If The Web is Really Dead, What Have We Lost?

A Wired magazine article recently declared that the World Wide Web (WWW) is dead, noting a significant decline in the last decade in the proportion of Internet traffic that is browser-based. Surfing web sites reflects only a quarter of our Internet use now; the authors report that we are increasingly using of a multitude of apps over the Internet in place of the Web: Skype, video streaming through Netflix, email, file transfers, corporate VPN connections, online gaming, mobile phone apps, etc.

The End of the Wild West

In some ways, the demise of the Web feels like a loss of our wide open spaces, like the end of the Wild West and Westward Expansion in U.S. history.  Instead we are moving to an increasingly segmented (and organized) Internet world, one where you need to join a service, get the correct app, and, often, pay the fee. This specialization and the accompanying fragmentation are not new–it’s part of what happened with television when we moved from having a few shared broadcasting networks to the hundreds that are available through cable television. When this change happened with television in the United States what we lost was a shared dialogue space–a media town square, so to speak. Instead of having 3-4 main places that everyone watched and heard, we now have hundreds, with few (if any–Lost? American Idol?) rising to the level of a shared national focus. The positive side of this change was the increased diversity in what was available (although I still can’t find much I want to watch). The down side is that many of us stopped talking to anyone who was different–we started talking and listening to only those who reinforced our world view. The only time we have a shared focus now is when disaster strikes.

Where Do We Come Together?

I’m not sure that the WWW has ever given us what those 3-4 TV stations gave us: a place for us to listen and hear as one nation. And I know that those 3-4 stations didn’t speak for everyone–they didn’t really promote true dialogues across difference. But I do know that sometimes those dialogues occurred in the wide open spaces of the Web–sometimes we meet and interact with people who are different (in ways other than flame wars). So as the wide open spaces of the Internet decline, I wonder where our open communities will be. Right now, social networks like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube have become some of the biggest spaces that are available to us. However, all of them allow us to customize what comes our way–the advantage of push technology. And of course, this same feature supports us talking with and listening to only what fits our reality. Sometimes there is content that crosses boundaries (goes viral). But most of the time most of us are talking and listening to those who think like us.

Working in Diverse Communities

As a social worker I know that diversity doesn’t have to divide–it can make us stronger. But for that to happen people need to communicate, understand, respect and learn from our differences. The decline of wide open spaces can decrease the likelihood that we will encounter difference–perhaps what we have lost here is the idea that such places can exist, for they didn’t happen often.  But I don’t think the non-WWW Internet precludes having places to encounter and dialogue across differences; however, it will require that we plan, create, and then disseminate information about such spaces. And to do so requires that we deeply understand these new environments. The community organizers of the present–and the future–need to be able to work in virtual spaces as effectively as they do in neighborhoods and other types of real-world communities. While there are some amazing people are doing that now, I also know that many are still very uninformed about virtual environments, let alone familiar with how to build communities there. The descent of the World Wide Web is a call to action: to work together to create new open virtual spaces–perhaps they will be less wild, but they could still go a long way toward bringing diverse people together.

Photo courtesy of Manual Millway

8 thoughts on “If The Web is Really Dead, What Have We Lost?

  1. Pingback: If the Web is really dead, what have we lost? | Jay Collier

  2. You raised several interesting points in this post. Your analogy of what we are to expect out in the web vs what has happened in the television/cable arena brought home to me the anticipated changes on the internet.

    I don’t know if web’s future will be quite the same as the experts are forecasting or not, but even if the changes that occur are only partially correct, the resulting ramifications in which there may be less dialogue among people who are different would indeed be a huge loss.

    My hope is that even if there will indeed be a fee structure set in place for many places, some things like twitter, facebook and youtube will remain free and will therefore still allow the exchange of ideas and thoughts among diverse populations.

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  3. The fee structure issues that you raise will be not be small issues, It seems like more and more there are tiered plans that are being implemented. In some cases (Ning, for example) free options are being eliminated. It seems like we are quickly moving to a new kind of digital divide. Even when people have access to the Internet, they may have limited options open to them if they can’t afford to pay. I wonder about the people who access the Net through a public library–where this will leave them? They have relied on the Web and I would guess would be much less likely to be be buying into particular apps.

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  4. My view of evolution is that we circle round the extremes and return at a more expansive, inclusive space, integrating what came before. This goes for the evolution of media, too.

    In television, we may have 500 channels, but several programs are still water-cooler experiences, albeit of a higher-common-demoninator than the top 10 of 1970. The same goes with magazines. Just as diversity divides without common ground and unity becomes uniformity without multiple perspectives, so, too, will new online ecosystems — open and proprietary — facilitate the very experiences we need as humans.

    So, while we may have moved beyond the first-generation excitement of the Wild, Wild Web, the social needs it satisfied will still push online experiences forward.

    I believe the next Web — Web 3.0, the “Live” Web — will still provide open spaces where we will be challenged with new ideas, because that’s what human learning and development demands. It will also provide the echo chambers we choose when we want to be validated by others with our own opinions.

    Some define the Web as “www” and “http.” I think the Web is more like the noosphere that Teilhard de Chardin envisioned 50 years ago: a place where our collective knowledge and insight (and, I’d add, natural systems captured through sensors) will live organically all around us.

    The One and the Many drive media evolution. Those with the ability to tell the universal story — and also ground it in the personal and individual — will dance across boundaries and make meaning that resonates throughout our communities.

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  5. Pingback: The Web is dead, long live the Webs | Jay Collier

  6. I’ve been reading your recent posts, and your perspective is resonating.

    The fact that an online service is “social” is just not enough. What will we do with it? Will we be responsible? Or not? Trash reputations? Sow love? As technology is becoming less visible and more powerful, those questions are less about technology and more about human needs.

    My current initiative starts with the hypothesis that we are more responsible and more authentic when we are interacting online with people we know, or feel we know. So, how do we bring together virtual connections with people of shared interests — for example, as Twitter helped me find your blog — with supportive and challenging (i.e., real) face-to-face connections in our physical lives?

    If Web 1.0 was about publishing (upside: global soapboxes; downside: inane blog posts), and Web 2.0 added social connections (upside: long-lost friends; downside: TMI), perhaps Web 3.0 will add curation: more effective methods of learning about, selecting, and sharing our neighbor’s most meaningful experiences.

    (For example, and on a very small scale, whereas Facebook was too unstructured to manage while I was grieving the loss of my mother last year, WordPress provided just the right combination of publishing, social connections, and curation, especially curation. I wanted to create a collection of meaningful stories, not just open the window for all comments. I would have loved to do more, but I also wanted to be authentic, contemplative, and inviting.)

    Once the thrill of “social media” fades, I think the next big thing will be “community hubs:” clearinghouses of all personal and professional media originating in and around a place. Not publishing original content, but curating experiences selected from our neighbors social (and asocial) media lifestreams which lead toward more vital face-to-face personal interaction in our communities. I’ll bet 5 cents on it.

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  7. I’m not thrilled with Facebook for many reasons. Having a page devoted to the person who has died though (like this one that I just created in the past month for a colleague & friend that died suddenly: http://www.facebook.com/kentbath), was at least one step up from the usual embedding condolences on the wall of the bereaved that happens with most losses. Some people have posted some memories on the page I created, although my guess is that it’s very different than the blog you describe. I’ve been surprised though, at how much comfort I have derived from the little comments that people will leave there.

    I really like your idea of “community hubs”: I can see where there is an organic movement toward something like this. I think I might bet a whole 10 cents on it! And I definitely see them as creating momentum that points toward the face-to-face contact that you predict. We already see this pull toward wanting face-to-face interactions in Tweet-ups, Meet-ups, etc.

    So then I wonder how the boundaries of those hubs will evolve. And what kinds of connections might happen between/among hubs? Makes for interesting mind meanderings if nothing else.

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