The Centralized Web
Back in the olden days of the web — for which I have am too young to have experienced, but have formed a fondly fabricated nostalgia — everybody created their own little space on the Internet. There were blogs, haphazardly strewn together in a giant… ahem… web of information, and one was not too terribly reliant on the other. It was the golden age. Information was shared more quickly and easily than ever, with very little baggage along the way. Sure, it was a little rough around the edges at times, but that’s the price you pay.
Then things began to change. We realized that forming a place on the Internet was hard. There’s a reason that most blogs were (and to a certain degree still are) by developers about development. Thanks to the great wonders of capitalism, this problem was met with an onslaught products and services. Now anybody could have a place on the Internet. Creating a blog or website was easy — just choose a service, pick a theme, and start writing. And it was nice.
Now, rather than a networked constellation of stellar sources, all our writing was saved in one of a few major content hubs. Whether it was Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, Medium, or YouTube, your content was donated to a central authority. And to be clear: There are plenty of benefits to this model. It makes it easy to find and follow content creators you enjoy, and it’s easier to find an audience for your creations.
Unfortunately, the centralized method also has some pretty detrimental drawbacks.
If variety is the spice of life, then today’s outlets for content creation are about as spicy as your mother-in-law’s famous “wheaties with skim milk” recipe. (Yes, I research these things.) Anybody who posts something on the Internet better do it following one of a few pre-defined formulas, or expect to be ignored completely.
In fairness: There are certainly some benefits to avoiding the chaos of infinitely customizable webpages like Myspace. Things like readability, accessibility, and suicide prevention come to mind. But there’s also a lot of value in giving people a creative outlet. I imagine that for many readers, their fondest memories of the Internet were screwing around in the wild west of content creation. (I’m speaking hypothetically, I might add, because I wasn’t around for the Myspace era. Feel old yet?) Freedom to express themselves gave people a purpose — a project. Plus, from time to time, it taught people new skills (often designing HTML table layouts).
Nowadays, there’s not a whole lot of wiggle room to tinker and build freely. Instead, online creators are expected to follow in the footsteps of a few key websites and products. While universally accepted systems can often be useful, they also stifle creativity.
A Single Point of Failure
It’s a well-known fact that you should diversify your investments. Don’t put all your eggs in one basket. The idea goes that sometimes things can go awry, and betting all your chips on a single solution can go south quickly.
Unfortunately, the progression of the Internet has followed a very different route. More and more, content is being uploaded to central sources, and those sites have the power to change a lot. Take, for instance, some of the recent issues surrounding YouTube. As the de-facto standard for Internet video, YouTube holds a strong foothold on footage — and with it, a lot of power. When well-meaning developments regarding how videos are monetized were implemented on the site, many creators who relied on YouTube to make a living found themselves struggling to draw a profit from their work. While it could be easy to argue that this is a one-off issue which is specific to YouTube itself, it’s important to recognize that no matter how many precautionary steps a service takes, things will go wrong. Always.
As such, it’s only reasonable to conclude that the most stable web is one that’s built not with 5, 10, or even 100 big nodes, but instead, one that’s built with millions of little nodes. It’s a better investment.
It's Just Less Fun
There are plenty of reasonable explanations for why a centralized web is a worse one, but my little monkey brain cares about one above all else: The web isn’t as fun when it’s built by corporations looking to turn a profit.
A lot of the joy of the Internet is lost when the people (and robots) in charge choose to place more weight on monetary gain than on creating happy moments for users. Our goal, as a web of ever more tightly connected human beings, should be to make life as wonderful as possible for those around us. An Internet which is based around a few central authorities doesn’t progress us any closer to this goal, so it seems reasonable to abandon the concept altogether.
What are we supposed to do, as mere Internet users? The first step, it seems to me, is to start having fun again. If you want to create something, do it. And don’t let anybody tell you that you can’t do it on your own. Sure, it’s more work. And you’ll end up with a final product which is less polished. But solving problems is fun. And so is doing things your own way.
Let’s work together on this one. The way nature intended.
- The Missing Building Blocks of the Web (No, the irony of linking to a Medium article has not escaped me.)