Thursday, September 9, 2010

OneWebDay Reflections: The Web Ain't Dead, and So What If It Were

Talk of the death of the web has gotten a fair bit of play since the Wired article on August 17. Notwithstanding its grandiose title, there's actually a fair bit of useful content and food for thought in the article (it's actually two articles—one by Chris Anderson and one by Michael Wolff—explaining the same phenomenon from different perspectives).

Fact of the matter
The Web continues to grow. And so does the internet. The Anderson article says that the web — "largely HTML data delivered via the http protocol on port 80 — accounts for less than a quarter of the traffic on the Internet...and it’s shrinking." However, Internet traffic as a whole is growing exponentially each year (interestingly, United States traffic is only growing roughly linearly — check out Cisco's Visual Network Index forecasting tool).

So, while the Wired articles paints this picture:

It seems a lot more like this:

What is the web? (and what's a browser? and an app? ...)
So, the web isn't dead. But so what? As the Anderson article points out,
The Web is, after all, just one of many applications that exist on the Internet, which uses the IP and TCP protocols to move packets around. This architecture — not the specific applications built on top of it — is the revolution.
Not only is the web but one app built on the Internet, but each website can be thought of as an app unto itself, built on top of the Web. In this sense, the Web is very much like an app market. (There is at least one crucial difference between the Web and the App Store as application marketplaces: no one — or maybe everyone — owns the Web1. No one can tell anyone else what can and cannot be put on the Web1.)

Technologies get superseded all the time. Several social networking sites (apps?) have come and gone. A few years down the line, no one really notices. One day, the Web as we know it and access it through web browsers may fall out of favor relative to some other information creation and distribution technology. But probably not any time soon. Unlike the case of the big social networking sites, the Web is not really in competition with the App Store (or any other marketplace). The Web is an open network, benefiting and growing as much as Apple (well, maybe a little less) from the success of the App Stores millions of Internet-aware applications.

Technology, or values?
The danger posed by threats of the death of the Web is not really that we would lose the Web, but rather that whatever takes its place might not be built on the same foundational values as that which gives the Web and the Internet such promise and potential.

So what are the values behind the Internet/Web? I don't know of any comprehensive or authoritative lists, but here are a few around which there seems to be some consensus:
  • Transport Equality — As far as the Internet is concerned, all nodes and data should be equal. No prioritization based on arbitrary distinctions.
  • Collaboration and Transparency — Development proceeds under shared global ownership and is based on open standards.
  • Accessibility and Openness — Anyone should have access the content on the Web, and anyone should be able to create content on the Web.
These are ideals, of course, and there are numerous examples of when they have been violated. However, without these types of principles, the Internet and the Web would be a far cry from what they are today.

If anything right now has the ability to kill the Web, it is our lack of protection of these values. Forgive the drama, but the Web devoid of its principles is dead. This is why this net neutrality stuff is such a big deal. So far, Chile has passed a neutrality bill. Now we're just waiting for everyone else to catch up.

In the mean time, it's on us to protect, express, and spread Web values. At the 2009 Internet Governance Forum, Ian Peter proposed we write 10 Commandments of the Internet. Of course, what these are still need to be determined. His were:
  1. Independence of applications
  2. New applications can be added anytime that’s a core value
  3. Permissionless innovation
  4. Open standards
  5. Accessible and globally inclusive—anyone can use it
  6. User choice—I can choose what applications I use and where I go to with them
  7. Ease of use—I can use it in my language, I can use it in a device I’m familiar with
  8. Freedom of expression
  9. The ability to change rapidly
  10. Trustworthy and reliable is one we have to work on; it’s got to be a core value.
What are your 'net commandments?


1This is debatable. Given sufficient resources, there are few limits to what you could do, but ultimately you are beholden to whoever owns the servers your data lives on, and the wires that connect you to the Internet backbone.

OneWebDay is a global event aimed at giving all people a chance not only to celebrate the Internet, but also to raise awareness of the importance of maintaining the open-networking principles that have made it the success it is. As OneWebDay 2010 approaches, I'll be posting some of my own and other peoples reflections on One Web.

OneWebDay should be local and global simultaneously. It should highlight the ways that people use the web locally, and acknowledge in a non-trivial way that the web they use is the same web that is used the world over—one web.

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