We Sold The Web Too Cheap

In the time between the fall of the Berlin Wall and 9/11 there so much hope.  I want it back.

To my core, I’m Gen X.  Every generation believes their songs were better, and their morals are superior to the one before and after.  But we had music, man.

The Smashing Pumpkins, Pearl Jam. U2. Ani DiFranco  (There was once a time when U2 and Ani both were artists, and not punchlines.) Liz Phair was singing about the things we all thought about. Erasure  and Paul Oakenfold played in the clubs where we were all sweaty and boozy and hopeful together.

Even our shitty guilty pleasure jam band had a chorus.

And you could be yourself. The Breakfast Club told us that.

There was so much hope in the world.  Our country, then, was united. We believed in an American future, where freedom would spread. Where we’d lift the world out of poverty and westernize every state, one by one. Gas was cheap. Our military was getting smaller. We were about to cure cancer.

I know, I know. I sound like Baz Luhrmann.

As Beck said: Things are gonna change, I can feel it.

In the late 1990s we were connecting fast. The web? We hadn’t seen anything like it before. It was incredible

I used a mix of corporate and private tools.

  • LiveJournal
  • Yahoo Chat
  • UseNet
  • AOL’s Instant Messenger.
  • IRC
  • Thunderbird.
  • Email chains with people from past and present.
  • Google Reader

Yes, yes, Napster.  Sorry. I was young. I mostly did it because it was faster than ripping my own music.

The openness of the web was the rub. It felt so free. We didn’t all have cell phones. So there was casual, asynchronous (but nearly instant) communication available.

For a few golden years, from say, 1996-2000 or so our parents weren’t there yet. So on LiveJournal we talked it out. We figured out who we wanted to be in privacy. Sure, there were politics around.  But the web was amazing, then. There was this feeling that it was all so new and so cool. And we had a lot of the same values.

We could manage our identity and be whoever we wanted to be.  Sure. There were trolls and goons and morons. But they weren’t institutionalized, weaponized and somehow concentrated. 

But we sold it too cheap. Google, the Gen-x company did that.

I remember the day that Google Reader was killed. It was a widely used product. And it was beautiful and amazing. I cultivated feeds of my favorites.  Old LiveJournal buddies (by 2013 or so I was pretty over LiveJournal.) New tech blogs.  Real estate shenanigans.  I’d go there most mornings and spend half an hour time hitting “J” to get the narrative of the day.  I was in control.

We picked stuff. And we read it in the absence of the social noise. Like a newspaper. There was no shouting.

When Google Murdered it, I sent an email to a few friends. “So much for Don’t Be Evil.”  The reply was “woah, shit.” 

This was the D-Day event. The assault on the URL and the decentralized, public web. I have feedly pro now. It’s good. They are good. But it’s not the same.

Google’s endorsement of RSS and the feed readers was meaningful. It meant that this “big new brand” was for the web itself. That they endorsed my choices, my agency. That they really did stand for more than selling me ads, that they were using ads as some stop-gap temporary measure till they could find a better way to collect value.  Links got worse once links got monetized.

Till this point – and despite their failures with Google Buzz, Google Wave, they were on firmly on side of the Web.

After this point, it was clear that they weren’t our friends.  They were just some company. A utility. I exchanged emails with a few friends “Oh, shit,” was the consensus. I lost trust with Google. Probably a good thing. Because I believed, man. I believed the mythos, and I believed every word about the world we were going to make. 9/11 was a blip. We’d all be fine.

Yet. Google had told everyone that RSS was uncool. Because user control no longer served Google’s machine. That RSS was derpy for propeller hat wearing idiots. Not even google saw a home for it.

Then the web we love got closed, bit by bit. Twitter came and went (and is now coming back again).  We watched Marissa Mayer (one of theirs, one of ours) run Yahoo aground.

With reader gone, and Google (possibly) now evil, there was less reason to resist Facebook. Sure, we couldn’t trust Facebook, but we didn’t need to resist them anymore.

This effectively closed the web.  We sold it too cheap. We trusted Google with too much. We didn’t build the tools that could help us sidestep big corporations and their interests. This was the “one job” that my generation had, to protect the promise of the web. And we didn’t do that.

With the Facebook stuff, there is now a brief window where we could correct that. We won’t, of course, because we’re tired.

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Christopher Johnson

Christopher Johnson is writing this blog. He's a startup veteran, having built a company called Simplifilm. This blog is about things that he's starting to - but may not actually - think yet. It publishes irregularly.
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