What today's Web can learn from the Web of the early 2000s

Anil Dash's "The Web We Lost" is a poignant look back at the Internet of just a few years ago, before the rise of billion-scale walled gardens where every normal act of online communications (linking, talking, showing each other pictures of our lives) has been commodified and made fraught by the interference of companies' business models.

* Ten years ago, you could allow people to post links on your site, or to show a list of links which were driving inbound traffic to your site. Because Google hadn't yet broadly introduced AdWords and AdSense, links weren't about generating revenue, they were just a tool for expression or editorializing. The web was an interesting and different place before links got monetized, but by 2007 it was clear that Google had changed the web forever, and for the worse, by corrupting links.

* In 2003, if you introduced a single-sign-in service that was run by a company, even if you documented the protocol and encouraged others to clone the service, you'd be described as introducing a tracking system worthy of the PATRIOT act. There was such distrust of consistent authentication services that even Microsoft had to give up on their attempts to create such a sign-in. Though their user experience was not as simple as today's ubiquitous ability to sign in with Facebook or Twitter, the TypeKey service introduced then had much more restrictive terms of service about sharing data. And almost every system which provided identity to users allowed for pseudonyms, respecting the need that people have to not always use their legal names.

* In the early part of this century, if you made a service that let users create or share content, the expectation was that they could easily download a full-fidelity copy of their data, or import that data into other competitive services, with no restrictions. Vendors spent years working on interoperability around data exchange purely for the benefit of their users, despite theoretically lowering the barrier to entry for competitors.

Anil finishes on a hopeful note, and I hope he's right, because he's right, we've lost a lot.

The Web We Lost (via O'Reilly Radar)



  1. I definitely agree that the web is different, but the walls still existed before. The walls were based on technical expertise, though, rather than corporate fiddling. For example, Facebook revolutionized pictures on the web because it combined two elements that were surprisingly rare pre-Facebook — namely, free web hosting of image content and then easily, passively sharing those pictures with friends.

    I had a website and often encouraged friends to set up their own site if they had a photography interest, or were into blogging. It all involved a rather deep knowledge of HTML and a willingness to spend money on a domain, hosting, and so on. Then, you had to figure out how to actually get people to see what you did, which generally involved emailing a link to friends.

    Now you can hop on Tumblr and set up a highly social blog/photo/media site based on whatever strikes your fancy, with minimal knowledge of HTML code and with no financial outlay.

    I do think the proliferation of sharing and linking services are a little overkill, and often overwhelming, but gosh, I sure do like the fact that on this very story, I can say I “like” it on Facebook, and it will show up to my friends who can then also read it. That’s an improvement over sharing with friends compared to 10 years ago, for sure.

    1. I really like your comment, because while I’m skeptical of the scale and significance of the changes derided by the author, I’m 100% confident the web has become more democratic, and walls of technical expertise have come down. I think this is not just true in the sense of not needing to know html or webserver management to use a messageboard or share your photos. It’s true in the way projects like wikipedia (founded in 2001) and countless newsblogs can flourish without expert curation. 

      Sometimes I’ve been grouchy, because I cultivated my computer skills with effort and to my social detriment, and it is irrelevant now. But in the balance, I’m delighted I can share things easily with my friends without having to do all that bullshit detail work, and that I can have my computer/phone magically merge those various communication services without me having to tinker.

  2. A more controversial loss:  In the days before the GPL, some people gave their software into the public domain, or allowed unfettered use if attributed.  The GPL obscured that definition of “free software”, while never really getting to (what I think was) Stallman’s ideal.  He believed that developers could make their income off “support”, which not only doesn’t scale, but, well, excuse me, I’d rather work on new software, and get it (close to) right the first time.  More often than not, GPL software is favoured for price, not politics; I don’t think that’s what was intended.  Sure, it lets you force a modem manufacturer to give you their source code, but, really, that’s not very earthshaking in the grand scheme.

    There’s a lot of other losses out there too, but you get to sounding like a grumpy old unix guy with a beard if you list them all at once.

  3. I remember back in the day when websites didn’t harass you to use their “new iPad app”
    I remember when links were links and not meta-links, redirected links or tracking links.

  4. Ah, thanks to the wonders of commercialization, the tool that was wonderful for millions is now very good for billions.

    Of course, for those original millions, much is lost (I mourn the net of 2000), but let’s face it, you don’t scale an Internet for billions and have people to the grinding work to provide services to them without the incentives of commercialization.

    The corner store of my youth that served me and my peers well is now the shopping plaza serving orders of magnitude more.  I have to face the fact that a commercial Internet serves too many more, far better, for me to ethically claim the Internet of my youth was superior, even if it was quite possibly superior for me.

  5. I don’t understand the complaint.

    Think about cooking for a minute. Cooking is a wonderful thing, not just because it feeds us. Once, long ago, nobody cooked for money, but now we have all these restaurants around. Have they ruined cooking? I’d say no. People have shared recipes for ages, and some people sold cookbooks. Now, because of the internet, you can look up millions of recipes for free, though there are likely to be some easily ignorable ads on the page.

    So if restaurants didn’t destroy cooking, I don’t see how monetizing parts of the internet have destroyed it. And there are endless topics which can now be browsed in excruciating detail from your home computer or mobile device. What’s the problem, aside from information overload?

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