Some thoughts on the Internet

It’s been more than three years since I last published anything about technology (it was a post where I expressed my distaste for Instagram on Android, a notion that persists to this very day). And even before that latest post, updates were sparse. Why? Well, the reasons are manifold, but I’ll try to outline a few of them for you here.

When I started writing about the social web, some 12, 13 years ago, every day was filled with wonder. On a daily basis someone, somewhere would come up with a new service I didn’t know I needed, but which turned out to be indispensable (at least for a while). The museum of modern betas used to be a daily visit.  Things were interesting! They got kinda boring after a few years, probably once Facebook started to become the behemoth it is today. Services were bought out left and right, many died off, quite a few were acquihired and then some were sunset. What happened was a streamlining of sorts. Social networks faltered as Facebook grew bigger, and interesting companion services were gobbled up and integrated into the product (or simply ignored and hung out to dry). Yahoo! and Google did their part, trying to emulate Facebook’s success by buying into existing communities, only to let them whiter and (almost) die. Delicious, the initial social bookmarking service, was sold to Yahoo! in 2005 and has since then changed hands twice already. Yahoo! had not a single clue what to do with it and let it deteriorate until it was made obsolete by Twitter and Facebook a few years later. Looking at the website today is almost painful, considering what a thriving community it once fostered. The story isn’t an exception, but rather an example of what happened to user-driven services without a clear monetization-angle.

What also happened was mobile. Back in 2003, mobile wasn’t really a thing. The release of the iPhone in 2007 saw a rapid change in that area, with app reviews cropping up on Techcrunch, Lifehacker, Read-Write Web and all the other usual suspects. The advent of Android in Google’s hands opened up the market considerably, and after a while writing about tech meant writing less about revolutionary new web services, but about services that were confined to a small screen and therefore very specific in their application (it’s no coincidence they weren’t ever called programs).

Unforeseen, but inevitable, was the next phase of the mobile revolution: the walling off of the operating system, ultimately handing control of our devices back to the companies that produced them (or their OS). Sure, people can jailbreak their iPhones or simply install apps from third parties on their Android phones, but the move to a bottleneck that approves programs according to their own guidelines, often enough driven by financial interests, has long been made and will only ever stop once everything we do on our devices can be controlled remotely by whoever produces them.

It sounds like a conspiracy, but it’s nothing new. In the early days of computers, it was the kind of system that made huge profits for companies like IBM. You wouldn’t actually own the software on your hardware, you’d licence it. If you needed a software upgrade, you had someone from IBM come over and install it for you. The creation of the personal computer was a great step forward, and arguably helped build the groundwork for  the creation of something like the world wide web and most of the fun services we are able to use today.

App stores like Apple’s, Google’s or Microsoft are the reemergence of this idea of having total control over what their customers install on their devices. And yes, they’re convenient. No need to update your software manually, they do it for you. And hey, no need to be afraid of malicious code, they check those apps before you use them. The downside is that every developer who doesn’t adhere to the often arbitrary rules of those app stores need to find other ways of distributing their software, ultimately unable to compete with those who decide to go the way of the bottleneck. For the consumer it means that whoever created their device has not only full knowledge of, but total control over what runs on these devices.

And you know what, that’s not even it. Microsoft released Windows 10 recently. It’s definitely one of their best iterations and the best thing: it’s free for all the users of Windows 7 and 8. Of course, now online services and more or less constant connections to Microsoft’s servers are so ingrained into the operating system that it actually needs a workaround to be able to create an account on your own computer without creating an online-account with Microsoft itself. All in the name of interchangeability of devices, cloud storage and other services like Microsoft Office 360, an office suite that you can now rent instead of buy (there’s that again). Money is now made with add-on services and subscriptions, which, conveniently, are served through their own store (over which they have full control).

I read Jonathan Zittrain’s book “The End of the Internet – and how to stop it” a while ago, and what he wrote about the dangers of having the Internet locked down by corporations and governments is actually more real than ever. And apart from a few valiant organisations like the EFF, not a whole lot is being done against it:

Our technologists are complacent because the ongoing success of the generative Net has taken place without central tending—the payoffs of the procrastination principle. Rank-and-file Internet users enjoy its benefits while seeing its operation as a mystery, something they could not possibly hope to affect. They boot their PCs each day and expect them more or less to work, and they access Wikipedia and expect it more or less to be accurate.

(You can read the whole book here).

A few years ago, in order to at least partly work against that development on the web, I created a website called “The Self-hosted Web”, where I try to showcase consumer-oriented software that is self-installed and self-hosted and will allow people to share photos, write blog posts or connect with friends without having to resort to hosted services. Needless to say, it’s an uphill battle, not least because it’s cumbersome to most and security issues are real and pressing. Still, I think it’s a good way to show people that what powers all these services they use daily is actually something that’s available to all of us to build upon.

An attempt at a summary

This has become long and winding and probably disjointed, so here’s a TL;DR for your ADD riddled minds:

When I started blogging, the social web was in its infancy. Blogs were the outlets that allowed us to connect with friends and strangers, then came services and webapps that made it even easier. It was a great ride, adventurous and fun, until the success of the social web became its own deadliest foe. Services like Twitter and Facebook have long IPOed, their interests driven by stockholders. In the meantime the outlets we built ourselves have declined. Those blogs that are left, and arguably, there still are millions of them, are either marginalized or driven by a desire to be as profitable as possible. Which isn’t inherently bad. Who doesn’t like living off of what they like doing most? Still, with the constant demand to be able to monetize any- and everything, we are both eroding the fundamentals of the social-web and by letting them lock down our devices we are giving control back to corporations and ultimately governments.

What’s the solution, then? Hard to say in a general sense, but we can start by supporting organizations and companies that are interested in keeping the web an open and inclusive, instead of a closed and exclusive place. The EFF has been doing this for ages, the Freedom Box foundation is working on secure and safe communication, and despite having a commercial, hosted arm, WordPress is still the best open-source software for publishing your thoughts on the web.

On a personal level? I don’t quite know. I’m as complicit in this as the next person, with my accounts on hundreds of services, Windows 10 running on my computer, the Office 360 subscription I got for convenience and the fact that I’ll be posting a link to this rant on at least two social networks owned by large corporations. But at least I’ve written down my qualms with what’s happening and if you share my sentiments, we can connect on Diaspora and share cat pictures. Or something.