It all started when David Winer, who has made substantial contributions to the open web over the last few decades, said that he would not post to blog posts on Facebook. In a well-reasoned stand, he highlighted that the Facebook system does not allow all users to see the same thing, which means that it is difficult to assess if your reader could access the content (the same can be said of publishing companies that put their content behind a pay wall).
His post was followed by a colorfully-titled post by John Gruber, the go-to-blogger for anything Apple, who picked up the question of whether Facebook is trying to kill the open web.
In response to this, Joe Hewitt, who once worked on the Firefox browser and later worked for Facebook, fired back saying that no one cared, leading Gruber to answer about why HE cared.
There’s a lot to unwrap in this but I feel that the most important question is one around collective responsibility. Hard to believe but it was 6 years ago that I demonstrated how our individual actions led to the death of the open Internet. When I screamed that I killed the Internet, it was because my acceptance of those systems went the way of aiding and abetting the enemies of the open web.
And when I asked, more recently, if we were breaking the Internet, it is because a lot of the ideals that made the Internet what it seems to be increasingly getting chipped at.
Some could argue that a lot of the discussion is an academic one or, as Hewitt puts it:
But here’s the thing: there are some people who do care about the open web. And those people are fighting this fight because they know what communication was like when we were trapped under the weight of proprietary networks.
Today, technology is no longer just a question of technical issues but increasingly a political viewpoint and open vs. closed is a debate that is older than the Internet as it is a fundamental component of a discussion about what kind of society we want to have.
On one side, there are people who believe in an orderly and managed world, where individual convenience is traded in exchange for loss of control. In this world, individual effort is limited but the right to free expression can be limited by the gatekeepers. So if you are using a mobile app, you’ve agreed that either Apple or Google has some level of control over what you’re doing (through their app store terms). In the same way, if you post on Facebook, Twitter,
If you are using a mobile app, you’ve agreed that either Apple or Google has some level of control over what you’re doing (through their app store terms). In the same way, if you post on Facebook, Twitter, Medium, or any other proprietary platform, you give up some rights as to what is and isn’t acceptable. If you watch something on Netflix, Hulu, or Amazon, you use the Internet more like a television, through proprietary offerings that are not available to all.
On the other side, there are people, like me, who believe in a free and open world, one where personal effort and alliances allow for the best solutions. This open world values information exchange and personal responsibility in order to follow a shared purpose of giving anyone an equal footing. But open also means a lot more personal effort and personal work. To keep and open web open means that you often have to delve into things like maintaining your own domain, keeping track of the software that you use to push things on the web, and generally become a deeper technologist
To keep and open web open means that you often have to delve into things like maintaining your own domain, keeping track of the software that you use to push things on the web, and generally become a deeper technologist (or hire technologist) in order to keep your infrastructure going.
It takes effort but it’s effort that is worth it as it preserves a world where others can play and build on top of your effort, a world that iterates through progress and allows for the next group to build something even better.
The world of the past was more closed but through an accident of history, the Internet created a substantial opening, one that powered incredible innovation for the last few decades, giving anyone with a computer a chance to make and share the things they built without having to worry about gatekeepers. If you think of a bit of internet-connected technology that you use today, it probably would not exist if it weren’t for the openness of the internet.
Ever since this pandora box of openness opened up (pun intended), incumbents have been trying to close it back down. Meanwhile, younger generations who haven’t experienced a closed world have been lured into a state of complacency due to our failure, as proponents of an open world, to articulate why open is better.
In a way, Hewitt is right: no one cares about the open web outside of a small group of people because few have been properly educated. That said, when SOPA tried to lock things down, people activated.
If you believe in the Internet, take pause and reflect on what you do when you post to Facebook or other proprietary networks. I’m not saying don’t post there but realize that when you do so in an exclusive way, you are breaking the internet a little more. And consider coming back to the open web as it’s not that hard. This note, for example, has many homes. You may be reading in an email you’ve received, on my own site (TNL.net), on Medium, on Facebook, or on LinkedIn. You may notice that a number of those are the closed networks that people like Winer and Gruber won’t link to and I think that’s OK as long as the post also lives on the open web where they could link to it.
The open web is too important to the stability of a free and open society so please do your best to support it and do read/follow people like Winer and Gruber as they continue to fight the good fight. They are the true resistance in a world where too many people are trying to close minds.