October 8, 2020

Rewilding the Web

The coming defeat of the platform monoculture.

Rewilding the Web

The web is a much duller place now than it was 20 years ago. A large part of the reason is that the early web was much more fragmented, creating many ecological niches which became inhabited by the various strange and delightful species that tend to flourish in such environments.

For a moment there was the idea that the web was mainly for publishing whatever you wanted, to your own website, and people could come look at it and interact with it wherever or whoever they were. And people chose to create some amazing things.

The average person could create a web site for free, no questions asked. People took the opportunity and ran with it, building millions of pages –- 38 million at last count, according to Yahoo. They helped make the web a more vibrant territory, no longer the citadel of nerds in the know.

Nobody had yet found a way to index and catalogue everything, and so curation according to individual ideals and tastes was the norm. Webrings, blogrolls, portals, and other mechanisms let people actually find the things on the web that, to them as individuals, were worth finding.

But as more people got online and as using the web became more mainstream and less unusual, and eventually more about interaction than one-way publishing, the fragmentation gave way to a great wave of homogenization. The web is a massive distribution system with virtually zero marginal cost, and connecting everyone to everyone else in order to exploit the incredible power of network effects, is good business strategy.

People want to be where everyone else is.

Under that kind of selection pressure, power law outcomes are inevitable, and that gave rise to what we have now; almost everyone is on only a very few platforms. In order to keep users, the platforms have to try to please the greatest number of people, leading to boring and minimally controversial design decisions which nevertheless draw ire because they please no one in particular.

If everything has to be for everyone because everyone is connected to everyone else, nothing can really be for someone in particular. It has to turn into grey goo. Total networking means total boredom. And one by one the forums, blogs, and the ecosystem that sustained them and drove early web culture went dark, or were otherwise sidelined.

The homogenizing effect of total networking was predicted in 1975, in Dream Machines / Computer Lib 

Network effects have enormous lock-in. Once people are where everyone else is, they don't really want to leave. So is that it? Are we at the end of history for big tech? Are we doomed to endless debate about, of all things, content moderation policies? Is the only possible change to come from regulators breaking up the platform "monopolies" ?

I don't think so.

Dissatisfaction with the platforms is rising in many corners, whether as part of a broader reaction to media institutions which now use the platforms as a distribution channel, or else just out of exasperation with the sorts of interactions that have become characteristic. The people no longer want uniform ideas from the usual suspects.

The platforms are aware of this dissatisfaction and have tried to adapt. The algorithmic feed was born out of the necessity of de-homogenizing what people saw, in an attemp to surface only things both relevant and interesting to each individual. But because on any given platform everyone gets the same algorithm, we now have the second order phenomenon where everyone sees whatever material is best at gaming the current iteration of the algorithm, and "youtuber voice".  

Alongside the dissatisfaction in the mainstream, there are those for whom the dominant medium of the platforms isn't the right kind of frontier. These people are driven as creators by thymos, a spirited sense of adventure and personal risk, who want to create something great and gain recognition and fame.

The chance and challenge to express your will, to enact it on the world. The freedom and drive to forge a self that matters — to others, but also intrinsically. A self that self-justifies.

These are people who want to fight and win in the noosphere, to convince you of their ideas and aesthetics. From these people the weird, unusual, provocative, and novel flows. Around them schools of thought and marketplaces of ideas form. They're already anchors or up-and-comers on the platforms themselves.

These are twin forces pulling in the same direction; to bring into existence new modes of creation and distribution that operate at human scale, not at the scale of power laws. Just as we are witnessing the revolt of the public tear through legacy institutions, we are about to witness a grass-roots revolt against the platforms, for and by the people for whom homogenization isn't satisfying.

And they have the tools to do so.

The tools and infrastructure that made the web interesting in the first place never actually went away.  And since then, many new tools to do this have joined them.  

For now the ecosystem being created by these tools just looks a lot like blogging but with paywalls, tailored to those who want to disintermediate the platforms by owning their own brand, and who want to bypass legacy media institutions by being paid directly by their fans. The communication is still largely one-way. But this misses the larger potential.

What these new tools offer is actually friction.

Whether monetary or reputational (as in the form of invite systems), these small tokens of commitment create just enough friction to get the kind of fragmentation that lets niches flourish instead of getting smoothed out at platform scale. It makes the edges of the network bumpy to traverse. And that gives ecological niches the room they need to grow or evolve without being globally sterilized.

Through these mechanisms the contributors / subscribers / fans, now connected directly to each creator, represent a directly addressable community bound by taste on the one hand and commitment on the other. Indeed we have seen similar communities and their diaspora emerge with real-world identities from their on-line roots. The first signs of this are already in play, as more discussion moves to the private spaces of group chats, secret groups, and invite-only discussion communities.

With the right tools some of these communities will inevitably grow large, others will stay small deliberately. Some will often create and discuss openly in public, others only rarely. Each one free to set its own norms and identity, and to decide what success looks like. Some may federate and cross-pollinate, while others will represent deep and vertical identity. But they'll be interesting, they will create a sense of belonging and identity, and they'll be weird.

The platforms still have a role to play. Rather than being hosts and propagators of creativity directly, their function will shift to one of surfacing and discovery. On a vibrant, fragmented, culturally active web, there will be no shortage of things to try, communities to observe or join, people to be excited by. The communities are our families, private clubs, monasteries and brotherhoods, while the platforms will be the town square we congregate in.  

This is a symbiotic relationship; the communities are what people will come to the platforms for, the platforms will have the wide distribution through which even the most esoteric community can find new members - necessary for keeping them alive and thriving.

I don't believe it's possible to return to the early web, and it would be foolish to deny the human drives and desires that created the explosive growth and enormous scale of the platforms in the first place. But something new is on the horizon.

A new kind of symbiosis, between the vast scale of the platforms and the human interaction of the communities is now being built. The weird will inherit the web.  

Title image courtesy of The Natural History Museum