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On decentralization and openness

Lately, I’ve given a lot of thought to the way the web is going. I’m not the only one. I’m no dinosaur (though not far off at this point), but I’m old enough to remember a web where users would routinely claim a bit of real estate and create something unique with it. Sites like Geocities and Angelfire democratized the webpage creation process to a point where just about anyone motivated enough to learn a bit of HTML could create something with it.

Back then, the idea of putting content online and not have them easily indexable by crawlers would be unthinkable. Today, it is the norm. Personal pages have been completely replaced by user accounts on Facebook. Content there is difficult to access, even for public posts. You basically need a Facebook account to interact with it. This completely violates the basic concept of the open web.

A lot of websites today will ask you to create accounts, even if the advantage of doing so is dubious. For example, why do I need to create an account on a cooking website? I can bookmark recipes on my browser already. It seems that often, the only reason there is a user creation process is just to collect e-mail addresses from visitors.

Over the years, I’ve become a lot more aware of the transaction dynamics of my engagement with external systems. In particular, I am generally very wary now about free services. If I’m not paying money for your service, how are you keeping it online? Are you just selling my data to the highest bidder? Are you a non-profit? What’s your business model?

People post huge amounts of content to Facebook every day. Even if the Facebook terms of service say you still own that content, it’s only available through the Facebook platform. So Facebook benefits much more from it than you do. I’m not trying to vilify Facebook (I do believe that they are running a genuinely useful service), but it is a real problem.

There’s no single solution to this problem. Tim Berners-Lee is working on a consolidated web identification system, but it looks a bit haphazard right now. There are efforts to bring back the spirit of the old web like the really awesome Neocities, but that still requires knowledge of HTML and web growth has reached such critical mass that this has become too high of a barrier to entry.

What we need is a real incentive for people to publish content on their own term. The principle of openness is not enough to sway the critical mass of people. It needs to be more fun than posting it on Facebook. It needs to be even easier than Facebook. It needs to be free, just like Facebook, but with a more honest business model that actually respects its users. I’m convinced that there’s a real project hiding behind those ideas, but the concept still eludes me…