Twenty-five years ago today, Tim Berners-Lee unleashed the World Wide Web, publishing the first public webpage. Well, maybe. The exact date is controversial. But now is as good a time as any to check in on the state of the web, which did more than any other technology to take the Internet mainstream. From its humble, and uncertain beginnings it became a platform for just about everything we do online, from email and instant messaging to voice chat and video.
The question is whether it ever fulfilled its promise.
In recent years, the web has lost some of its mojo. It hasn’t quite lived up the lofty ideals laid down by Berners-Lee and so many of his disciples. Facebook makes 84 percent of its money from its mobile app—not the web. Tinder, Snapchat, and many other newer apps aren’t even available on the web.
We won’t go so far as to say the web is dead (though we have before). As Facebook has grown, people are reportedly sharing fewer personal updates to the site and sharing more links to things they’ve found on the web. Investors continue to pour money into web publishers like Buzzfeed and Vox. And Google, despite all its moonshots, still makes most of its money from search advertising. But something has changed. The web was promised to provide everyone with a voice, with the chance to speak their mind without being filtered through a corporate intermediary. And yet, 25 years after its birth, a few large corporations control what we see on the web.
Like Cable TV
Cable television was once seen as a radical, democratizing technology. Instead of television being dominated by a handful of major broadcasting networks, there could be an unlimited number of different networks. Perhaps one day everyone would even have their own channel.
In article published by The Nation in 1970, journalist Ralph Lee Smith described the potential of cable networks to offer interactive services not unlike today’s Internet. Smith even called cable an “electronic highway,” years before the Internet was dubbed the “information superhighway.”
But that vision never materialized. It never became an interactive medium, and it failed to democratize broadcasting. Yes, there were more channels. And public access stations gave the public access to a new platform. But by the late 1990s, as detailed by Robert McChesney in his book Rich Media, Poor Democracy, the majority of major media outlets–including cable networks—were owned by just a handful of companies.
The web promised something new: a way for anyone to publish anything they wanted, cheaply and without permission. And it has succeeded in that—for the most part. Web hosting just keeps getting cheaper, and the tools for publishing keep getting easier to use. New publishers have emerged to challenge the established media. And it’s been remarkably hard to stop. As much as governments everywhere might like to shut down Wikileaks, the organization keeps on publishing. But at the same time, the market forces that led to media consolidation in the television era are just as prevalent today. AOL bought-up the Huffington Post, and it was in turn swallowed up by Verizon, which also just bought Yahoo. But more importantly, Facebook and Google have become the gatekeepers of the web.
Sure, you can upload your own videos to YouTube, which is owned by Google. But will they show up in anyone’s search results? You can publish your manifesto, but will anyone see the links to it you post on Facebook? It’s as though everyone now has a printing press, but there are only two stores in town that sell newspapers. If you want to find an audience, you have to go through them. Wikileaks may be able to punch through the noise of the web, but it’s the exception, not the rule.
It doesn’t have to be this way. When the web was born, it seemed like the online world would be dominated by services like America Online, Compuserve and Prodigy. Just as Facebook, Snapchat and Google do today, these companies acted as walled gardens designed to provide their users with all the information they really needed while filtering out the chaos of the open web. Yet, 25 years later these services are all but forgotten, and the web is still the place we turn to when we want to check the weather, read the news or answer some nagging question.
Earlier this summer, several of the Internet’s pioneers met to discuss ways to keep the web open. There Berners-Lee, reflected on why these earlier gatekeepers died out. “The walled garden is very sweet,” he mused. “But the jungle outside is always more appealing.”
Yes, a few companies dominate the web today. But the web could well outlast those companies and eventually deliver on its promise to democratize the media. That is, after all, more appealing than the alternative.
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