The Web We Lost - Anil Dash on the social web's downside

Anil Dash, in an insightful and resonant long-form post: "The tech industry and its press have treated the rise of billion-scale social networks and ubiquitous smartphone apps as an unadulterated win for regular people, a triumph of usability and empowerment. They seldom talk about what we've lost along the way in this transition, and I find that younger folks may not even know how the web used to be. So here's a few glimpses of a web that's mostly faded away." The Web We Lost.


  1. Ha, I was just recently bemoaning how terrible the newest wave of internet communication tools are – e.g. Instagram, Tumblr, Twitter, Facebook – and how many things are lost because of them.  How the hell did this happen?

    1. The optimist would hold out hope that new internet tools are essentially herd-management tools for advertisers because self-interested profiteers deliberately built crippled tools because it was more profitable for them.

      The pessimist would be dogged by the nagging suspicion that a better and more powerful web was also a web that was harder to use, and gave substantially greater returns to technical expertise, and just plain had a lot fewer and more heavily self and/or socially selected users; and that the accessibility of the lousy new web may not actually be separable from its lousiness(at its most extreme, this could be summed up as “We call the the version of the internet simple and cheap enough for nigh-universal accessibility ‘Television’…”.

      The question reminds me(somewhat uncomfortably) of the Twitter/ controversies a little while back: there was certainly some compelling suspicion that was partly a techie white-flight response to a social shift; but it’s also pretty hard to argue with the fact that ‘free’ stuff on the internet tends to survive only if venture capitalists are feeling optimistic to the point of stupidity, or if you are the product, or if there is some core user group with enough social affinity to provide money without market incentives.

      It would be delightful if you could simply dismiss raising the paywall as a purely reactionary social strategy, designed to keep the riffraff from sullying the internet as the Rightful Domain of the technically-adept-middle-class-and-above; but that would require pretending that(among other, probably ever more wonderful developments in the future) Twitter is exterminating 3rd-party clients, running more ads, and sucking up to ‘analytics’ creeps for social reasons, rather than to keep the lights on. 

      I’m inclined somewhat to the pessimist’s view for two basic reasons:

      1. Cost. This one is pretty obvious. Price signalling can be a largely artificial method of status signalling(see your local purveyor of conspicuous consumption luxury goods for details); but now that the magic pretend internet money of the .com boom isn’t being pumped in anymore, prices are also about actually not going out of business and disappearing from the internet without a trace. Cheaper=more accessible; but cheaper also equals ‘probably run for the benefit of the people paying the bills, who aren’t you.’

      2. Technical difficulty: This one cuts both ways(as with cost, since computers and associated services have gotten much cheaper over time; but dumb optimist money has dried up): Hardware and software today are generally much easier to use than in the past(anybody fiddle the DIP switches on an ISA card recently? remember when ‘plug ‘n pray’ was actually a pretty truthful joke?); but the internet has gotten a great deal more sophisticated and automated about its hostility. You want to run your own server and have your own domain name and stuff? No problem. Free OS, free webserver, peanuts for a VPS instance, Hail Progress! Oh, wait, you don’t want to either become a part-time sysadmin or hand over full control to a vendor’s auto-updates? Welcome to the botnet, buddy(for a convenient example, just imagine why somebody would be blogging at rather than on their own wordpress instance, or a paid instance where they are the customer rather than the product). 

  2. I will echo a post I read on Slashdot about this very article, saying that we haven’t LOST anything. That people use new medium to connect on the internet doesn’t invalidate the previous tools that still exist. The existence of Facebook doesn’t remove bulletin boards on website, the existence of Tumblr doesn’t remove picture galleries on other websites, and Twitter didn’t destroy blogs.

    1. Unless you have pretty impressive power over what your friends and family do online, Metcalfe’s law (while, certainly, an overstatement once values of N start to climb) has a few words of wisdom…

      It’s hard to outright kill a prior technology. It’s much easier to draw off enough of the market (or, given how this change has corresponded with a massive rise in the web-using population, simply capture new entrants before they touch the prior technology) that users of the prior technology can either rot in their shrinking echo chamber until the sun implodes, or give up and get a facebook account because they’ll never see a party invitation or family picture again without one.

    2. I’m seeing content being moved over to these new tools where things are being lost, even on the individual level.  So Twitter may not have destroyed blogs in general, but it destroyed specific blogs.

  3. I think the issue here is that the majority of people don’t care. Those power users who do care feel as these things they need for power are lost. And sure, they might be. But create a product and service that you want and need, and make it a profitable business (see pinboard), then you still get all your power user toys. This article sounds like “those darn kids…”

    There’s a lot of navel gazing in the tech community, but not a lot of seeing how to make things easier for the non-technorati. It makes me cringe when we’re still worried about checking off a list of tech specs, but still don’t pay attention to the joys of using a device/service, and what the benefits of it are.

  4. God he’s full of it.
    My response to his (paraphrased) key points.

    Less people use Flickr, whcih was easy to scrape. => Knowing some professional photographers, that’s the main reason less people use it. People want to own their shit.

    Technorati can’t scrape all your social info any more => GOOD! That shit’s creepy.

    We have link spam now => We had link spam then, too. Saying links weren’t about generating revenue then is a huge fucking lie.

    People are now ok with single sign-in services => That’s because they have a lot more places to sign in. It’s a risk-benefit thing, the benefit is greater now, that’s why. (I can’t back up this assertion, but he doesn’t bother with his, so…)

    Full data ownership isn’t what it was => I agree with this, sites should let you have the stuff you put on them. It’s up to consumers to demand this where it isn’t offer though, and take their custom elsewhere if it doesn’t happen. Also, five paragraphs ago he wa slamenting the absence of a service that didn’t let people have control of their content.

    You could have your own website back in the day => Wtf? Not only is this far easier to acheive now than it was then, it costs about one-tenth of the price.

    Years ago, simple, documented formats could be used to share data betweens sites and apps => OH, MOTHER OF DIVINE CHRIST. You’re not a developer are you Anil? Heard of fucking XML? JSON? This is basic, basic stuff which is used all over the bleedin shop. Sure some people don’t share, but there was NEVER a time when everyone was sharing data.

    There used to be crowd-sourcing and shared resources => We’re into Jesus facepalm territory. Kickstarter? Indie-Gogo? Remember how got their funding, no? Entire, open services are being built on the back of crowd-funding.

    Anil Dash is basically an oxygen thief and he should be sterilised.
    Ok, more correctly, Anil Dash is a ridiculously successful consultant (read: mouthpiece), who spouts ridiculous nonsense that some people are taken in by. As far as I can tell, he hasn’t written a line of code in his life. His shite-talking all turns into more money for him, as people like saying they’re consulting with someone so well known. It’s Emperor’s New Clothes stuff. Wouldn’t have thought I’d see Xeni Jardin and Cory Doctorow both be taken in by it.

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