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Essays on Technology and Culture

The Participatory Web

A few days ago, I mused on how we put the Web on a diet, by way of Maciej Cegłowski’s excellent “The Website Obesity Crisis” talk. The conclusion I drew from Maciej was:

“[W]e people who make stuff on the web strip this crap down and focus on making awesome stuff everyone can use without compromising a user’s computing power or their privacy, and make it easier for someone to get started making that awesome stuff.”

But doing that is going to be very, very hard, and there’s many reasons why this is the case. I’m going to single out two big ones below.

The Audience of the Web has Changed

I got on the Web for the first time in 1996. I wanted to, because I was a 12 year old geek, who loved computers, and fascinated by this whole Internet thing. So, I begged, and pleaded to get online. My parents finally relented by buying a 56K model to slap in my 486 and signing up with our local telco’s ISP. A few weeks later, I’d set up an MST3k fan site on Geocities, learning HTML out of a book.

Back then, the only way to put anything on the Web was to find hosting—either by setting it up yourself, or through paid and free services—write HTML, and upload it somewhere. By 1996, there were tools, like Geocities, that made this easier. If memory serves, Geocities even included a web-based FTP tool so you could upload your pages and images within the browser. It wasn’t difficult by any stretch, but it could be quite intimidating to the new user.

Over time, hosting platforms of all stripes developed page building tools to make the process easier. Now, you didn’t have to learn HTML, or pay out the nose for a WYSIWYG editor, to build a web page, This made it easier for less technically adept users who were joining up to stake their claim.

At the same time, web technologies became more powerful, letting you do all kinds of crazy stuff. For a while, my personal Geocities site had giant images, several pieces of embedded audio, a scrolling text Java applet, and a CGI script hit counter—pre-broadband! (I didn’t keep it this way very long, though.)

The history of popular web platforms, ever since, has been tools that make it easier to put something in front of people, while reducing the amount of effort needed to do it. Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, Instagram, YouTube, Medium, whatever web-based platform you want, they all operate on that same basic principle. The easier it is to put something in front of people, the more likely a person is going to do it.

I don’t think that the people who spend their time writing on Medium would be the sort of people who would go through the hassle of setting up hosting and blog software fifteen years ago, because it was such a hassle. I should know—I did it. But even if you want to go through that hassle in 2016, it’s still harder to get started in 2016 because…

The Technology of the Web has Changed

In 1996, the fundamentals of the web were HTML files. Fancy folks might write Perl scripts and have a cgi-bin folder on their web host to summon them. Maybe there was a FileMaker database to spit out flat HTML files as a proto-CMS. I don’t know. I wasn’t a professional web person then. Whatever you were doing, you could likely hit View Source in your browser, and see HTML code that could be saved and tweaked. Not so much now.

Even if you’re building something basic in 2016, you need to factor in multiple screen sizes: phone, tablet, desktop, etc. JavaScript is essential for nearly everything. Heck, if you’re viewing this site on a phone, I’m using JavaScript to do the little slide-out navigation thing, and this site is almost 100% pure text content. In 1996, you could have one person, with a title like “Webmaster” who handled the whole thing. In 2016, you need a team for anything larger than a basic weblog—unless you’re offloading it to Squarespace.

We’ve incorporated a ton of dynamic crap into the Web. Flash might be dead, but its ghost lives in on Adobe Edge and other technologies for animation and interactivity on the web. These things didn’t just happen—we asked for them, and we built them. Some of them became standardized. Some have not.

There are sites on the web whose HTML files merely call a series of JavaScript files that generate the entire page on the fly. That’s insane, when you think about it. The stack is huge and complex. No wonder people go to Medium if all they want to do is write words.

Jeffery Zeldman, a web guy of the old school, recently wrote that:

“[T]oo many developers and designers in our amnesiac community have begun to believe and share bad ideas—ideas, like CSS isn’t needed, HTML isn’t needed, progressive enhancement is old-fashioned and unnecessary, and so on. Ideas that, if followed, will turn the web back what it was becoming in the late 1990s: a wasteland of walled gardens that said no to more people than they welcomed. Let that never be so. We have the power.”

I don’t recall the late 1990s on the web being that terrible, but he’s got a point about the technology stack. The more complicated we make the Web, the harder it is to participate, the easier we make it for companies to create walled gardens for us to live in.

Is There No Way Out?

My hope is that we’ll find a way out in time, much like we did in the 90s and early 2000s. I’m looking on this debate as a technically inclined hobbyist user, not as a developer or designer. We’re at least having the discussion, which is a good start. What worries me is that any solution requires buy-in from the people who actually make what we see on the web. Back when that was largely other geeks, it was easier.

Now so much “content” is from media companies who call themselves technology companies, and technology companies who call themselves media companies. Other companies control access to the audience for those content companies. They all will want a cut, and they will all want ways to lock down any solution to benefit their platforms, not the audience or the creators. Not that most people creating stuff will even notice, if only because they are having an easier time of it.

Any solution will have to take both of these into account. We need to make it easy for people to participate in the Web, and we need to make the tools and technology to do it open and safe. Otherwise, we might be able to participate, but only on Facebook, Twitter, Google, or Apple’s terms. At which point, is it even the Web any more?