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[berkman] Anil Dash on “The Web We Lost”

Anil Dash is giving a Berkman lunchtime talk, titled “The Web We Lost.” He begins by pointing out that the title of his talk implies a commonality that at least once was.

NOTE: Live-blogging. Getting things wrong. Missing points. Omitting key information. Introducing artificial choppiness. Over-emphasizing small matters. Paraphrasing badly. Not running a spellpchecker. Mangling other people’s ideas and words. You are warned, people.

Anil puts up an icon that is a symbol of privately-owned public spaces in New York City. Businesses create them in order to be allowed to build buildings taller than the zoning requirements allow. These are sorta kinda like parks but are not. E.g., Occupy isn’t in Zuccotti Park any more because the space is a POC, not a park. “We need to understand the distinction” between the space we think are public and the ones that are privately owned.

We find out about these when we transgress rules. We expect to be able to transgress in public spaces, but in POCs we cannot. E.g., Improv Everywhere needs to operate anonymously to perform in these spaces. Anil imagines “a secretive, private ivy league club.” Harvard is an intimidating place, he says. He is the son of immigrants and didn’t go to college. “A space even as welcoming as this one can seem intimidating.” E.g., Facebook was built as a private club. It welcomes everyone now, but it still doesn’t feel like ours. It’s very hard for a business to get much past its origins.

One result of online POCs is “the wholesale destruction of your wedding photos.” Sometimes people lose them in a fire, and they are what they cannot replace. Yet everyday we hear about a startup that “succeeds” by selling out, and then destroying the content that they’d gathered. We’ve all gotten the emails that say: “Good news! 1. We’re getting rich. 2. You’re not. 3. We’re deleting your wedding photos.” They can do this because of the terms of service that none of us read but that give them carte blanche. We tend to look at this as simply the cost of doing business with the site.

But don’t see it that way, Anil recommends. “This is actually a battle” against the values of the early Web. In the mid to late 1990s, the social Web arose. There was a time when it was meaningful thing to say that you’re a blogger. It was distinguishing. That’s evaporated. “No one’s a Facebooker.” Now being introduced as a blogger “is a little bit like being introduced as an emailer.” The idea that there was a culture with shared values has been dismantled.

He challenges himself to substantiate this:

“We have a lot of software that forbids journalism.” He refers to the IoS [iphone operating system] Terms of Service for app developers that includes text that says, literally: “If you want to criticize a religion, write a book.” You can distribute that book through the Apple bookstore, but Apple doesn’t want you writing apps that criticize religion. Apple enforces an anti-journalism rule, banning an app that shows where drone strikes have been.

Less visibly, the laws is being bent “to make our controlling our data illegal.” All the social networks operate as common carriers — neutral substrates — except when it comes to monetizing. The boundaries are unclear: I can sing “Happy Birthday” to a child at home, and I can do it over FaceTime, but I can’t put it up at YouTube [because of copyright]. It’s very open-ended and difficult to figure. “Now we have the industry that creates the social network implicitly interested in getting involved in how IP laws evolve.” When the Google home page encourages visitors to call their senators against SOPA/PIPA, we have what those of us against Citizens United oppose: now we’re asking a big company to encourage people to act politically in a particular way. At the same time, we’re letting these companies capture our words and works and put them under IP law.

A decade ago, metadata was all the rage among the geeks. You could tag, geo-tag, or machine-tag Flickr photos. Flickr is from the old community. That’s why you can still do Creative Commons searches at Flickr. But you can’t on Instagram. They don’t care about metadata. From an end-user point of view, RSS is out of favor. The new companies are not investing in creating metadata to make their work discoverable and shareable.

At the old, hovering on a link would reveal a punchline. Now, with the introduction of Adlinks and AdSense, Google transformed links from the informative and aesthetic, to an economic tool for SEO. Within less than 6 months, linkspam was spawned. Today Facebook’s EdgeRank is based on the idea that “Likes” are an expression of your intent, which determines how they charge for ads. We’ll see like-spammers and all the rest we saw with links. “These gestural things that were editorial or indicators of intent get corrupted right away.” There are still little islands, but for the most part these gestures that used to be about me telling you that I like your work are becoming economic actions.

Anil says that a while ago when people clicked on a link from Facebook to his blog, FB popped up a warning notice saying that it might be dangerous to go there. “The assumption is that my site is less trustworthy than theirs. Let’s say that’s true. Let’s say I’m trying to steal all your privacy and they’re not.” He has FB comments on his site. To get this FB has to validate your page. “I explicitly opted in to the Facebook ecology” in part to prove he’s a moderate and in part as a convenience to his readers. At the same time, FB was letting WaPo and Guardian publish within the FB walls, and FB never gave that warning when you clicked on their links. A friend at FB told Anil that the popup was a bug, which might be. But that means “in the best case, we’re stuck fixing their bugs on our budgets.” (The worst case is that FB is trying to shunt traffic away from other sites.)

And this is true for all things that compete with the Web. The ideas locked into apps won’t survive the company’s acquisition, but this is true when we change devices as well. “Content tied to devices dies when those devices become obsolete.” We have “given up on standard formats.” “Those of us who cared about this stuff…have lost,” overall. Very few apps support standard formats, with jpg and html as exceptions. Likes and follows, etc., all use undocumented proprietary formats. The most dramatic shift: the expectation that they would be interoperable. The Web was built out of interoperability. “This went away with almost no public discourse about the implications of it.”

The most important implication of all this comes when thinking about the Web as a public space. When the president goes on FB, we think about it as a public space, but it’s not, and dissent and transgression are not permitted. “Terms of Service and IP trump the Constitution.” E.g., every single message you put on FB during the election FB could have transformed into its opposite, and FB would be within its ToS rights. After Hurricane Sandy, public relief officials were broadcasting messages only through FB. “You had to be locked into FB to see where public relief was happening. A striking change.”

What’s most at risk are the words of everyday people. “It’s never the Pharaoh’s words that are lost to history.” Very few people opt our of FB. Anil is still on FB because he doesn’t want to lose contact with his in-laws. [See Dan Gillmor's talk last week.) Without these POCs, Anil wouldn't have been invited to Harvard; it's how he made his name.

"The main reason this shift happened in the social web is the arrogance of the people who cared about the social web in the early days...We did sincerely care about enabling all these positive things. But the way we went about it was so arrogant that Mark Zuckerberg's vision seemed more appealing, which is appalling." An Ivy League kid's software designed for a privileged, exclusive elite turned out to be more appealing than what folks like Anil were building. "If we had been listening more, and a little more open in self-criticism, it would have been very valuable."

There was a lot of triumphalism after PIPA/SOPA went down, but it took a huge amount of hyperbole. It worked once but it doesn't scale. The willingness to pat ourselves on our back uncritically led us to vilify people who support creative industries. That comes from the arrogance that they're dinosaurs, etc. People should see us being publicly critical of ourselves. For something to seem less inclusive than FB or Apple — incredibly arrogant, non-egalitarian cultures — that's something we should look at very self-critically.

Some of us want to say "But it's only some of the Web." We built the Web for pages, but increasingly we're moving from pages to streams (most recently-updated on top, generally), on our phones but also on bigger screens. Sites that were pages have become streams. E.g., YouTube. And now Yahoo. These streams feel like apps, not pages. Our arrogance keeps us thinking that the Web is still about pages. Nope. The percentage of time we spend online looking at streams is rapidly increasing. It is already dominant. This is important because these streams are controlled access. The host controls how we experience the content. "This is part of how they're controlling the conversation." No Open Web advocate has created a stream that's anywhere near as popular as the sites we're going to. The geeks tend to fight the last battle. "Let's make an open source version of the current thing." Instead, geeks need to think about creating a new kind of stream. People never switch to more open apps. (Anil says Firefox was an exception.)

So, what do we do? Social technologies follow patterns. It's cyclical. (E.g., "mainframes being rebranded as The Cloud.") Google is doing just about everything Microsoft was doing in the late 1990s. We should expect a reaction against the overreach. "In that case, policy really worked." The Consent Decree made IE an afterthought for developers. Public policy can be an important of this change. "There's no question" that policy over social software is coming.

Also, "apps want to do the right thing." Anil's ThinkUp demonstrates this. We need to be making apps that people actually want, not ones that are just open. "Are you being more attentive to what users want than Mark Zuckerberg is." We need to shepherd and coach the apps that want to do the right thing. We count on 23 yr olds to do this, but they were in 5th grade when the environment was open. It's very hard to learn the history of the personal software industry and how it impacted culture. "What happened in the desktop office suite wars ?" [Ah, memories!] We should be learning from such things.

And we can learn things from our own data. “It’s much easier for me to check my heart-rate than how often I’m reading Twitter.”

Fortunately, there are still institutions that still care about a healthy Web. At one point there was a conflict between federal law and Terms of Service: the White House was archiving coments on its FB wall, whereas FB said you couldn’t archive for more than 24 yrs.

We should remember that ToS isn’t law. Geeks will hack at software but treat ToS as sacred. Our culture is negatively impacted by ToS and we should reclaim our agency over them. “We should think about how to organize action around specific clauses in ToS.” In fact, “people have already chosen a path of civil disobedience.” E.g., search YouTube for “no infringement intended.” “It’s like poetry.” They’re saying “I’m not trying to step on your toes, but the world needs to see this.” “I’m so inspired by this.” If millions of teenagers assembled to engage in civil disobedience, we’d be amazed. They do on line. They feel they need to transgress because of a creative urge, or because it’s speech with a friend not an act of publishing. “That’s the opportunity. That’s the exciting part. People are doing this every single day.

[I couldn't capture the excellent Q&A because I was running the microphone around.]

Read the original blog entry...

More Stories By David Weinberger

David is the author of JOHO the blog ( He is an independent marketing consultant and a frequent speaker at various conferences. "All I can promise is that I will be honest with you and never write something I don't believe in because someone is paying me as part of a relationship you don't know about. Put differently: All I'll hide are the irrelevancies."

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