I’ve been thinking a lot about the open web lately. As a concept, it is relatively abstract to me since I was born in 1986 and came of age in an online ecosystem where closed software systems were promoted in convenient packages. I got my first computer when I was eight (a Packard Bell with Windows 3.1), and my online consciousness began to develop within the confines of the AOL 3.0 interface. For those younger than me who don’t remember, it came on a CD-ROM and had a splash page of a few topics you could click to view content, which I assume some curator on AOL’s end manually updated.
The chatrooms were glorious cesspools of humanity. My user name was SmileyA125 and I still remember the sounds of the door opening and closing when someone would enter and leave a room. Eight-year-old me could transmit messages to Japan in the blink of an eye! What power. But the closest I ever got to the open web via AOL was typing in a URL by hand. I remember I used to just guess which words to put between the www and the dot com, and if a website actually did exist there, it was like winning a game.
When AOL Instant Messenger came along, my peers and I rejoiced. It wasn’t so much that people my age (12-16) wanted to communicate within a closed system, but the features (profiles, fonts and text colors, and my favorite of all: the warn button) made it more appealing. Also starting was the tendency of people to be online all the time. As soon as hogging the phone line was no longer an issue, the concept of logging on and off began to fade. If you were AFK, you were simply idle.
I can’t even remember how I found my Sweet Valley High fanfiction sites—I suppose through a search on Netscape Navigator—but I think this was as close as I got to the open web. I wasn’t yet big on reading the news, so I have no idea what online news even looked like back then or how publications disseminated information online other than by email listservs or people manually keying in the homepage URL. I’d guess the news organizations would have to collaborate directly with the ISPs (like AOL) in order to get direct placement on their curated portals. I’d like to think we’ve come a long way since then, but I know of some news organizations that still require manual updating of their homepages.
I never used The Well or Mosaic or any of the other key things that came before, so I have to use my imagination where all the early stuff is concerned. After meeting Tim Berners-Lee by proxy of interviewing him with Nate Silver for Nate’s book, The Signal and the Noise, I read Weaving the Web which does a nice job of laying out the chronology and major players leading up to the AOL era. I know the open web he spoke of still exists somewhere. When I hear people like Chris Anderson and Ev Williams talk about how the Web is dead, it seems like they’re saying it out of self-interest rather than describing some factual reality. But I still don’t know what on the web is truly “open,” or what ever really was.
The summer before I began my freshman year of college at University of Michigan, The Facebook sent an invitation to my freshly generated umich.edu email address, probably along with all the other umich addresses and those of about a dozen other select Universities. We were to be the first users outside of Harvard. Now that I think about it, it’s kind of absurd that they were able to do that. I remember interpreting that invitation as a 17 year old and thinking The Facebook must be something the University was endorsing as a directory tool—a service it was providing to students like me. But why would some guy from Harvard be given (or be allowed to take) entire student email lists to promote his product, which was set up like a dating site at the time? What other closed web system that wasn’t proprietary University software got such preferential treatment?
My friends and I poured our college life data onto the Book of Faces, openly and assuming respect for our privacy at first, then more hesitantly and pulling back as cases popped up to indicate moderate to great harm could come from sharing too much. The most famous example at my school, which I’ve blogged about before, was when my classmate then two-time gold medalist Michael Phelps, lost a bunch of sponsorships because someone posted a picture of him smoking a bong on the facebook. I never deactivated my profile, but I went through at least 10 cataloging sprees to hone my privacy settings, as well as complete purges of photos of myself. None of that cataloging really matters anymore since facebook decided its users needed simplified options. Those photos I deleted may be lost forever to the internet Nothing.
OR, they may remain in data purgatory, inaccessible to me like much of the other data I’ve input into the facebook over the past 10.5 years, but stored somewhere in the recesses of facebook’s servers for whatever reason. In light of all the illegal government surveillance stuff that’s been happening, I’ve been thinking a lot about how if we give a company data, someone could then force the company to give that data to them if they want. I don’t think anyone wants pictures of me getting drunk as an 18 year old, but if they did and I didn’t want them to have them, I couldn’t stop them.
Facebook is definitely not the open web, and I’ve been posting less and less there the more I think about what it means to feed this monopolistic beast.
In college, each student got some allotment of free server space hosted by the University. We could all store files in a shareable directory that said Index at the top. I filled mine with pictures from the internet, mp3s, and maybe some school-related things. It felt like it was mine while I was there. But it doesn’t exist anymore. It was wiped from their servers a while after I graduated. Nobody asked me if they could do it, they just did. The Nothing strikes again.
Now as I think about where the open web exists and how one could encourage publishing there, I’m searching for scenarios in which the decision-making power of what happens to user-generated content online rests not on a corporation that doesn’t share the user’s interest, but on the user, who should technically own her own data.
I’m wondering if WordPress is considered the open web. It certainly feels more open than facebook. I met Matt Mullenweg (the WordPress founder) on two occasions and he seems like a nice guy. But WordPress owns the servers where all the content I’ve authored on this blog over the past eight years is hosted. Matt Mullenweg could theoretically disappear my entire literary archive if he wanted to. He probably doesn’t want to. It would be unlikely for him to do that, but why should I assume that he wouldn’t? It’s certainly not outside the realm of possibility.
So, if the open web ever existed, and if it still exists, where is it? How is one to publish on it and what benefits does that have for the individual user and the overall health of the web in general? How can I be absolutely sure that content I publish on the web will remain there until I decide to take it down? How can i ensure it will remain there at its original URL after the event of my death? I’m going to do some research, because I’m prepared to go deep with this quest. But I wanted to share the beginning of my thought process, so feel free to leave comments if you can point me toward the open web.