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January 2021 Weblog: Taking the Power Back

The Power Center of Tech

The big news this month was, of course, the horrifying insurrection of the United States Capitol building. I don’t have much of value to add to the ongoing conversation, but the swift and successful de-platforming of the former President and a number of right-wing hate groups does have implications for the future of the web. A conversation between Kara Swisher and Chris Hayes helped me wrap my head around some of the more complex issues surrounding free speech, the power dynamic in the tech industry, and the future of litigation surrounding it.

But, as usual, New Yorker writer Anna Weiner best sums up what happened, and what’s at stake in her column.

In all likelihood, the real story doesn’t involve a wall of crisscrossing red strings—just a red line, freshly drawn. It seemed that tech corporations were motivated by the violence, proximity, and unequivocal symbolism of the attack—and that the response, prompt and decisive, was a spontaneous, context-based reaction to threats that had been simmering on their platforms for years. The action was compensatory rather than cumulative—a way of curtailing, if not preventing, further harm. It was compounded by the cascade effect: each suspension or ban contributed to the image of Trump as a pariah, and put pressure on other companies to follow suit, which in turn diminished the repercussions those companies would likely face for their decisions. Last week may simply have been a breaking point, a moment at which the potential damage to American democracy, security, and business had become impossible to ignore.

Conversations with the 2000 Web

On perhaps a more light-hearted note, Paul Ford wrote two threads exploring a fictional conversation with himself from the year 2000 about developments to the World Wide Web. One was highly entertaining. The other was profound. Both are worth a read.

Why Go Personal?

A theme of these weblogs is taking a look at how we can begin to take back the web, strip the walled gardens of their power and create our own personal spaces. At the end of 2019, for instance, Matthias Ott explored how personal websites could replace social networks. Now, a year later, Simon Collison laments about the lack of real personality in personal sites, hearkening back to a time when the web was literally bursting with creative expressions of self. And earlier this month, Robin Rendle expressed a similar frustration with the increased move towards newsletters and newsletter services like Substack, rather than utilizing the tools of the open web.

30+ years on and ease of use of creating your own web presence remains a problem. We have perhaps solved the business case on the web best of all. But we are still working through the personal case.

The First Web Editor

Doing a bit of free-form research and read through a series of posts by John McCrea about his work with Silicon Graphics to create (at least one of) the earliest examples of an HTML editor. It’s a fascinating romp through the history of the early web, and McCrea brushes shoulders with some of the most interesting people of the era in the process.