Tony Edwards

The web is wobbling

- 6 mins

The internet, or rather the web that sit’s atop of the internet, has changed quite a bit in the last few [months, years, decades].random();.

Those of us of a certain vintage, with geeky leanings, have been regular internet users since the millennium. Perhaps even before. Personally speaking, I didn’t grow up connected to the information super highway. Apparently this has some consequence as to where I sit on the generational timeline, but I’d struggle to put the timeline in order to be frank. I did, however, grow up in the shadow of the coming wave of computing goodness but during a period when “the concrete hadn’t quite yet set for online platforms.

The web today is both very different yet almost entirely the same. It’s like a freaky Schrödinger HTML based experiment. The browsers had formed enough so that everything is recognisable to our modern eyes. The web looked basic. Yes. But at the time was viewed as a creative and often experimental canvas for markup with flair. Contrast to today’s oft touted cookie cutter vibe. Links, images, tables, CSS, Javascript were all part of the web by then. But there was still an exploratory sense, with many pushing the boundaries of what was possible. A ‘lil of the wild west still hung around, with the gold rush remnants of the burst dot com bubble scattered amongst the urls.

Many of us learned how to tinker with tech through online platforms and users were able to make their corner of the internet their own. Geo Cities spawned a generation of webmasters. MySpace birthed a generation of digital designers. Bebo created a generation of social media addicts. These hubs have a common thread running through them. Creativity was celebrated. Content was more than just a mechanism to feed an advertising algorithm. . . although I’m sure there was some of that going on.

Through rose-tinted glasses, those final days of the prototypal web were lovely. A halcyon of sorts. Communities of people gathered together through a web browser, experiencing the birth of what we know and love as the web today. The inhabitants shared ideas. They shared their knowledge. And, of course, they shared their a/s/l.

Today the web is shape-shifting once again, much like it did in the early millennium. It seems to have a way of syncing with the wobbly world. With big ticket tech businesses cutting back across their product portfolio, there seems to be a move towards the attitude of the web that once was and a gradual realisation that the social walled gardens of the last decade have had their heyday. Platforms are shifting, others are shutting, whilst some are simply changing their terms and conditions.

Knowledge, or at least content, that had been accumulating openly is increasingly being hidden behind pay walls, login walls, and worst of all. . . advert walls. Recently, I stumbled on one of the bleakest examples of this content shift in a community slack group.

The slack book channel is no more.

I was too late.

I’ll never get to know what the book recommendations were. . . unless I pay £2282.75 per month.

This seems a tad too much for a community chat room, but understandable from a proprietary #BigTech platform. Slack was purchased by Salesforce. Salesforce is a profit making venture with shareholders and dividends. Giving everything away for free does not generate profit. Instead Slack became ingrained into tech based businesses over time, becoming the de facto communication tool in the software industry. This, more than anything, is what made the tool an attractive investment. But only Salesforce are responsible for the post purchase bait and switch. I guess our little communities aren’t the target audience for slack anymore.

The internet rejig is happening in different ways for different people. Some are shifting away from Google products in an effort to increase privacy. This is good for browsers like Firefox. The flee from Twitter has been good for the number of people using Mastodon. Hopefully it’ll reach some sort of critical mass as it becomes ingrained in people’s habits and routines. The downside of the exodus is that some of the bad habits from Twitter have also migrated over. But that’s another story for another day. Let’s celebrate the victory.

Many of us became swept up in the promise of a connected life. Tools like Evernote trained us to capture everything. Scan a document. Send it to the cloud. Keep it forever. In all honesty, you’d have shredded the real thing by now. But people were sold the dream that you should keep everything for posterity. Bandwidth was cheap. Storage was ample. Active users were accrued. But. Today. That bill from the water board a decade ago. It’s baggage with just one purpose. To create friction. #BigTech’s way of nudging you towards paying just one more time for the pleasure of not having to press delete for one more month.

This is not the spirit of the web I fell in love with. But it is the web we have today. For better or worse.

Technology is an interesting field to work in because it’s constantly evolving. The changes we see today are simply the next evolution. How will it morph next? Who knows. Web 3.0 is often touted as that evolution, which will be a shame. Web 3.0 is built upon transactions and commerce on open - yet somehow still proprietary - walled gardens. Thankfully, you’re allowed to poke your head over next doors fence for a chat.

But, dear reader, that’s a far cry from the web we spoke lovingly about at the outset. Perhaps the current flexing of the fibre cables that bind humanity is simply the old guard finally letting go of yesterday’s prototypal platforms*. We want stability and familiarity. We want comfort in these turbulent times. We don’t want change.

The path away from the walled garden is becoming increasingly trodden. It was a nice garden for a time, but ultimately the walls were plastered with adverts. We’re simply choosing the São Paulo side path instead of the Time Square trunk road.

The promise of the early web’s sharing, caring and daring nature was certainly alluring. Build something. Anything. Share it. Learn from it. To yearn for something that doesn’t exist is foolish at best.

“If you desire something outside your control, you are bound to be disappointed. Restrict yourself to choice and refusal; and exercise them carefully, within discipline and detachment.” —Epictetus

But here’s the thing.

That web. The one we spoke about.

It does still exist. It didn’t go anywhere. It’s where you last saw it. It just didn’t have a marketing and user acquisition budget so it didn’t appear in our collective capitalist feeds.

The tools may have changed. The domains certainly aren’t the same. We definitely became a part of the hype. By caring too much about the content, we forgot that everything on the web isn’t real, and nothing really mattered except our own corner where we play the part of the artist.

Someone else just loaned us their imaginary corner for a while.

* Yes. I’m counting myself amongst the old guard. Unfortunately.

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