attempt to paraphrase: The question of how […]

    2014-01-23

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