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Unraveling the web's story

Rosy Retrospection

I have taken web nostalgia to something of an art form on History of the Web. The web’s openness—beginning with Tim Berners-Lee and CERNs decision to enter the web into the public domain in its earliest days—is its most valuable gift.

Berners-Lee has reaffirmed his original endorsement of the web’s openness through his efforts for a decentralized web, and more recently by advocating for a new contract for the web. This message has been echoed by Brewster Kahle—a force on the Internet and web, creator of WAIS and the Internet Archive—who once said “We can lock the Web open.”. More recently, Cory Doctrow has put it rather simply: The (open) web is good, actually

The Need for an Open Web

The same sentiment is echoed by Aaron Straup Cope, an employee at the San Francisco International Airport Museum. Cope, who has been at the intersection of museums and the web for several decades, has identified a crucial need for cultural heritage institutions to incorporate and investigate new technologies. In a recent talk, Cope points out that recent years have seen a focus on relatively closed systems operating within corporate-backed ecosystems, like social media walled gardens and the virtual reality space, predominantly controlled by Meta and Apple.

However, a decade or two ago, the landscape was different. These same institutions were just beginning to understand the potential of the web, finding innovative ways to utilize it to their advantage. In fact, some of the most compelling experiments on the early web originated from museums and other cultural heritage institution (including the first public site in the U.S., developed by Louise Addis at Stanford).

Cope argues that rather than simply another technology in a longer list, the web is actually an outlier. Through its openness, the web is uniquely aligned with the ideology and objectives of these institutions.

The web happened and while it was absolutely the new, shiny, cool thing at the time it also happened to be the technology that most closely aligns, by design and by intent, with the purposes and motivations of the cultural heritage sector…. We would do well to recognize that. We would do well to understand the web not just as a notch in the linear progression of technological advancement but, in historical terms, as an unexpected gift with the ability to change the order of things; a gift that merits being protected, preserved and promoted both internally and externally.

With gated communities and commercial technologies, you can only ever set up shop and rent from a larger entity. On the web, there is freedom.

The Double Edged Sword

But there is a flip side to that. Writing in the MIT Technology Review, Katie Notopoulos dub the Internet’s freedom it’s “original sin.” What kind of freedom the web has was defined by its earliest pioneers.

When the internet began to be built out commercially in the 1990s, its culture was, perversely, anticommercial. Many of the leading internet thinkers… were passionate about making software open source. Their very mantra was “Information wants to be free”—a phrase attributed to Stewart Brand, the founder of the Whole Earth Catalog and the pioneering internet community the WELL. This ethos also extended to a passion for freedom of speech, and a sense of responsibility to protect it. 

It just so happened that those people were quite often affluent white men in California, whose perspective failed to predict the dark side of the free-speech, free-access havens they were creating.

When reminiscing about the early days of an open web,, I must always remember that that nostalgia is tinted by rose colored glasses. That openness is double-edged. I believe, and likely always will, that the web must be universal, accessible, and open to all. But the web’s openness, while essential, was largely molded by a group with a singular worldview. A view that must be expanded.

Nostalgia and the Future of the Open Web

It’s a nuanced view I found most poignantly highlighted in Carrie Tian’s personal retrospective from 2021, Metafilter: 20+ years in, you think you know a site. Tian describes her twenty years on the community site Metafilter, from her teenage years finding her identity among online peers, to her more sporadic but still pointed recent engagements with the site.

Reflecting on those years, Tian points out that Metafilter was built on the same principles, and by the same group of people, who committed Notopoulos original sin.

I miss the hobbyist days of the internet. Metafilter is the last vestige of that time for me – I can’t even imagine influencers overtaking Metafilter. But hobbyists are an inherently limited group. The candidness and unexpectedness that I cherish about Metafilter is inextricably linked to its frustratingly limited demographics.

Tian fondly remembers engaging in deep conversations with her friends on topics that she thought only she found interesting. However, her online experience on Metafilter introduced her to a group of individuals who shared her unique interests. While these interests could be perceived as narrow or esoteric, they fostered a sense of community. However, there were moments of disillusionment for Tian, particularly when she met Metafilter users in person, only to discover that the majority belonged to the same demographic. This realization occasionally left her feeling disconnected and unsatisfied.

By and large, though, I’d get to the meetup, look for the group meeting each other for the first time, and find that my window on the world was not so vast after all. The group was generally whiter, shyer, and more rumpled than I’d expected and worked in a small sliver of white collar jobs. I’d feel a sharp inhale of surprise, alerting me to just how detailed my subconscious expectations had been.

Sites like Metafilter, which were built on the principles of the open web, often bump up against the narrow ideological field of view of their users.

There lies the tension. When the web was small, it’s access was limited through technological hurdles, even though it was open. When the web expanded, we progressed toward centralization and thew everyone in the same big pot. But the web may be stronger when its small. So our great question is how we can embrace this tension, and evolve the web to be universal and accessible, and also inclusive, diverse, and varied.

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