The web felt very different fifteen years ago, when I founded Drupal. Just 7 percent of the population had internet access, there were only around 20 million websites, and Google was a small, private company. Facebook, Twitter, and other household tech names were years away from being founded. In these early days, the web felt like a free space that belonged to everyone. No one company dominated as an access point or controlled what users saw. This is what I call the “open web”.
But the internet has changed drastically over the last decade. It’s become a more closed web. Rather than a decentralized and open landscape, many people today primarily interact with a handful of large platform companies online, such as Google or Facebook. To many users, Facebook and Google aren’t part of the internet — they are the internet.
I worry that some of these platforms will make us lose the original integrity and freedom of the open web. While the closed web has succeeded in ease-of-use and reach, it raises a lot of questions about how much control individuals have over their own experiences. And, as people generate data from more and more devices and interactions, this lack of control could get very personal, very quickly, without anyone’s consent.
Dries Buytaert on the closed era.
I’m a child of the open web; I grew up writing homebrew blog software in the early 2000s,1 when hosted social media was limited to LiveJournal and Blogger, both of which were considered “uncool” relics of an earlier age.
Back in those days, interoperability was the name of the game; you used open standards like RSS and XML-RPC to make your blog platform both readable (the former) and writeable (the latter) from anywhere at any time. Ironically, LiveJournal was the early pioneer in this space; they had an API long before APIs were cool. When the big social media platforms started rising, I never really committed to one because I never had to commit to one; I knew how to run a self-hosted blog and I knew how to write a crossposting script. As long as I kept one central repository of data (on my own servers, of course), then it didn’t matter whether LiveJournal or Facebook or Tumblr was the flavour of the month; my data was always portable.2 Companies selling out or folding up didn’t bother me.
Of course, there’s a barrier for entry to the open web; maintaining a website is a lot more work than blogging on Tumblr, though it is a more monetizable hobby. I’m not a dot-com mogul, but I still draw an above-average salary by using the skills I first developed in my early blogging days; CV entries like “database administrator”, “cloud services architect”, “frontend programmer”, “API developer”, and “web security analyst” will get you a lot further, career-wise, than “social media expert”.3
Still. That’s not everyone’s thing, I guess.
The closed web brought with it accessibility, but it bought that accessibility with lock-in and a semi-secret trade in user data. Got ads on your Tumblr nowadays? Yeah, I remember when we went through that at LiveJournal. Ditto with selling out to a company the majority of the userbase objected to. But that’s what happens when you’re the product, not the consumer; social media users are the sub-prime mortgages of the tech industry.
Incidentally, how did people get free blogs back in The Olden Dayes? You used to find a patron host who did own a domain, and you’d have them host you (most domain hosting plans come with much more capacity than single private tenants use). Personal domains used to have an “apply for hosting” section with a form you could fill out, and there were a bunch of networking forums and so on where people used to ask and advertise. It wasn’t a perfect system–it was super cliquey, for one–but it worked, more or less, and no-one was having their deodorant preferences sold off to Unilever without their consent.
Also: no ads.
I do miss those days. Maybe that just means I’m getting old.
- Sadly, I did not know how to monetise this and make a million dollars at the time. Actually, come to think of it, most girls I knew in the early ’00s wrote their own blog software. Funnily enough, none of them became dot-com moguls. Gosh I wonder why. [↩]
- My first blog post “exporter” script moved me from Blogger to my own platform. It was hilariously simple: I just changed my Blogger theme to make it output SQL statements rather than HTML, then copy-pasted these into the new database. [↩]
- That being said, I am rubbish at running a decent social media presence; which is both a very valuable and, notably, highly underpaid skillset. [↩]