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When the Web was Free


In 2005, Facebook only allowed college students. Twitter didn’t exist, and neither did tumblr. The iPhone hadn’t been created yet–nor the iPad. The idea of there being a mobile app for everything would’ve seemed bizarre. Oh, how times change.

A bit over 3 years ago, Anil Dash wrote The Web We Lost, which described how the Web and the Internet had transformed over the preceding years. His points could be summarized thusly:

  * Social networking sites have trended away from open protocols and making your data easily accessible or easy to integrate with other systems. Instead, data is held and protected for the value it provides to the service hosting it--it is treated as their property, not yours.
  * Search tools for social media used to be much better and didn't rely on directing users to each walled garden's search function.
  * Widespread gaming of Google's search algorithms had not yet destroyed the utility of organic linking.
  * People used to have their own websites, which allowed a greater degree of personal expression and experimentation.

It wasn’t all sunshine and roses, of course. The jQuery library, which made JavaScript much more useful and accessible, wasn’t created until 2006 and took a while to achieve widespread adoption. Web standards in general were still in flux in that era, though things were settling down. MySpace was the biggest social networking site around at the time, and anyone who remembers the MySpace days could surely recall the eye-bleeding colors and images that characterized many users’ stabs at creativity. There was also the scourge of browser toolbars, which seemed to accompany almost any piece of downloaded software, scam programs that would hijack your browser and data if you forgot to uncheck the right box during installation–and sometimes, even without asking. Ad blockers and popup blockers weren’t created for nothing, either. Obtrusive ads used to be commonplace. Now, they’ve been mostly relegated to shady sides offering illicit software downloads, media streaming, or free porn.

The Web is dramatically more sanitized than it was a decade ago. There are still cesspools like the comment sections on YouTube, and any prurient material you might wish to peruse is never more than a search engine click away. But services like Facebook have become so mundane and ordinary that the very fact that they’re closed ecosystems can easily escape notice. Early in the days of the Web, popular services often vanished, sometimes quite abruptly. This usually didn’t happen due to any particular malice, but because many websites were passion projects run by a handful of people, or even just one person. They were operated on shoestring budgets and when the money evaporated, the lights went out. In some ways, then, it made the most sense to have your own website, preferably your own domain name on your own space. If that ever went down, it would likely be your own fault for forgetting to pay the bill.

Now, people tend to have a small number of social networking accounts–Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Pinterest, etc.–and stick with those. Your identity is spread across several different sites, all of which offer limited power and flexibility over your data. Generally speaking, you can accept their terms, or you don’t get to use the service. This is fair enough, since offering you a free service is contingent on the provider getting something out of it they can monetize, and that’s going to be your data. But it takes control away from end users, and as Web services have consolidated and grown, people are left with fewer choices. The network effects of a service like Facebook are tremendous. If someone you know–or have ever known–has an online presence at all, they can probably be found on Facebook. Everyone is on it because… everyone else is on it. This is incredibly convenient, but it also leaves Facebook in an extremely powerful position. Since the service is not built on open standards that allow you to control and manage your data, Facebook can arbitrarily decide what is and isn’t acceptable. Even trivial features, like whether your news feed is sorted chronologically or via an opaque popularity algorithm, cause frustration for users as they sense this lack of control. The reason a service like Facebook controls the experience so tightly is less to provide a good service to its users, and more to aid the mechanisms of the site that generate revenue. This is why, for instance, turning off game requests on Facebook requires a non-obvious, cumbersome trek through settings most people wouldn’t bother to look at. Those games make Facebook money, and if you can be forced to see the requests over and over, you might be tempted to play one, and then put real money into it. Not being nagged to death shouldn’t be the purview only of users savvy enough to navigate the relevant options.

Online services in general used to offer a lot more customization for users. No doubt this was abused in some instances–MySpace is proof enough of that–but the pendulum has swung too far in the other direction, where your experience on any given site is virtually dictated to you by usability experts who believe there is exactly one best way to present and operate a service. But what customization allows is for each user to feel as if they have a say. Any place is more inviting if you can decorate it to your liking. Unfortunately, such options are becoming less and less common. It’s happening not just on websites, but also mobile apps–designs are consolidating around presenting a common look and feel, so every device will work just like every other device. It’s great for creating unified platforms for serving ads. It’s less great for allowing users to personalize and tailor their experience.

It wouldn’t necessarily be a good thing to have the Web of 10 years or so back. Technology has evolved so much since then. Much has been learned, and overall the Web is a much more stable, friendlier place than it was in the early days. In large measure, this is a good thing. But a lot of freedom has also been lost. Personal websites have become a sort of relic. People don’t really blog on their own sites anymore; that’s what services like Vox and Medium and are for. In that sense, the barrier for entry has been lowered. More people have a voice now than used to in the past. You shouldn’t have to buy a domain and a hosting package to be heard. But putting your words and your data in the hands of others involves a degree of trust, too, and that trust isn’t always respected.

The Wild West days of the mid to late 1990s are gone for good. There’s no reason to think that atmosphere will ever come back. But the tools of the Web were democratized from the start, with good reason. Apathy has allowed control to consolidate among a handful of entities, virtually all of whom hoard data to build marketing profiles to shove ads in your face. It’s not a crime against humanity or something–it helps to have a sense of perspective about it–but it’s not in the best long-term interests of the Web and its users, either. It’s not too late to take the tools back–they are free, after all–and work on rebuilding the free, open Internet that drew so many of us to it in the first place.

This is me, shouting out from my tiny little corner of the Web. I’m still here. Where are you?

Photo by Graciolli Dotcom