The Future of the Web

I recently spoke at a small conference we put on in Detroit. I talked about The Future of the Web, in the context of data ownership, and proprietary vs open platforms. It was the first time I’ve done a talk like this without slides of any kind, so I actually wrote out the whole thing (below). The live version was a little different, as you can hear in the audio (sorry it’s a bit echo-y):

On our current path, the web as you know it today will cease to exist. Ironically, the web of tomorrow will look more like the web of yesterday, when AOL and Prodigy were the way to get online. Everything will exist within a precious few walled gardens, controlled by even fewer massive corporations.

This is not how it was supposed to go down. The web evolved basically from the ground up on principles of decentralization, openness and freedom. “Information wants to be free” was the war cry of the early web.

Somewhere along the way however, a few big companies became very good at capturing and controlling significant portions of what happens online, and now we find ourselves on the cusp of a very different future than what many saw as the full potential of the web.

I’d like to talk to you about one possible alternative, based on my experiences thus far on the internet.

I’m 36 years old, and I started using the web heavily in about 1996, so about 21 years ago. That means 60% of my life I’ve been online.

During that time, a lot of my experiences, interactions, and created memories have happened purely digitally. Along the way, I got to wondering how many of those memories I could guarantee ongoing access to. How many of my own digital memories did I even control?

Back when you took a photo and had it developed; remember hardcopy photos? you had that photo effectively forever. You put it in an album, or in a box, or on the wall, and you pulled it out whenever you wanted to show someone else, or to look at it and relive that particular memory.

In the mid to late 2000s, the equivalent was a service called Flickr. Now, I’m no photographer, but I like to capture my own memories. I uploaded over 4,500 photos to Flickr between 2002 and 2014. Flickr went through some tough times in amongst a Yahoo acquisition and re-org, and I realized two things. One; I didn’t want to pay $25 a year for a premium membership any more, and Two; if I stopped paying, I would lose access to my own photos. My own memories.

That was the first light-bulb moment for me. The second came a few years later, when Twitter was exploding in popularity, and was having trouble scaling their systems. They decided they would impose a limit, which meant that you would no longer be able to access more than 3,200 of your own tweets.

I realized that by recording so many of my thoughts on someone else’s service, I had given up a piece of myself to them. If I had put my thoughts on a system I controlled, then I could choose if they were online or not. I could decide who had access to them. Since I had published them on Twitter though, those decisions were no longer mine.

The final lightbulb was Delicious. Delicious is, still, amazingly, an online bookmarking or link saving service. I used it for years to store and annotate hundreds of links so that I could find and reference them later. Then they got bought. And shut down abruptly. And bought again. Their new owners brought the service back, and started significantly changing how it worked.

I wanted my bookmarks and annotations, but they were tied up in this unstable, changing-for-the-worse web service, with a very hazy future.

Between Flickr, Twitter and Delicious, I realized that if I wanted to retain access to my own memories, to the things I was creating online, then I had to act pretty quickly, since I was coming up on my 3,200 tweet limit, I’d soon have to renew that premium Flickr account, and who knows how long until Delicious disappeared for good. I had to get a copy of everything and put it somewhere that I controlled.

I had worked a lot with WordPress at this point, and I knew that tweets, links, and photos were perfect candidates to be published on a WordPress site. It even had specific concepts for them all, called Post Formats. I set out to build the tools that would allow me to reclaim all of my own content from other web services, and archive it to my own WordPress. A service that, thanks to its open-source DNA, I had complete control over, and knew was not driven by any specific, nefarious, commercial interests.

So I got to work, and wrote a plugin called Keyring that gave me the basic ability to connect WordPress to other online services. Then I wrote the specific systems I needed to import my content from around the web, and since then have expanded that to reclaim…

  • 14,000 tweets from Twitter
  • Those 4,500 photos on Flickr
  • 6,000 check-ins on Foursquare/Swarm
  • 1,700 bookmarks from Delicious
  • The full text of 1,300 articles read via Instapaper
  • 700 Instagram pictures
  • The details of 200 trips from a service called TripIt

all of that going back to around 2002

Today I have 29,000 entries in my personal archive, compiled from all those sources, plus around 300 of my own full length blog posts.

Now this is perhaps an interesting personal story, but you’re probably wondering how it’s relevant to businesses, or for that matter, anyone who’s doing more with their life than posting photos and tweets on the internet.

It’s relevant because today, we see advertising campaigns that end with a address. It’s relevant because small businesses are relying on their Yelp ratings to attract customers. It’s relevant because without Google Local listings appearing in a mobile search, you don’t exist to your own neighbors.

I believe that some of the same concepts of data ownership and control we’ve talked about, are critical to the healthy future of the web, and the world it interconnects, whether we fully appreciate it yet or not.

The problem with the way we’re headed today is that while Facebook, Google, and Yelp are all global, multi-billion dollar companies that are probably not going anywhere soon, they’re providing their services 100% on their terms. Not yours. You are welcome in their playground only so long as you agree to, and abide by, their terms of service. You often don’t even own or retain full rights to your own data when playing in their playground. You’re renting a storefront in their marketplace. You neither own, nor control, your own online existence.

So if we use some of the technologies and approaches I mentioned earlier, what does that look like for a business today? How can we shift some of that control back to you? Give you the freedom to make your own choices?

Well, you probably already have a Facebook Page set up for your business, so maybe you can connect that to a fresh WordPress. It pulls down your visual branding, opening hours, and contact details. It uses that as the seed data to automatically set up a simple website.

Now you’ve got your website, powered by WordPress, which you fully control. You bought your own domain, so the site is at a web address that you actually own. No one can decide you’ve violated some terms of service and kick you off. No one can take your address away from you. You can customize the design of your site, use a different theme, add functionality with plugins, the sky’s the limit. No one gets to dictate what you can or cannot do; it’s like instead of renting, you bought the whole building where you’re going to set up your store, and you don’t need a construction permit to fit it out how you’d like.

But the magic part is that when you imported your data, you created a 2-way connection between your WordPress and Facebook. Now you update your opening hours in WordPress, and your Facebook Page is also immediately up to date.

You add new connections to Google and Yelp, so we automatically create listings on those services, and keep them up to date with your site as well. We download copies of your reviews automatically, send you push notifications via the WordPress app when there are things that need your attention, and allow you to interact with the community you’re building via your Instagram account, right there in WordPress. Your content is pulled into your own site where you can exercise complete creative control over it, and use it in ways that Instagram would never dream of, nor necessarily allow.

WordPress becomes the hub of all your online activity. A central place that you control, where you both aggregate and interact with your digital presence. You choose whether it’s presented as a slimmed down, utilitarian tool, mainly for providing information to other services, or a complete and beautiful destination, where potential customers can find whatever they need to know about your business, transact with you directly, or interact with the community you’re building.

Today, you choose the direction you’ll go in. You can choose to rent space on one platform or another, or you can choose to actually own your own piece of the web. You can choose to participate in these business-critical, closed platforms, but to also build your own separate online presence, which you control and define. You choose whether to tie your future to a walled garden which dictates the rules of engagement to you, or to invest in an open platform, which allows you to grow and change but still be a part of the fabric of the web. You have the freedom to choose.

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