The Web We Have to SaveThe rich, diverse, free web that I loved — and spent years in an Iranian jail for — is dying.Why is nobody stopping it?
This long essay by +Hossein Derakhshan
has not received the notice or attention I believe it deserves. The only person in my G+ Circles who shared this was +Denis Wallez
. Why? Derakhshan deserves our full and focused attention if only because of the steep price he paid for reaching out to us. He writes from the authority of experience.
Derakhshan's imprisonment afforded him a Rip van Winkle lens through which to view the direction that the internet is heading. His critique of social media, including Google and G+, ought make us feel uncomfortable with its direction as well as with our own carefree joyride as passengers and sometime drivers. Many criticisms Derakhshan makes echo what I've heard from many of you from time to time, but we lack what the ancient Greeks termed pathe mathos
or "the authority of suffering."
Here's a few trends Derakhshan noted:
• People used to carefully read my posts and leave lots of relevant comments, and even many of those who strongly disagreed with me.
• The hyperlink provided a diversity and decentralisation that the real world lacked
• The hyperlink was a way to abandon centralization — all the links, lines and hierarchies — and replace them with something more distributed, a system of nodes and networks.
• Nearly every social network now treats a link as just the same as it treats any other object — the same as a photo, or a piece of text — instead of seeing at as a way to make that text richer.
• Social networks tend to treat native text and pictures — things that are directly posted to them — with a lot more respect than those that reside on outside web pages.
• But hyperlinks aren’t just the skeleton of the web: They are its eyes, a path to its soul.
• When a powerful website — say Google or Facebook — gazes at, or links to, another webpage, it doesn’t just connect it — it brings it into existence; gives it life. Metaphorically, without this empowering gaze, your web page doesn’t breathe.
• But apps like Instagram are blind — or almost blind. Their gaze goes nowhere except inwards, reluctant to transfer any of their vast powers to others, leading them into quiet deaths. The consequence is that web pages outside social media are dying.
• The Stream now dominates the way people receive information on the web.
• The Stream means you don’t need to open so many websites any more.
• It feels great not to waste time in finding interesting things on so many websites. But are we missing something here? What are we exchanging for efficiency?
• Not only do the algorithms behind the Stream equate newness and popularity with importance, they also tend to show us more of what we’ve already liked. These services carefully scan our behaviour and delicately tailor our news feeds with posts, pictures and videos that they think we would most likely want to see.
• The diversity of themes and opinions is less online today than it was in the past. New, different, and challenging ideas get suppressed by today’s social networks because their ranking strategies prioritize the popular and habitual.
• The centralization of information also worries me because it makes it easier for things to disappear.
• But the scariest outcome of the centralization of information in the age of social networks is something else: It is making us all much less powerful in relation to governments and corporations.
• Maybe it’s that text itself is disappearing. Are we witnessing a decline of reading on the web in favor of watching and listening?
• But the Stream, mobile applications, and moving images: They all show a departure from a books-internet toward a television-internet. We seem to have gone from a non-linear mode of communication — nodes and networks and links — toward a linear one, with centralization and hierarchies.
• The web was not envisioned as a form of television when it was invented. But, like it or not, it is rapidly resembling TV: linear, passive, programmed and inward-looking.
• This is not the web I knew when I went to jail. This is not the future of the web. This future is television.
• I miss when people took time to be exposed to different opinions, and bothered to read more than a paragraph or 140 characters. I miss the days when I could write something on my own blog, publish on my own domain, without taking an equal time to promote it on numerous social networks; when nobody cared about likes and reshares. That’s the web I remember before jail. That’s the web we have to save.