The Web Renaissance Takes Off

Not too long ago, I said "Thanks to the mistrust of big tech, the creation of better tools for developers, and the weird and wonderful creativity of ordinary people, we’re seeing an incredibly unlikely comeback: the web is thriving again." And at the time, there was some skepticism, both due to fair questions about whether this was just wishful thinking on my part, and also because many felt it would take a pretty massive shift in the power dynamics of the mainstream technology industry to enable the open, human web to re-emerge as a major social force.

Well, things changed a little bit in tech of late. Often, the power shifts in the tech world because of a dramatic new invention that solves an old problem a whole lot better. But in the current era, when most of what's getting funded and hyped up are just various attempts to undermine workers and control consumers, we're instead seeing lots of major players lose power because their signature offerings have gotten so much worse. Search engines are becoming far more useless as they attempt to chase AI hype and shoehorn in less reliable results, even as their legitimate search results get cluttered up with AI-generated crap. The most culturally influential social network has had its cultural relevance destroyed by its billionaire man-child owner's tantrum-based managemenet style. And the major mobile phone platforms overplayed their hand so badly in exerting power over their app ecosystems that regulators around the globe have responded by prying open these heretofore-closed markets.

And all along, lying in wait for a moment just like this, was the weird, wild world wide web.


I've been ecstatic to see the enthusiastic response to "The Internet Is About to Get Weird Again", my first piece for Rolling Stone. (Though I do, of course, lament that this magazine of all publications wouldn't let me have the headline on a piece that went live just before New Year's simply say, "The Internet gets ready to party like it's 1999.")

But by now it's clear, this isn't just wishful thinking on my part, or on the part of the millions of other people who warmly remember the good parts of the way the web used to work. Just over eleven years ago, I wrote "The Web We Lost", which was another surprisingly popular look at the changing dynamics of the mainstream internet. But, though that piece was a call to fight for the open web as a countervailing force to the then-nascent destructive forces that were taking over tech, it really was me mostly trying to be hopeful. (And, as in the related talk I gave at Harvard, trying to teach people about the power dynamics that were truly driving the shifts in the web.) By a few years later, though, I'd largely lost that hope, convinced that the battle had been won by the people who had made the internet a tool for maniupulation and undermining ordinary people's power.

I didn't count on them being such sore winners, though. And I should never have underestimated the passion and resilience of the people who create the good internet, those who never stopped making things just for the love of the medium. It's ironic that I'd forget that, when... well, you're looking at one example of a thing on the web that's been created for 25 years straight purely out of love for this medium.

So, while I'm still circumspect and cautious about the very real threats and harms that will come from the worst parts of the major internet platforms, I am more optimistic than I've been in a long time about the massive potential of the human internet to come roaring back in a way that we haven't seen in a generation. More and more, I think of it as "the people's web". And like so many things that come from, and by, the power of the people, it's a movement that can be delayed, or undermined, but increasingly I have come to believe that it cannot possibly be truly stopped.

I'll end here as I did in the Rolling Stone piece:

I’m not a pollyanna about the fact that there are still going to be lots of horrible things on the internet, and that too many of the tycoons who rule the tech industry are trying to make the bad things worse. (After all, look what the last wild era online lead to.) There’s not going to be some new killer app that displaces Google or Facebook or Twitter with a love-powered alternative. But that’s because there shouldn’t be. There should be lots of different, human-scale alternative experiences on the internet that offer up home-cooked, locally-grown, ethically-sourced, code-to-table alternatives to the factory-farmed junk food of the internet. And they should be weird.