Why we need to bring back the vision of the read-write web

Laptop, notebook and HTML & CSS book

Anil Dash recently considered the bits of the web that have been lost, or were perhaps never implemented as envisaged by the original hypertext visionaries of the mid-20th century.

I was particularly struck by his first point, about how underutilised ‘View Source’ has become.

For the first few years of the web, the fundamental way that people learned to build web pages was by using the “View Source” feature in their web browser. You would point your mouse at a menu that said something like “View Source” (nobody was browsing the web on a touchscreen back then) and suddenly you’d see the HTML code that made up the page you were looking at. If you squinted, you could see the text you’d been reading, and wrapped around it was a fairly comprehensible set of tags — you know, that <p>paragraph</p> kind of stuff.

This is precisely the way I learnt how to make websites.

The way many websites are built these days is over-engineered. This is a great shame. It would be impossible for a newbie to understand today’s web code in the way it was possible for me to understand the simple and intuitive HTML markup.

As Robin Rendle says:

It’s interesting to note after reading this that it’s clear at one point or another we all agreed that browsers should be “read-by-default.”

On which note, Anil Dash has this on authoring:

When Tim Berners-Lee invented the world wide web, he assumed that, just like in earlier hypertext systems, every web browser would be able to write web pages just as easily as it read them.

Another great loss to the web. It was intended as a read-write medium. But while it has become very easy to read to web, writing to it is a different matter — at least, if you want to do it on your own terms.

Sure, you can easily write to the web if you are up for funding Facebook, or you want to relinquish your writing to a platform like Medium where you have no control. But if you want to do it independently, it remains pitifully difficult to easily publish to the web, unless you’re up for tackling an increasingly steep learning curve.

Then, Anil Dash talks about embedding:

These days that capability is mostly used to put a Google Map onto a company’s site so you can find their nearest location.

Those old hypertext theory people had broader ambitions, though. They thought we might someday be able to pull live, updated pieces of other sites into our own websites, mixing and matching data or even whole apps as needed.

APIs enable us to do this a little bit — assuming a service offers them. But using APIs requires a fair amount of expertise, and results are very inconsistent.

Perhaps most importantly of all, Anil Dash points out a key idea that was originally at the core of the web: your own website at your own address.

…[W]hile companies still usually have a website of their own, an individual having a substantial website (not just a one-page placeholder) is pretty unusual these days unless they’re a Social Media Expert or somebody with a book to sell.

There’s no reason it has to be that way, though. There are no technical barriers for why we couldn’t share our photos to our own sites instead of to Instagram, or why we couldn’t post stupid memes to our own web address instead of on Facebook or Reddit. There are social barriers, of course — if we stubbornly used our own websites right now, none of our family or friends would see our stuff. Yet there’s been a dogged community of web nerds working on that problem for a decade or two…

I think this may be a reference to the IndieWeb efforts, which I have been dipping my toe into a little bit. But as Anil Dash implies, it is mainly the pursuit of nerds.

This stuff is all a long way off being as easy as it needs to be.

The problem the web has run into is a simple user experience problem. The economics of the web have meant that those with vested interests and funding can invest in making sure their product is as easy to use as possible.

Facebook gave people a very easy way to express themselves online, in a highly-organised way. This could never have been achieved by every individual on the planet doing their own thing on their own webspace and hoping that everyone else used the same open standard as they did.

The sad consequence of this is what we see today: a giant using their dominant position to the detriment of its users’ interests.

This is why I am now determined to reclaim my website as the place where I express myself. Not Facebook, not Flickr, nor any other here-today-gone-tomorrow service that I have no control over.

But those web nerds working on this problem have a long hill to climb. Because developers have a tendency to make things more complicated than they need to be. When what we need is to make things as simple as possible.

I am lucky to have grown up with the web at a time where the principles were simple, and the basics were attainable. I ultimately made a career out of doing stuff with the web.

But the web has become too complex in the face of simpler alternatives. I highly doubt if I would bother learning how to make a website from scratch today.

This is something we need to fix. Because if the web is to fulfil its potential, it needs to be simple for anyone to pick up in the way they want to, democratically and accessibly.

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