Some recent events have got me thinking a little bit. The first was this wonderful post by Tim Bray where he talks about the fading away of chat-based communication. The second one was a tweet thread from John Wilbanks where he talked about the Commons.
I am reminded of a time about 15 years ago. There was a lot of energy, so much optimism about the future of the web. This was the heyday of Flickr and del.icio.us, of people debating about how the open collection of information and our ability to program against that information was going to make the world a better place. For my community at the time, FriendFeed and highly interlinked blogs were the water cooler. Somewhere along the way things changed. Two things happened.
- Social networks. The early social networks were different from today. They were a natural extension of our existing communication channels (newsgroups, chat, irc). There was no real economy behind them. Along the way they became economic platforms. I make no judgement of whether that is good or bad. Twitter has been a part of my life for over a decade and despite all its flaws I still use it heavily much as I do Instagram. But there was a social aspect to Flickr that Instagram has never had (that Yahoo managed to somehow make both Flickr and, especially, del.icio.us irrelevant is an amazing feat that makes me have little sympathy for the eventual demise of the company).
- Mobile. Much as people like to blame the likes of Facebook, I think mobile has more of a say here. Back then we were in a desktop browser all the time. Then came mobile and native apps. Suddenly my communication channels became text and later apps like WhatsApp and Signal. Everything was a standalone app. The idea of the Commons faded away because we were no longer on a shared web. Apps just didn’t quite have the same ethos. We were no longer on our desktops with an Adium window open in one corner. Sometime along the way, I stopped opening up my Adium client (I don’t even have one anymore).
Will we ever get back the web as I remember it? Should we? Obviously mobile has had the kind of global impact the web never did and probably couldn’t. I am hardly one for the Utopian ideal of the web, but I did like the idea of this set of hyperlinked pages that allowed us to build a graph of interconnected knowledge. Perhaps the idea that this would be universal is no longer true but it could work for certain areas (scientific publication as an example). We shouldn’t give up on those ideals, but try and figure out how to make them work in our reality; one where the convenience of having a device in your pocket with lots of apps beats out any desire to have a permanently open chat window.