This is part of the web truths series of posts. A series where we look at true sounding statements that we keep using to have endless discussions instead of moving on. Today I want to talk about the notion of the web as an open publication platform and HTML as the way to publish.
Publishing on the web using web standards is easy and amazing
Those of us who were lucky enough to be around when the web started growing cherish this concept. It was exciting to be able to open a text editor – any text editor – write some tags and see our text come to life in a browser. Adding a H1 here gave us a headline, adding a P described paragraphs and gave free margins. Adding an A allowed us to point to other resources or a target in the same page. Adding an HR gave us a horizontal ruler. The latter later on turned out to be a pain in the backside to style and was generally a bad idea. We learned by doing and we learned by trying things out.
We also smirked at the people who looked down on us as not being “real developers”. These people considered us crazy for relying on a browser we don’t control to render our output. Could be that we were, but at least we didn’t have to use a convoluted IDE and follow a slow build process to get a result. Our work was immediate and satisfaction was only a ctrl+s, shift-tab and ctrl-r (or F5) away.
We also loved the fact that all we need is some hosting space and an FTP client to publish our work to the world.
If we disliked what our server companies did, we moved to the next one. After all, your domain is the thing you send to people, not your IP address. To get people to read what we wrote we published on mailing lists, in forums and on IRC. We linked to each other in webrings and banner exchanges. When Google came around we were the old guard that Google loved. Easy to index, with sensible TITLE and proper text content. Not like Flash pages that tried to trick Google with META keyword spamming or hidden text.
All the good things about HTML and publishing on your own server are still valid. It is a beautiful, free and open way to publish with nobody to answer to. You are your own marketing department and your server is your playground. If you are vigilant and you make sure that you have a lot of time to delete spam and defend yourself against attacks.
But here is the problem with telling this story over and over again. It doesn’t quite work any longer. And it is not as fascinating for people these days as it was for us. I remember the exhiliration of hearing a successful modem handshake and my HTML rendering in Netscape 3. I remember explaining to people that “when it sounds everything is broken, then you are online”. People these days don’t expect to be offline. Often they only experience being offline when they are on the go and the mobile connection dies. Those lucky enough to have a home with a fat wireless connection never put effort in to reach the content. They consume, much like we did when we watched TV.
The same happens to publication. It isn’t about writing the perfect article or blog post. It is about creating something fast that gets a lot of eyeballs. And if you want eyeballs, you keep publishing. Faster and faster, more and more. And as it is hard to create your own, you re-hash what other people have done instead and ride any success train of the day. There is no place for HTML or proper standards publication in this world.
I’m not saying at all that this is a good thing. But it is where we are. The web hasn’t won over Facebook, WhatsApp and other closed environments because it needs more effort to use. You still need to show interest and skill to build a web site. Writing three words and picking a GIF from a collection is easier.
The web we love and explain as the amazing publishing platform will survive. It will be a playground of enthusiasts and specialists. And old people. The disruptive platform of the past hasn’t become the mainstream. Everyone has the potential to be a creator and maker. But the marketing machine of the world wants us to be consumers instead. And the best way to keep people consuming is to lock them into a place that is ridiculously easy to publish in. More importantly you need to give them the feeling of being part of a community of cool people. And the explosive growth of the web and tweaking of search algorithms to show the “new” instead of the “correct” isn’t a group of cool people. It is hard work. There are no likes, kudos, claps or whatever on the web. Adding an immediate feedback channel for people is 90% removing horrible content and spam. The web isn’t a small group of cool people, but mainstream media makes pretty sure to tell us it is full of dangers and wrong information. Better stay where it is safe. In a controlled environment that has very enticing immediate feedback.
If you think this is dark, check out André Staltz’ The Web began dying in 2014, here’s how where he paints a pretty bleak future for the mainstream web. And darn him, there is some pretty good evidence in there that finding web content in the future not published inside Google, Amazon or Facebook products will be close to impossible.
So, yes, publishing on the web is amazing. Nobody denies that. But we’re dealing with a new generation of people who grew up with the web and don’t care about it. It is there, like water is when you open the tap. You don’t think about how it gets there or what is involved until it stops coming out. And that might be the same for the web.
Instead of painting a romantic view of how the open web keeps prevailing, it may be time to tell people more about what their use of closed platforms does. How much they give away for the convenience of publishing something and harvesting some fake internet points. We’re past the format of the publication. We need to get people excited again about owning their data. For our sake and theirs.