Why the Web is broken

My thoughts on how Web culture has evolved since the 90's and some of the problems we are now facing with social media monopolies. We are giving away our content and control for priviledge of efficient sharing.

Posted: Sat 26 Mar, 2016, 17:15
The year is 1995. The location is the Kansas State University. The setting is a computer lab filled with Sun Sparc Workstations running Solaris. As an exchange student I have taken the "exchange" idea to the very limit and ended up travelling half way around the world to study my third year. To a university where the curriculum shared virtually nothing with my home university. At KSU, I needed to learn how to programme, which involved using a computer (!). Until then, I generally tried to stay as far away from computers as possible.

Along the way however, as I was learning C and UNIX, a new thing was being discussed. The Internet. The World Wide Web. In those very labs everyone was emailing and soon so was I, using elm from my new email account. We could wander the nascent Web using the Mosaic browser, and then get very excited when Netscape was released and was so much faster. I could use UNIX talk to chat in real-time to with my friend back in Glasgow. It was so obvious even then that things were changing. The internet was going to be big and yet everyone back at home barely knew it existed. That would soon change. They internet would bring us globalisation, instant communication and no-one would ever fall behind again.

It was really exciting. I can only compare it to New World pioneers stepping onto dry land into a society that was unmade, ungoverned, not owned and with endless possibilities. Everyone knew it could be anything we wanted, but how would it turn out? Maybe somewhere fairer, less commercial and more collaborative. Back in 1995 this was how the World Wide Web seemed.

As I write this however, I am writing as someone who has become somewhat disillusioned with where it all went. From such promising beginnings and good intentions, the web has developed into something that does not do justice to its potential. Our online expectations are curtailed today by the current status-quo that has stifled innovation and created a slew of problems that I believe are intrisically related. Maybe things could not have evolved any other way, but there was an alternative vision at the start.

Equally, I should highlight that whilst the present Web is not what I had hoped or envisioned, it is also not what I had hoped or envisioned. In many ways it is much, much more. It has provided a multitude of experiences that we could never have conceived. For example, watching Only Connect live whilst simultaneously following the collective chat on Twitter about the show, the contestants and the questions (and the presenter) is unbelievable. Aside from being very funny, its also remakable to be able to commune temporarily with globally distributed fans to be entertained. Never expected that. The fact that there is bandwidth to simulataneously stream a show via iPlayer to every home in the country in HD. Never expected that. Being reconnected with friends I have lost touch which from 20 years ago thanks to LinkedIn. Priceless.

To be specific, my concern how is how we, as individuals, use the web. How we add content. How we share it. Where our content ends up. Even how we find content. This experience is broken in many ways. Let me explain why.

Personal content fragmentation

Today, our web identity and social media legacy is divided between any number of websites that provide the platform we need for a particular kind of content. Our individual content that we have created is fragmented and impossible to consolidate. Look at the following list of sites used today by most of us:

And the list goes on. This is all our content that we create and yet it is effectively lost to web platforms who specialize in a particular content format. This is a great loss of the individual how does not own the master copy but instead is reliant on a website to store and disseminate it. It also diminishes our online presense as individuals. Our contributions are scattered, unconnected and their ongoing value lies with someone else. We all accept that our online persona is only available from one angle. By sharing with the specialized platforms they present only side of ourselves - and a very narrow version at that. We could aim for a web presense that is broader and truer picture of ourselves. And in a form that can change that presentation anytime we want, as we change and evolve.

The cost of free

Everything is free on the internet. All of the sites we use every day are free to access. We have access to free storage. There are no charge-backs when content goes viral. The barrier to entry on content sharing websites is zero and most of us do not stop to think that may actually be a hidden cost. There is a contract between us and the sites which is implicit (and written in small print I am quite sure). Simply, you give us your content, and we will share it for you. And your profile on the site will benefit accordingly, which will generate traffic to our site and allow us to profit from the advertising.

But we are all paying with something else. We all lose our content and the value it creates is tightly wound into the contexts in which it was shared. It is valuable only because LinkedIn or Instagram or Facebook has the ability to share it so effectively on their platform.

Individuals as the ultimate losers who end up peddling content on platforms and give up the rights to our content, lose control of our online legacy and the platform owners are the ultimate winners. The real contract is our content makes the platform operators money. We need them in order to share on the internet.

Right to be forgotten

There are several contexts to the right to be forgotten. On one extreme it refers to the right of an individual to start again having served time for an offence. In another extreme and famous level, it the right to ensure certain very private and personal content is blocked and unreachable by standard means.

On a more everyday level, it is future that awaits our children where every comment, thought, drunken night out, rant or misguided remark we make online may be saved, shared and reachable forever more. I was watching the BBC Breakfast News earlier this week and a social media expert was warning us that children must be aware of the social media history as it may affect their chances of getting a job later. It seems wrong to burden children with the risk of life-long consequences for actions they take.

Of course our physical world does not work like this. We do not risk having our errant past cast back at us continually. Something I imagine most of us are very thankful for. And yet on Facebook a comment cannot be deleted if someone else had replied to it - it is there forever. And if content is deleted, is it really deleted? Look at the Ashley Madison fiasco to see how things are often not fully deleted.

We are giving up too much content and control to third parties. We do not have to save everything and share everything forever. We can and should control what is remembered online and what is forgotten. We, not Google or a content sharing platform, the content was ours originally and should remain ours.

Online privacy is crude

Today, there is no way to uniquely identify individuals on the internet. Without any way to identify us online we are beholden to our pseudo-identifications associated with email addresses or platform logins. Without the ability to identify people online, we cannot securely share our content with other friends and family. As a result, we have a choice of two options - an identity within a given web domain and sharing within that domain or posting to everyone on the public internet. That is it.

Every site we use to share securely with groups, friends & family must have all those individuals identified in the site. This is not a sustainable model in the long term. Moreover, it further forces us onto platforms, and signing that contract, for the priviledge of sharing with specific individuals. This tightens the grip that a platform has on us, our content and our ability to share.

Ultimately, we need a federated model to verify people in the same way that websites can be verfied by using authorities whose sole purpose is to ensure sites are legitimate. The reason this has not developed is, in large part, because it is not in the interests of the free platforms we use.

Content hunters

As well as taking a closer look at how we publish and maintain our own content, there are also frustrations with how we retrieve and access the content we want to see. Given the limited time available, we often end up habitually returning to one or two websites during our commute, working day and evening to keep up-to-date. This involves becoming a human sifter of information. Parsing and filtering page after page looking for interesting content whilst trying to ignore the uninteresting leads. This is often tiresome, slow (traffic heavy) and feels like something avoidable.

Hunting content is inefficient and not a good use of our time. It also narrows the field of sites we use due to lack of time, and therefore we rely on one or two to give us good content in the time we have. Would it not be better if we had a broader field of sites to chose from. If we could efficiently parse these sites for good, interesting content and have a broader picture to chose from.

RSS/Atom feeds are the one option for us here. Today, RSS feels like a last remnant of a future that never quite materialised. Using RSS is a somewhat esoteric pursuit that many are unaware of. And yet it encapsulates how content should be shared. It allows multiple sources to be parsed by computer (they are good at that!), consolidated, sorted and presented which leaves us to just pick what to click. It could even be smart and learn what we like - is that too far-fetched?!

And whilst RSS feels like a dying model, it is in fact the template for how all content should be shared. On an automated, pull-based system that queries our many sources of content, not just news, and consolidates it. Bringing together news, photos, friends updates and new blog posts for us.

The future

With so much to amuse us and enrich our lives on the web, it can seem at least misguided to suggest it is flawed. And yet, it is fundamentally flawed in many ways. Our entrapment by global platform providers is growing. We are losing our content, losing control of our online-selves and the sticky power of these platforms is increasingly difficult to resist.

But there is an alternative. Things could be different. More about that in my next post.