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[berkman] Anil Dash on “The Web We Lost”

Anil Dash is giving a Berkman lunchtime talk, titled “The Web We Lost.” He begins by pointing out that the title of his talk implies a commonality that at least once was.

NOTE: Live-blogging. Getting things wrong. Missing points. Omitting key information. Introducing artificial choppiness. Over-emphasizing small matters. Paraphrasing badly. Not running a spellpchecker. Mangling other people’s ideas and words. You are warned, people.

[Light editing on April 3 2013.]

Anil puts up an icon that is a symbol of privately-owned public spaces in New York City. Businesses create these spaces in order to be allowed to build buildings taller than the zoning requirements allow. These are sorta kinda like parks but are not. E.g., Occupy isn’t in Zuccotti Park any more because the space is a privately-own public space, not a park. “We need to understand the distinction” between the spaces we think are public and the ones that are privately owned.

We find out about these when we transgress rules. We expect to be able to transgress in public spaces, but in these privately-owned spaces we cannot. E.g., Improv Everywhere needs to operate anonymously to perform in these spaces. Anil asks us to imagine “a secretive, private ivy league club.” He is the son of immigrants and didn’t go to college. “A space even as welcoming as this one [Harvard Berkman] can seem intimidating.” E.g., Facebook was built as a private club. It welcomes everyone now, but it still doesn’t feel like it’s ours. It’s very hard for a business to get much past its origins.

One result of online privately-owned public spaces is “the wholesale destruction of your wedding photos.” When people lose them in a fire, they are distraught because those photos cannot be replaced. Yet everyday we hear about a startup that “succeeds” by selling out, and then destroying the content that they’d gathered. We’ve all gotten the emails that say: “Good news! 1. We’re getting rich. 2. You’re not. 3. We’re deleting your wedding photos.” They can do this because of the terms of service that none of us read but that give them carte blanche. We tend to look at this as simply the cost of doing business with the site.

But don’t see it that way, Anil urges. “This is actually a battle” against the values of the early Web. In the mid to late 1990s, the social Web arose. There was a time when it was meaningful thing to say that you’re a blogger. It was distinctive. Now being introduced as a blogger “is a little bit like being introduced as an emailer.” “No one’s a Facebooker.” The idea that there was a culture with shared values has been dismantled.

He challenges himself to substantiate this:

“We have a lot of software that forbids journalism.” He refers to the IoS [iphone operating system] Terms of Service for app developers that includes text that says, literally: “If you want to criticize a religion, write a book.” You can distribute that book through the Apple bookstore, but Apple doesn’t want you writing apps that criticize religion. Apple enforces an anti-journalism rule, banning an app that shows where drone strikes have been.

Less visibly, the laws is being bent “to make our controlling our data illegal.” All the social networks operate as common carriers — neutral substrates — except when it comes to monetizing. The boundaries are unclear: I can sing “Happy Birthday” to a child at home, and I can do it over FaceTime, but I can’t put it up at YouTube [because of copyright]. It’s very open-ended and difficult to figure. “Now we have the industry that creates the social network implicitly interested in getting involved in how IP laws evolve.” When the Google home page encourages visitors to call their senators against SOPA/PIPA, we have what those of us against Citizens United oppose: we’re asking a big company to encourage people to act politically in a particular way. At the same time, we’re letting these companies capture our words and works and put them under IP law.

A decade ago, metadata was all the rage among the geeks. You could tag, geo-tag, or machine-tag Flickr photos. Flickr is from the old community. That’s why you can still do Creative Commons searches at Flickr. But you can’t on Instagram. They don’t care about metadata. From an end-user point of view, RSS is out of favor. The new companies are not investing in creating metadata to make their work discoverable and shareable.

At the old, hovering on a link would reveal a punchline. Now, with the introduction of Adlinks and AdSense, Google transformed links from the informative and aesthetic, to an economic tool for search engine optimization (SEO). Within less than 6 months, linkspam was spawned. Today Facebook’s EdgeRank is based on the idea that “Likes” are an expression of your intent, which determines how FB charges for ads. We’ll see like-spammers and all the rest we saw with links. “These gestural things that were editorial or indicators of intent get corrupted right away.” There are still little islands, but for the most part these gestures that used to be about me telling you that I like your work are becoming economic actions.

Anil says that a while ago when people clicked on a link from Facebook to his blog, FB popped up a warning notice saying that it might be dangerous to go there. “The assumption is that my site is less trustworthy than theirs. Let’s say that’s true. Let’s say I’m trying to steal all your privacy and they’re not.” [audience laughs] He has FB comments on his site. To get this FB has to validate your page. “I explicitly opted in to the Facebook ecology” in part to prove he’s a moderate and in part as a convenience to his readers. At the same time, FB was letting the Washington Post and The Guardian publish within the FB walls, and FB never gave that warning when you clicked on their links. A friend at FB told Anil that the popup was a bug, which might be. But that means “in the best case, we’re stuck fixing their bugs on our budgets.” (The worst case is that FB is trying to shunt traffic away from other sites.)

And this is true for all things that compete with the Web. The ideas locked into apps won’t survive the company’s acquisition, but this is true when we change devices as well. “Content tied to devices dies when those devices become obsolete.” We have “given up on standard formats.” “Those of us who cared about this stuff…have lost,” overall. Very few apps support standard formats, with jpg and html as exceptions. Likes and follows, etc., all use undocumented proprietary formats. The most dramatic shift: we’ve lost the expectation that they would be interoperable. The Web was built out of interoperability. “This went away with almost no public discourse about the implications of it.”

The most important implication of all this comes when thinking about the Web as a public space. When the President goes on FB, we think about it as a public space, but it’s not, and dissent and transgression are not permitted. “Terms of Service and IP trump the Constitution.” E.g., every single message you put on FB during the election FB could have transformed into its opposite, and FB would be within its ToS rights. After Hurricane Sandy, public relief officials were broadcasting messages only through FB. “You had to be locked into FB to see where public relief was happening. A striking change.”

What’s most at risk are the words of everyday people. “It’s never the Pharaoh’s words that are lost to history.” Very few people opt out of FB. Anil is still on FB because he doesn’t want to lose contact with his in-laws. [See Dan Gillmor’s talk last week.) Without these privately-owned public spaces, Anil wouldn’t have been invited to Harvard; it’s how he made his name.

“The main reason this shift happened in the social web is the arrogance of the people who cared about the social web in the early days…We did sincerely care about enabling all these positive things. But the way we went about it was so arrogant that Mark Zuckerberg’s vision seemed more appealing, which is appalling.” An Ivy League kid’s software designed for a privileged, exclusive elite turned out to be more appealing than what folks like Anil were building. “If we had been listening more, and a little more open in self-criticism, it would have been very valuable.”

There was a lot of triumphalism after PIPA/SOPA went down, but it took a huge amount of hyperbole: “Hollywood wants to destroy the First Amendment, etc.” It worked once but it doesn’t scale. The willingness to pat ourselves on our back uncritically led us to vilify people who support creative industries. That comes from the arrogance that they’re dinosaurs, etc. People should see us being publicly critical of ourselves. For something to seem less inclusive than FB or Apple — incredibly arrogant, non-egalitarian cultures — that’s something we should look at very self-critically.

Some of us want to say “But it’s only some of the Web.” We built the Web for pages, but increasingly we’re moving from pages to streams (most recently-updated on top, generally), on our phones but also on bigger screens. Sites that were pages have become streams. E.g., YouTube and Yahoo. These streams feel like apps, not pages. Our arrogance keeps us thinking that the Web is still about pages. Nope. The percentage of time we spend online looking at streams is rapidly increasing. It is already dominant. This is important because these streams are controlled access. The host controls how we experience the content. “This is part of how they’re controlling the conversation.” No Open Web advocate has created a stream that’s anywhere near as popular as the sites we’re going to. The geeks tend to fight the last battle. “Let’s make an open source version of the current thing.” Instead, geeks need to think about creating a new kind of stream. People never switch to more open apps. (Anil says Firefox was an exception.)

So, what do we do? Social technologies follow patterns. It’s cyclical. (E.g., “mainframes being rebranded as The Cloud.”) Google is doing just about everything Microsoft was doing in the late 1990s. We should expect a reaction against their overreach. With Microsoft, “policy really worked.” The Consent Decree made IE an afterthought for developers. Public policy can be an important of this change. “There’s no question” that policy over social software is coming.

Also, some “apps want to do the right thing.” Anil’s ThinkUp demonstrates this. We need to be making apps that people actually want, not ones that are just open. “Are you being more attentive to what users want than Mark Zuckerberg is?” We need to shepherd and coach the apps that want to do the right thing. We count on 23 yr olds to do this, but they were in 5th grade when the environment was open. It’s very hard to learn the history of the personal software industry and how it impacted culture. “What happened in the desktop office suite wars ?” [Ah, memories!] We should be learning from such things.

And we can learn things from our own data. “It’s much easier for me to check my heart-rate than how often I’m reading Twitter.”

Fortunately, there are still institutions that care about a healthy Web. At one point there was a conflict between federal law and Terms of Service: the White House was archiving coments on its FB wall, whereas FB said you couldn’t archive for more than 24 hrs.

We should remember that ToS isn’t law. Geeks will hack software but treat ToS as sacred. Our culture is negatively impacted by ToS and we should reclaim our agency over them. “We should think about how to organize action around specific clauses in ToS.” In fact, “people have already chosen a path of civil disobedience.” E.g., search YouTube for “no infringement intended.” “It’s like poetry.” They’re saying “I’m not trying to step on your toes, but the world needs to see this.” “I’m so inspired by this.” If millions of teenagers assembled to engage in civil disobedience, we’d be amazed. They do on line. They feel they need to transgress because of a creative urge, or because it’s speech with a friend not an act of publishing. “That’s the opportunity. That’s the exciting part. People are doing this every single day.

[I couldn’t capture the excellent Q&A because I was running the microphone around.]


The video of the talk will be posted here.

38 Responses to “[berkman] Anil Dash on “The Web We Lost””

  1. First, this is brilliant and a lifesaver. Thank you so much for sharing this.

  2. […] against SOPA/PIPA, we have what those of us against Citizens United oppose: now we’re asking a big company to encourage people to act politically in a particular way. At the same time, we’re letting these […]

  3. […] links. First, there’s Anil Dash’s talk yesterday at the Berkman Center on “The Web We Lost.” There are a number of things in there worth thinking about, but Doug Hesse pointed out in […]

  4. […] [berkman] Anil Dash on “The Web We Lost” […]

  5. […] [berkman] Anil Dash on “The Web We Lost” […]

  6. […] [berkman] Anil Dash on “The Web We Lost” (via Beyond the Beyond) […]

  7. […] Joho the Blog » [berkman] Anil Dash on “The Web We Lost” […]

  8. I’m failing to see how blocking apps that “criticize” religion, i.e. incite hate on religion in this context, are really blocking “journalism”.

    That sounds like an overheated exaggeration that is basically trying to exonerate anti-Israel hate speech (or perhaps some other crude hate war game against Muslims or something) that really wouldn’t qualify as “journalism”.

    They’re right that if you want to express your hatred for religion, a book is a better format because you can capture more nuances and make your arguments.

    What is the “journalism” of any sort — about religions or any topic — that would fit into an app? Obviously, they don’t mean news apps, as there are articles in the New York Times or on the BBC which will contain critical comments about Catholics, Muslims, and Jews, for example. The apps carrying these op-ed pages or news articles are not blocked for their content, obviously — which is journalism critical of religion.

    What Apple means specifically is the intifada app, that crudely propagandized the violent Palestinian movement against Israel, and denigrated Israel and Jews.

    There may be others that involved such crude hate speech in the form of the externals of the app itself, not the content it might bring.

    Apple, as a private company, is going to create some standards of taste and against hate speech that aren’t going to fit your own extremist politics. Good! If you want a different mobile company, go to CREDO. Maybe they have an independent app store where you can still get the intifada app.

    The key is having a market with pluralism, so that those who feel they absolutely can’t live without hate apps can get them. The opposite — where “progressives” could force private corporations to include extreme political content they endorse — would not be freedom.

  9. […] generated content and…..but where is the evidence to support this narrative, a narrative that David Weinberger, too, seems to support? Mostly in memory. Commerce was with the web early on – even if not at […]

  10. We didn’t “lose” it: it NEVER WAS and it NEVER WAS GOING TO BE. It’s a pipe dream that has been sold by the very industry now being descried. Belief in such nostalgic utopias is a huge part of the terrible political gridlock we have arrived at today. The internet is not going to “save” us and never was going to save us. Only by starting from a sane beginning point do we have any hope of actually addressing the worldwide political issues starting us smack-dab in the face.

  11. You’re reading a whole lot into this, Brain Dog. There is a simple fact: Most of us to use the Net via a Web that ran on open standards and protocols. Now most of us don’t. There are consequences to this, some good and bad. Is there anything we can do to encourage the use of open standards and protocols?

  12. Catherine Fitzpatrick, it would be one thing if Apple blocked apps that encourage hate speech. That’s not what their ToS says, and there’s no particular reason to believe that when they said “criticize religion” what they really meant is “hate speech.”

    I’d put this differently. Steve Jobs said that he wanted the iPad (and this now means all of IOS) to be an environment safe for children. Fine, I have nothing against child-safe computers, although because I’m an adult, I wouldn’t buy one for myself. But I do have a problem when that limitation spreads to a dominant set of computing devices. iPhones and iPads are hugely influential. It’s important that we recognize just how closed and controlled these devices are.

    Fortunately, there is still a competitive market here. Anil’s point was, as I understand it, that we are in danger of ceding control over our computing environment _without_ realizing it. Jonathan Zittrain makes a similar point in “The Future of the Internet.” It’s an important point.

    I want an environment in which private companies don’t have undo control over the opinions we can express and the software we can build and distribute.

    As for my own “extremist” political views: What are you talking about?

  13. open standards and protocols are irrelevant to anything important in the world. irrelevant. period.

  14. i’ll admit, I overstated that for rhetorical emphasis, but it’s because I am so tired of people using that argument. sure, there are cases where open standards might be helpful, but focusing on open standards and open source and even open government is an enormous distraction from, rather than contribution to, addressing our real world problems. “open” isn’t the answer. understanding the problems and building democratic consensus and impetus to derive answers for them is what’s important, and there is ample evidence that the overemphasis on technology today has made the answers even more distant than they were 20, 30 years ago.

    i know, i’m working on the book version, when you can have at the argument in more detail, although there are certainly people (Morozov, Eubanks’s Digital Dead End) trying to make similar points.

  15. “Apple, as a private company, is going to create some standards of taste and against hate speech that aren’t going to fit your own extremist politics.”

    Whenever you’re about to accuse someone of having “extremist politics” take a good long look in the mirror and ask if someone else might think the same of you.

  16. “sure, there are cases where open standards might be helpful, but focusing on open standards and open source and even open government is an enormous distraction from, rather than contribution to, addressing our real world problems.”

    There HAVE BEEN cases where open standards WERE MORE THAN HELPFUL.

    Also I can’t stand the invocation of “real world problems” as if it were some kind of argument. Which problems precisely do you think are “real world problems”? Which aren’t? Why do you think that way? And do you expect everyone to agree with you? Is it OK if other people prioritize problems differently from you or if they try different solutions to the same problems?

    The problems that open standards actually do address don’t go away just because you invoke some mythical “real world problems” that are never made explicit.

  17. How We Lost the Web…

    When I wrote about the web we lost a few months ago, I thought the idea that we’d strayed from some of the philosophical and……

  18. […] David Weinberger shared his notes from Anil Dash’s recent talk at Berkman about social media and the (d)evolution thereof. Some really important stuff in there. […]

  19. […] Weinberger also blogged the event. This wasn’t easy, because David also introduced Anil and moderated the Q&A. His notes are, […]

  20. […] [berkman] Anil Dash on “The Web We Lost” (via Beyond the Beyond) […]

  21. […] the linked transcript of the […]

  22. What we need, to resist nasty platforms like the iThings and nasty web
    sites like Facebook, is the courage to say no to them. I know they
    trash users’ freedom, so I won’t use either one. Anil Dash also knows
    they trash users’ freedom, and when he gets the strength to reject them,
    he will start leading people in the right direction.

    The idea that you should surrender to Facebook instead of telling your
    in-laws “phone me; here’s my land-line number” is weak. You don’t win
    that way.

    The term “IP laws” is confusion; see

  23. […] Joho the Blog » [berkman] Anil Dash on “The Web We Lost” – Wat verliezen we met het nieuwe web van apps en afgesloten netwerken als Facebook of Twitter? […]

  24. Don’t you just love the alarmist presentation of the concept of privately controlled forums as something NEW? Fact: long before the Web existed, owners of computer bulletin boards controlled their content. And that was their right, just as it is the right of any operator of a site or a service to control what appears on it. Don’t like it? Go to another.

  25. […] embedding here yet, and probably won’t until I get back home, but last night I did read David Winberger’s live blog of the talk and given some of these quotes from that post it’s something I’ll be watching […]

  26. […] not only as an incredibly gracious host, but a shockingly complete transcriptionist, and created a detailed record of the talk, which actually includes a few improvements on my own phrasing of some of these ideas. […]

  27. […] Dash während eines Vortrags im Berkman Center for Internet and Society über den Bedeutungswandel des Bloggens von cool zu […]

  28. The history of the Internet is no different from the history of any other world.

    In the beginning were the gods, who created the universe from the void.

    Then came the demi-gods, and then the heroes. They cleared the forests and their skilled knights went through the land, doing good and idealistic deeds. They dreamed
    of founding a shining city.

    Then came the exiles, the misfits, the dreamers and the rogues. They were not heroes and never would be – born the wrong color, the wrong class, the wrong gender, or just having the wrong opinions. They fled to the forest and set up their little camps, having their little quarrels and adventures, amusing themselves and occasionally helping and accepting help from the heroes. They interacted with the heroes on a daily basis, sometimes wrestled with them (if they were rogues), and even sometimes helped the heroes win some battles.

    A good deal of the original knowledge and data on the early Internet was brought in by these two classes of people. But the thing about the misfits, dreamers and rogues, is that they have no skill, nor even a desire, to monetize anything; they live like gypsies and think of nothing else but the day. But there are always people who mean to profit, so next come the profiteers. The shopkeepers, the salesmen, the traders; some honest and some not. In a few years, the forest is full of their little cottages, their tiny villages and stores. And the profiteers sometimes interact with the misfits and the heroes, but more and more, just interact with themselves.

    And then the big profiteers come and swallow up the little ones.

    And then, last of all, come the lords to squash the profiteers, and with them they bring their cattle, with them come the parasites that feed on the cattle, and then they build enclosures for the cattle.

    Thus was it ever so.

  29. […] Anil Dash on “The Web We Lost” […]

  30. […] you want a transcript here’s one by David Weinberger, who was also the […]

  31. […] How We Lost the Web (Anil Dash) — excellent talk about the decreasing openness and vanishing shared culture of the web. See also David Weinberger’s transcription. […]

  32. […] Anil Dash: Terms of Service and IP trump the Constitution […]

  33. As an aside from the web stuff, I thought you might enjoy this on the subject of Privately Owned Public Spaces as we’re experiencing them in London –

  34. […] parte mas dolorosa de Anil Dash on “The Web We Lost” por David Weinberger. Ya hemos hablado en profundidad del tema de la web abierta y su erosión. […]

  35. […] posted about it back then. Collin updates his thinking in response to Anil Dash's talk on "The Web We Lost" and here. Jeff Rice also writes about Dash. All three offer views on what we've […]

  36. […] David Weinberger via Boing […]

  37. I blog quite often and I truly appreciate your content.
    The article has truly peaked my interest. I am going to book mark
    your website and keep checking for new details about once a week.
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  38. […] David Weinberger shared his notes from Anil Dash’s recent talk at Berkman about social media and the (d)evolution thereof. Some really important stuff in there. […]

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