Tuesday, 19 March 2013

What do you mean 'we'?


"The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ,
Moves on: nor all thy Piety nor Wit
Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,
Nor all thy Tears wash out a Word of it."

The web that Anil Dash wrote about wasn't lost. It was rejected. 

Dash himself rejects it when he uses a commenting system that only allows Facebook users to comment. Daniel Tunkelang rejected it when he abandoned his blog in favour of a network that gives him higher levels of engagement. I reject it when I use Instagram to take and share photos just because it's more convenient than the alternatives. 

My initial response to Anil Dash's The Web We Lost was a mixture of amusement at his rose-tinted nostalgia, annoyance at his revisionist history and bemusement at his usage of Facebook comments. As time has gone on I've realised that Dash is not a hypocritical finger-wagging reactionary but just another sensible person making sensible decisions about the networks that will generate the most engagement for his content. Of course these sensible decisions happen to clash with his stated beliefs.

The mainstream of humanity actively rejected the web-that-was rather than accidentally let it slip away. They rejected it for much the same reasons they rejected the prospect of running their own power generator. It turns out that using a central power grid gives you a better quality service for less effort which frees you to focus on the things you really care about. Humanity rejected a vision of the web where everybody runs their own websites because it turned out that most people don't care as much about maintaining infrastructure as the geeks who formed the majority of the web's users 10 to 20 years ago.  That's why every time I see someone, for instance Clay Shirky, who has been cheerfully running a compromised blogging engine on his own domain for years I shudder at the idea that we once thought self-hosting was going to be the norm.

Felix Salmon's article was one of the first responses that acknowledged this problem. It made me realise why Dash's article reminded me so much of the distress of the privileged. That's because the 'we' who lost something is the set of middle-aged geeks who miss the way things used to be and want to roll back time to a world where only geeks could harness the power of the web. Like scribes bemoaning the advent of universal literacy the comments section of Dash's post is full of people saying how much better things were when communication tools were difficult to use and restricted to a sophisticated elite.

This makes me sad. The dream of the early web was that by removing the Gutenbourgeois as gatekeepers we would create the possibility for new voices to be heard. Wish granted. 

Unfortunately the technocratic response to these new voices was to dismiss them as an Eternal September of clueless newbies. It's as if the web was better before all these 'other' people turned up and started making choices 'we' don't like. It's as if all those developers choosing to build upon technologies with clear value propositions (build upon this platform and you'll get users and paying customers) and good DX were wrong. It's as if the billions of non-geeks were either ignorant, misled or suffering from false consciousness when they chose closed systems with great UX.

Robin Sloan has a refreshing perspective on this issue. He writes, on Medium, that we've reached a point where our taste has outpaced our skill. Our taste means we demand that an acceptable website must have lots of qualities that are beyond the skill of the average individual. By framing the issue in terms of taste and skill he shows why the pendulum is unlikely to swing back. Running a sufficiently high quality web site, as opposed to a web presence, is so hard that the amateur web looks like a wasteland of dead blogs, unmaintained websites and broken linksAgain and again and again sensible people choose better UX or a larger network over a more open, decentralised or federated service. But what if this flight to quality isn't a problem?

What if all those billions of people made intelligent decisions that made sense for them? What if the people saying that the past was better than the future are the ones who are wrong? What if we reject this mythical past in favour of a new future where we try to build new things that people use because they're better solutions not because they claim superior morality?

Appeals to a bygone era where the web was more open but less diverse aren't going to inspire the construction of a better future as history teaches us that "convenience wins, hubris loses." Instead those appeals sound like the beleaguered art critic moaning that "taking a picture feels like signing up to some mad collective self-delusion that we are all artists with an eye for beauty, when the tragicomic truth is that the sheer plenitude and repetition of modern amateur photography makes beauty glib." When Dash writes that there's "an entire generation of users who don't realize how much more innovative and meaningful their experience could be" but can't point to any examples it sounds like yet another hollow claim that things were better when we were young.

Maybe things really were better when we were young but I've learned to distrust appeals to bygone golden ages. Instead I want to hear people talking about vibrant futures. I want to see people working on new ideas that may not work out but which open up new possibilities. I want to see new people making new things. I want to see people making new things with all the uncertainty and doubt that brings.

This is why I'm increasingly hopeful about efforts like IndieWebCamp and ParallelFlickr. These are people building things that are useful primarily for themselves and possibly for others. That's how we'll invent a new and better web.

Jaiku forever