Friday 6 December 2013

The Open Web

There's a fair bit of discussion at the moment about the supposed or actual diminution of The Open Web in favour of silos of content under the control of a single organisation. Prompted in part by the truly excellent speech by @aral at Handheld Conference 2013 and the newsletter describing it.

Along with many others, my perception is that the Web has been a tremendous force for good and for the promotion of liberal democratic ideals. I celebrate that. I also celebrate the arrival of eCommerce on the Web, and I like that there are free services on it. I accept that there's a Faustian pact, involving something like "if it's free, you are the product" - up to a point.

The Web is not really all that good for eCommerce - meaning that it's harder than it ought to be to build services that involve straightforward transactions. That may be a motivation for service providers that drives indirect monetisation of the form "no money changes hands between the user and the provider", but that doesn't mean that no money changes hands. The long and short being, in my view, that if money didn't change hands in some way there would be a much diminished Web.

There's an argument that the Web is under threat from "Native Apps". I'm unconvinced by this, since I think it's part of this wider problem. And I'm not at all convinced that threats to privacy and so on are caused by a technology choice - Web vs native - so much as they are cause by the commercial objectives of commercial companies, are, well commercial, and Web technology doesn't do much to help them. Native technology does quite a lot.

In the end, whether your data is safe with any particular organisation is down to what their morality is, rather than what technology they use. The top companies that offer services on the Web appear to be commercial companies that mine your data. That's not surprising given the foregoing comment on the Web being poor at direct monetisation. Perhaps if the Web had better ways of providing direct monetisation there would be a better balance of business models.

They do mine your data, but just because they mine your data doesn't mean they're bad - my personal view is that some really are bad, but that's a different point. A bit more public information would not go amiss, for sure, but I guess I don't know that it would make that much difference.

Parenthetically, Amazon and many others do, of course, find a way of providing directly commercial services (as well as mining your data) but I don't think that diminishes my point about difficulties of or lack of facilities for commercialisation.

Wikipedia is possibly the only one of the top sites that doesn't fall into this category. And we celebrate it for that, while wondering about the effect it has on people's ability to learn to carry out genuine research. In the UK, at least, we worry also about the disappearance of comfortable artefacts that we think have social benefit, such as public libraries - presumably because the Web in general and Wikipedia in particular have reduced the social benefit and utility of libraries; reference libraries in particular, I mean.

So, if we are to bemoan the disappearance (threatened, presumed or actual) of the Open Web, shouldn't we equally bemoan the the Web's (Open or otherwise) effect on other parts of our society? And if libraries are disappearing through disuse that's sad, but part of the circle of life. If the Web is actually diminishing, well that's something to worry about in the same breath as worrying about disappearance of libraries - namely, I think, that it's essential to have access to knowledge for a healthy and successful society. However, it doesn't matter all that much whether the technology used is books, the Web or something else as long as information is accessible.

If mass interest has turned to services that elite few consider bad and harmful, well, surely that just sour grapes at the successful exploitation of a new medium by entrepreneurial popularists, and isn't that as much part of society's continued evolution as anything else that has happened in the past.

People want stuff that they want and they want to get that stuff in a way that is convenient and cheap. Not astonishing, not new. Preserving the "purity" of the Web appears to me to be something akin to preserving ballet, opera, and classical music by means of subsidy. It's argued that these are elitist interests, generally enjoyed by the rich and subsidised at the expense of the poor who broadly have no interest in them, and can't afford them anyway, even at subsidised prices.

If the Web wishes to continue to be relevant it needs to appeal more to the providers of commercial services whether or not you or I think that's pure or not. 

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