The Open Web is a Tool, Not a Silver Bullet

There have been quite a few good pieces written about the growing discontent toward Twitter, FaceBook, and other centralized social networks of late. The best of these, in my opinion, is this one by Brent Simmons. I agree with a lot of the points being made; they are a lot of why I’m spend less time on Twitter these days and more time on Micro.blog. But I think a few things are getting lost in the shuffle—or at least, not adequately being discussed or considered.

Many people are talking about how the open web is the solution to the toxicity of social networks. If we own our own content on our own websites and take the power away from the centralized networks like Twitter and FaceBook, the argument goes, things will right themselves. On an Infinite Time Scale™, (apologies to John Siracusa), that may be true, but not in the foreseeable future, and certainly not if we convince ourselves that the open web is a silver bullet. It isn’t.

  • The web still requires a bar of technical expertise that is too high for many non-tech-savvy people. Centralized networks lower this bar. Something like Micro.blog has taken a middle-ground approach; M.B’s social features are largely centralized (e.g. your M.B timeline/mentions/etc), but you maintain control of your content, hosted yourself and disseminated by M.B, or hosted directly by M.B.
  • The web has always been terrible at fluid/real-time conversation. This is an enormous technical challenge on the open web—perhaps not insurmountable, but nowhere near being solved.
  • Has everyone forgotten just how toxic the comment sections of blogs have always been? Sure, those comments have a much more limited reach, but the abuse is as bad or worse than something like Twitter. The open web will not solve harassment or abuse—it never has. Those things existed online long before FAceBook or Twitter and will go on after they are footnotes in history books. IRC is/was a non-centralized chat system that was the 90s equivalent to Twitter in many ways. Abuse there happened every bit as often as it does on social networks today. I remember; I was there.

Ultimately, I think it is unrealistic to think that an open web solves the worst abuses we see on the big social networks. If Twitter and/or FaceBook vanished tomorrow, it would, at least in the foreseeable future, have an unintended consequence of amplifying the voices of the more tech savvy over those who are less so. If we, as a society, fail to recognize that abuse, harassment, and spread of toxic/hateful/false information have, do, and will continue to exist on the open web just as they do on social networks, we are setting ourselves up for a rude awakening. If we do acknowledge this, we can protect against it and build a better and more rewardingly social Internet.

I think that many of those taking a stand and abandoning FaceBook, Twitter, et al, actually do understand this, but are focusing too much on the networks themselves. It is not just important but crucial that we put the risk of finding ourselves in the same quagmire on the open web at the forefront of the discussion.

The open web is the tool with which we can begin to solve these problems; it is not, itself, the solution. We need to remember that.

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