Sensational headlines have a way of grabbing your attention, don’t they? Your initial reaction is to eye such headlines with suspicion, which is followed by a nice dose of skepticism but your curiosity is piqued nonetheless. Most of the times the articles that follow these headlines go on to state something obvious or evoke ire from the reader for their flawed assumptions or factual misinterpretations. Whichever the case, they make for some very interesting reading, right?
In what seems like just yesterday Wired Magazine came up with its own attention grabbing headline - “The Web is dead.” Of course when I say yesterday it's all relative here at Digit. Yesterday can lie anywhere between the actual yesterday to about two years ago. In this case it’s more like late 2010! (We call this phenomenon the Digit Time compression effect, more on that later)
Anyway, on what basis did Wired ring the web’s deathknell? Wired's premise was simple – the browser is no longer the center of your digital consumption universe. Their contention is that most people access their daily dose of bits and bytes via customised experience centers called apps. So people are still using the internet (i.e., the infrastructure of interconnected networks) but not the web (defined strictly as the packets of html data that go over the http protocol usually on port 80). To support their claim Wired had a nicely drawn graph depicting the proportions of various types of data usage over the internet. Email, P2P, FTP, and Web traffic was shown dwindling down while video was on the rise.
The trouble here was that this was data traffic – the sum total of giga- and terabytes of transfers that have happened – what about time spent? Consider this: if you spent the entire day reading only articles on thinkdigit.com you would probably end up using as much data as watching a lolcat video on YouTube. So, to sum it up while Wired made a very apt observation of a growing trend, but their headline is… err… was a little much.
Ok, now what about the headline to this opinion piece? Before establishing blame we need to first figure out whether the web is indeed dead. Strictly speaking it’s not. But my point is that the web as you know it is dead. To understand why, let's delve into how the old web functioned.
Back in the day (which was not too far back) individuals such as yourself or entities like companies that needed to establish a presence online did so by owning a domain. If you have the knowhow (and it’s not rocket science) you could host your own web server or you could have a web hosting service host your website for you. On this piece of digital real estate that you actually own, you could pretty much do what you wanted, barring a few laws and conventions. You can have a design that you like, deploy a software that suits you. If you didn’t like the host you could always pack up your data move.
How did your site get traffic? The same rules of the old web - search engines, linkbacks, real world advertising, and word of mouth. This model however began to change slowly over the past couple of years with the advent of social networking. With social networking came this culture of sharing. Social networks started to have an unbelievable influence on the web in terms of content discovery. Timelines began to dictate browsing choices. Facebook, Google , Twitter all have now become continents on the web. Many upcoming businesses have begun to entirely skip the stage of setting up their own website. Instead they’re setting up a “page” on Facebook in order to eke out a presence on the web. Bands go to Soundcloud, most influencers hive together on Twitter, important discussions around technology and startups happen on Quora and so on...
Everything is a platform or ecosystem these days. You are given access to them for free, you can roam about within the confines of their universe but users who establish their presence on them are mere guests (I wouldn’t even call them tenants, let alone owners). You can pack up and leave but that would just mean banishing yourself to isolation. How did these big web monstrosities come about owning so much of your existence?
With social networks after much experimentation - multiple Orkuts, Hi5s, and MySpaces later - users have settled on a few services. And I remember reading somewhere that about 35 percent of all page views on the web are controlled by the top 10 domains of the world - many of which are social networks. So what is so wrong with gravitating towards platforms to establish your web presence?
Lots of things....
It’s no secret that Facebook’s crazy valuation at the recent IPO was based on the fact that they have close to 900 million users. The content that these users create and the data that Facebook collects about users, makes up the assets side of Facebook’s balance sheet. In fact some time ago the Wall Street Journal revealed a rather disturbing finding. Those little Facebook “like” buttons can track your activities across web pages even when you’ve not clicked them. As long as there is a Facebook “like” button on a web page you’re logged in (who doesn’t have a tab open with Facebook these days) it can record your activity to your account. No wonder those ads next to your timeline seem uncannily relevant right? Tracking is something Google engages in too - it’s the basis of their mainstay.
You can check out anytime you like, but you can never leave
Apart from harvesting your data, the promise of complete freedom on the web is under threat from another peculiar behavioral pattern that is emerging thanks to you these days. For some people Google is synonymous with the web. “I saw it on Google”, they’ll say. What they actually mean is that “Google led me to it”. But honestly with cached screenshots and easily readable previews (not any more) there was a foreseeable scenario where you wouldn’t have to leave Google at all.
Now let’s look at the other web juggernaut, Facebook. On one of your many daily timeline sojourns, say you see an interesting link shared by a friend. It’s an article on Yahoo news, you click it and instead of leading you to the article it throws up a notification for some news reader app. Now those of us who are averse to this sort of enforced installing of software follow this method: Highlight article title, ctrl c, open new tab (ctrl t), and search on Google. The workaround notwithstanding, the idea here is to not let the user leave the Facebook environment.
Twitter and its numerous clients also pull in and embed rich content from publishers. Soon enough you won't even have to click on those links within tweets to venture outside twitter.
Hyperlinks can be thought of as the neural network of the web. Breaking them with closed apps will surely lead to some effects on the web (if you think of it as an organism). You as a user are guilty of being happy being content in these walled gardens. You have helped changed the ethos of an essentially open system. Today the web is heading towards “ecosystemization” which can only be a rigid and controlled place to be in.