Tim Berners-Lee is very concerned about the future of the “open web”, and has published a “Contract for the Web” to try and help defend it. I too like what I think of as the “open web” and would like to preserve it, but it seems our conceptions of it are very different.
There is a strong, often-unspoken narrative around a sort of “original sin” for the Internet. The idea, upon examination, is as silly as its namesake, but persists nonetheless. In this narrative the Internet was formerly a wonderful place for nice people where there was no conflict, but modern social media networks caused conflict, “breaking democracy”, and so on. Of course the thesis is not stated like this because the obvious problem jumps up, but it’s still there. The Internet has never been a “nice” place. It started as an academic computer network which perhaps enforced some sort of decorum, but that was definitely gone by the 90s. But more than that it laid how different people are from each other on all sorts of different dimensions, and mere difference is the oldest cause of human conflict.
So why do people think the “open web” is in danger anyway? Because Berners-Lee and his fellow-thinkers are right in some sense; the Internet has changed, and social media has indeed changed it. But it’s not a matter of big evil corporations breaking democracy or whatever. Rather the problem arises in the network itself.
Let’s look at the fundamental mechanism that the media and people that pay attention to it are concerned about: two-way communication. So how does two-way communication exist on the Internet?
One of the first ways – a system still used and often-imitated today – is called Internet Relay Chat. It has servers – which anyone can set up – with various chat rooms called channels – which anyone can create – on them. The servers, originally all linked together, eventually split into various rivalous networks. I’m not going to go into the history of IRC here, but the point is that it’s a system that’s open but decentralized. What does that mean? If you want to create a channel for whatever topic you want, you generally can. There are people with central authority on a network, but they generally don’t interfere with internal affairs of the channels. Additionally every channel is separate. You can generally only see what people say in it if you’re in the channel, and you can’t get a complete history of what happened there. And while you have the same username (“nick”) in every channel on a network, it’s easy to be signed in as multiple users or be on multiple networks.
Another way almost certainly familiar to you is email. There are some similarities but many differences with IRC. It is still decentralized – generally no one but you cares what you get in your email – but it’s person-to-person. Like IRC it’s also private.
These are two paradigm systems for communicating because they’re both very popular and often imitated on the Internet. IRC-like systems exist as chat networks such as Slack and Discord, while countless different websites offer some sort of email-like private-messaging feature. Many different systems can be fit into one of these two paradigms.
Modern social media, on the other hand, is very different from them. They try to maintain the myth of being a “single community”, even though what it is is millions of very different people all talking within their networks. The only common factor between everyone is things being more publicly accessible and easily shareable. As we’ve seen in countless cases, this is a dangerous combination. A casual remark that would have gone unnoticed within the person-context it’s in goes viral, humiliating and harming the sender because of another myth: language being “objective” rather than extremely context-sensitive.
The Contract for the Web is optimistic about fixing this. It states that “Companies will…Develop technologies that support the best in humanity and challenge the worst so the web really is a public good that puts people first.” and that “Citizens will…Build strong communities that respect civil discourse and human dignity so that everyone feels safe and welcome online.”. What does this mean? Well it’s necessarily vague in order to get more people to agree to it, but the ideas behind it are well-known. People should get educated so they stop posting “fake news”, “hate speech”, and other apparent ills, and proprietors of social networks should take strong action to enforce this. Then we’ll supposedly have the “open web” back.
I think this is pure childish fantasy. Not because of some sort of free speech absolutism or whatever, but because it fundamentally confuses causes with symptoms. IRC/email-like networks that I described above help build communities. Actual communities, not whatever Facebook is pretending it is this week. They provide places to chat, argue, learn, have cybersex, trade, and everything else people do online with other people. The decentralization and many different groups that exist on these is a feature here, not a bug.
The open social networks, on the other hand, are based on political idealism rather than actual human interaction. They try to create a single community when none is possible even in principle. Many people want Twitter to “just ban the Nazis.” Indeed they could…and then next week there’d be another group in the spotlight. Again this isn’t political slippery slope and I’ll shed no tears if far-rightests get kicked off the Internet completely. But when you pour millions of people from across the globe into a shared space where everyone sees everyone you either get a panopticon or a battlefield. No amount of “civil discourse” or “supporting the best in humanity and challenging the worse” will change that in the slightest. The social network creators have simply made promises that are impossible to keep.
To me the open web is not about being able to see everyone else on Earth, but being able to find them and their communities if I choose. In that aspect the open web is doing better than ever. You won’t find it on Facebook certainly (all the more reason not to use it!) but there are so many different communities you could spend your entire life just finding and categorizing them. If you don’t want to be in a battle, get off the battlefield! That is my “Contract for the Web”.