This year, 2015, marked the 20th anniversary of the first time I stuck some HTML on a server and put it out for the world to see. (Sorry about that one, world.)
Twenty years! Twenty years is a long time to do anything, especially in tech. Given how fast things churn, it’s rather unbelievable that I’m still gainfully employed to write HTML for anything at all in 2015.
I’ve been reflecting on this recently, as the web’s future keeps sounding rather bleak. It seems that nary a week passes without someone predicting the end of the open web as we know it. Perhaps understandably so — at a glance, the web appears to be suffering a death by a thousand cuts.
Let’s recap a few of the most common arguments for why the web is totally screwed.
- Corporations and governments are encroaching on the open web and trying to control it from all sides (bandwidth, access, content, etc.)
- Social media sites are sucking up most of the traffic and attention. In the process, they’ve become stand-in replacements for the entire Internet (think AOL 2.0.) This has the side effect of turning smaller individual websites into irrelevant sideshows.
- User-hostile advertising practices are degrading user experience on the web to an alarming extent.
- Native apps provide a better and friendlier alternative to traditional websites-in-browsers. As native apps continue to mature, they’ll gradually eat the web with specialized UI for every situation — which means you’ll never need to access the web directly in a browser anymore. This will turn the web into a content delivery mechanism (i.e. HTTP requests) rather than an endpoint for users to interact with directly.
- Web designers and developers are overusing slick copycat layouts, styling, and template tools. This makes web production easier and trendy looking, but at the expense of individuality and substance, leading us into a bleak dystopian future where web UI becomes the software equivalent of suburban tract housing.
- Publishing platforms like Medium are piggybacking off independent writers’ content while offering relatively little differentiation or authorship credit in exchange. These platforms are gathering all the small-time folks under a few large umbrellas, thereby reaping most of the financial benefit while hammering more nails in the coffins of traditional independent blogs.
Alright, so wow. That all sounds pretty terrible, doesn’t it?
A lot of those things are true. The times are certainly changing, as they always do. We web folk should keep thinking seriously about this, lest we become the old crusty janitors left to turn out the lights.
But hold on. Forget about all those problems for a moment, foreboding as they may seem. Is there anything good happening now? How about:
- Despite their repeated attempts, big corporations haven’t killed the open web — at least not yet!
- Small mom and pop independents now have access to massive audiences that used to be impossible to come by. Whether your business is writing, art, or anything else, it’s easier than ever to get yourself out there and make a living or solve new interesting problems with the web. Kickstarter, Medium, and Etsy are incredible platforms for the little guy.
- Web tech is as sophisticated, diverse, and powerful as it’s ever been. (Granted, we’re abusing it for bandwidth-munching ads and gratuitous effects — but that’s on us. We can stop. We should stop. Please, stop.)
- Native apps haven’t eaten the web either. Native is fantastic and powerful and lovely, but you know who still has websites? Facebook. Instagram. Whatsapp. Medium. These are enormous services, some of which even launched as native-only and then added web versions later, because the web as a platform is still too important and universally applicable to ignore.
- We — the small, independent weirdos — still have the power to meaningfully contribute to the web and change it for the better.
So where does that leave us?
First of all, let’s chill out for a minute. Maybe the naysayers are right and we’re all doomed, but the web is still alive and kicking right now.
Secondly, let’s reflect on our missteps and start walking back the most egregious abuses of slick tech and bad UX we’ve willingly let slide the past few years. Ad blocking on iOS is forcing the issue — but it’s rather sad that we let it be forced in the first place.
Let’s make the web weird again!
Twenty years ago the web was super weird. No one had any clue what this thing was about or how it worked, so we were trying everything. Sites were badly organized, ugly, strange. Some were loosely organized communities. Some were just text. Even the best produced sites had the feeling of being held together by duct tape and straws.
Now to be clear, I’m not nostalgic for that time at all. Making websites sucked. Nothing worked well. The tech was painfully slow and limiting in every imaginable dimension. I don’t want to go back.
But the one thing the web had then, and which it has lost a lot since, was the sense of rampant experimentation. The feeling that it was fine not to have everything figured out or perfectly polished before letting people see it. That we were all in this bizarre human experiment together.
If we want the web to keep thriving, we have to start letting ourselves experiment (and fail) more. The web still has a low barrier to entry and the biggest possible audience. That’s an incredible thing.
So c’mon everybody. Let’s mess this place up again! Get weird! It’ll be better for it!