Tag Archives: World Wide Web

Where is the “open web” now?

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Photo: Arikia Millikan, Olympus Pen E-P5

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

 

 

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ScienceOnline: The Bonnaroo of the Blogosphere

In May of 1994, the first World Wide Web conference was held in the auditorium of the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN). For some historical perspective, this was the year that Netscape released its first Web browser, Mozilla, the World Wide Web Consortium was established, Windows 95 was released with software to access the Internet, and companies like America Online, Prodigy and CompuServe were competing for status in the public consciousness as the lead provider of Internet access. The Internet was beginning to be accessible to the general public, not just those with extensive computer knowledge or who were working within educational or governmental institutions. The Web as we now know it was beginning to take shape.

Eventually, out of the Cambrian-like explosion that wired the masses, the Blogosphere emerged. While it evolved in the same rocky fashion as the Web itself, burdened by neigh-sayers and meeting corporate resistance as companies struggled to harness its growth for profit, the blogosphere is now viewed as an entity that is revolutionizing journalism and human communication at large.

For those on the forefront of the development of the Web, the World Wide Web conference was an event that educated, inspired and forged partnerships by connecting people whose paths would otherwise never cross.

From Weaving the Web, a book by the inventor of the Web, Tim Berners-Lee:

It was a tremendous gathering. The auditorium held perhaps three hundred people. We limited registration to three hundred, but ended up with three hundred fifty after admitting members of the press, and others who just appeared — testimony of how the Web had grown.

There were people from all walks of life brought together by their enthusiasm of the Web. Talks given in the small auditorium were packed. Because it was the first such conference, many people who had been interacting only by e-mail were meeting each other face-to-face for the first time.

The excitement, congeniality and grass-roots fervor for furthering the Web inspired the reporters there, overdoing it a little, to dub the meeting the “Woodstock of the Web.”

Overdoing it or not, it is fitting to compare innovative conferences like this and ScienceOnline to the generation-defining music festivals that bring multitudes of people together over their commonalities in musical taste every year; registration for ScienceOnline was capped at 250 attendees this year, and filled up within 3 days of the initial announcement. The described enthusiasm and fervor of WWW conference attendees parallels the enthusiasm I observed of ScienceOnline participants.

And so I hereby dub the ScienceOnline conference, the Bonnaroo of the Blogosphere. I’m 23 and never attended Woodstock, but I think that as meaningful as it was to Sir Berners-Lee’s generation, Bonnaroo probably is to mine. As important as it was to have a meeting in the late ’90s to discuss and define the Web when it was in its infancy, it is as important to do so for the blogosphere today.

I attended for the first time last January, prompted by my role as an overlord of ScienceBlogs.com, and will return this year to lead a discussion session with Nate Silver of FiveThirtyEight.com. Our session will be on Web Science, the emerging academic field that explores the way people use the Web, and will cover the origin and history of the Web, the phenomena that can be observed and measured by tracking the way people use the Web, how it effects us currently, and the future of science communication on the Web. We chose this topic because it is of extreme relevancy to the attendees of the conference — and extreme interest to us — and was personally inspired by our recent meeting with Tim Berners-Lee himself.

Attending the ScienceOnline conference last year was an incredible experience that further solidified my decision to pursue my interest in the Web. It’s a place where, if you’re into science and you’re into the Web, and these are the things that get you really excited academically, professionally and/or socially, you can learn what the game-changers in the field are up to and talking about, and talk about it with them, maybe become a game-changer yourself.

On the time line of human existence, being able to “know” someone before you meet them occupies an extremely minute segment. ScienceOnline is an event that epitomizes this. It’s a place where the names that we’ve come to know by hypertext on the computer screen become associated with real people: Where the mental images we hold of people based on their projected online personas become modified or solidified by the impressions gathered from meeting them and interacting IRL. Someday, this concept will be commonplace, if it isn’t already. But right now, it’s exciting to connect these two seemingly anachronistic pools of information.

So, you’ve probably gathered by now that I think ScienceOnline is awesome and that I’m really excited for it. And if I haven’t sold you on it’s awesomeness yet, be convinced by this: Bloggers and scientists partying together. I don’t know about you, but there’s nothing I enjoy more than a good geek party.

ScienceOnline2010: Research Triangle Park, North Carolina, January 14-17, with the main conference events Saturday the 16th and Sunday the 17th. Get ready. Check it out on the ScienceOnline Wiki. Explore, contribute, Tweet and reTweet. Then when the time comes, check you favorite science blogs for mentions and Twitter for the #scio10 hash tag.

The effects from the networks that were forged at the early World Wide Web conferences are visible in just about every aspect of the Web today. Who knows what aspects of the future this year’s ScienceOnline will shape.

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Lead image photoshopped by me, logo courtesy of the ScienceOnline wiki.

“Geek Party” pic via damn cool pics.