It's the end of the web as we know it
25 September 2011
When you own a domain you’re a first class citizen of the web. A householder and landowner. What you can do on your own website is only very broadly constrained by law and convention. You can post the content you like. You can run the software you want, including software you’ve written or customised yourself. And you can design it to look the way you want. If you’re paying for a web hosting service and you don’t like it (or they don’t like you) you can pack up your site and move it to another host. Your URLs will stay the same and so your visitors won’t notice. You get a great deal of freedom in return for the cost of running your own site. Your site could still be there in a decade’s time, possibly even in a century.
If you use a paid-for web service at someone else’s domain you’re a tenant. A second class citizen. You don’t have much control. You’ll probably have to live with your landlord’s furniture and decoration and a restrictive set of rules. Your content will only exist at these URLs for as long as you keep paying the same people that monthly fee and for as long as your provider stays in business. Experience tells me that this isn’t very long. As a paying customer you’ll have a few rights under your contract but they probably won’t amount to very much. When you leave you’ll probably be able to get your data back in a useful format but when you put it back on the web somewhere else you’ll lose all your inbound links, search engine rankings and many of your visitors. This kind of service seems like a good deal until the day you need to move.
When you use a free web service you’re the underclass. At best you’re a guest. At worst you’re a beggar, couchsurfing the web and scavenging for crumbs. It’s a cliche but it’s worth repeating: if you’re not paying for it you’re the product not the customer. Your individual account is probably worth very little to the service provider, so they’ll have no qualms whatsoever with tinkering with the service or even making radical changes in their interests rather than yours. If you don’t like it you’re welcome to leave. You may well not be able to take your content and data with you and even if you can, all your URLs are broken.
The conclusion here should be obvious: if you really care about your site you need to run it on your own domain. You need to own your URLs. You’ll have total control and no-one can take it away from you. You don’t need anyone else. If you put the effort in up front it’ll pay off in the long run.
But it’s no longer that simple.
Anyone who’s ever run a website knows that building the site is one thing, getting people to use it is quite another. The smaller your real-world presence the harder it is. If you’re a national newspaper or a Hollywood star you probably won’t have much trouble getting people to visit your website. If you’re a self-employed plumber or an unknown blogger writing in your spare time it’s considerably harder.
Traffic used to come from three places: the real world (print advertising, business cards, word of mouth, etc.), search engines and inbound links. Whichever field you were in and at whichever level, you were competing against other similar sites on a fairly level playing field.
Social networks have changed all that. Facebook and Twitter now wield enormous power over the web by giving their members ways to find and share information using tools that work in a social context. There’s no obvious way to replicate this power out on the open web of independent websites tied together loosely by links and search engine results.
Not so long ago you had to be on MySpace if you were an up-and-coming band. Now it’s probably Facebook. Either way, your social network presence is more important than your own website.
If you’re an independent photographer looking to get established you probably need to get your pictures on photo sharing sites like Flickr where they can be easily found by millions.
Many of the most valuable conversations around technology and many other fields happen on Twitter. If you’re not there you don’t really exist, especially if you’re just getting started in your field.
You can turn your back on the social networks that matter in your field and be free and independent running your own site on your own domain. But increasingly that freedom is just the freedom to be ignored, the freedom to starve. We need to use social networks to get heard and this forces us into digital serfdom. We give more power to Big Web companies with every tweet and page we post to their networks while hoping to get a bit of traffic and attention back for ourselves. The open web of free and independent websites has never looked so weak.
Perhaps none of this would matter very much if the biggest player of them all – Facebook – wasn’t such a grotesque abuser of its position. Even before announcing Open Graph this week it was pretty clear that Facebook wanted to own everything everyone does online. Facebook currently has 750 million members. If it were a country it’d be the third most populous country in the world, bigger than everyone except China and India. The United States has a mere 312 million people – not even half the size of Facebook.
Facebook’s Open Graph technology allows third-party websites to tell Facebook what people are doing. It extends Facebook’s Like button to include any action that the site owners think might be interesting to Facebook. Play a song and your music streaming site tells Facebook what you’ve played. Read a newspaper article and Facebook knows what you’ve read. LOL at a lolcat and your LOL gets logged for all time on your indelible activity record. Facebook calls this “frictionless sharing”, which is their euphemism for silent total surveillance. Once you’ve signed up for this (and it is optional, at least for now) you don’t need to do anything else to “share” your activity with Facebook. It’s completely automatic.
Site owners and developers are lapping it up. Hosting company Heroku posted this incredible tweet the day after Open Graph was announced:
Huge Open Graph momentum with social devs, we’ve seen more than 33,800 new Facebook apps in last 24 hours #f8
Yes, that’s nearly 34,000 new Facebook apps created in one day by customers of just one hosting company. Astonishing numbers.
At least Facebook is up front about Social Graph. Facebook’s abuse of its Like button to invade people’s privacy is much less publicised. We all think we know how it works. We’re on a website reading an interesting page and we click the Like button. A link to the page gets posted to our wall for our friends to see and Facebook keeps this data and data about who clicks on it to help it to sell advertising. So much so predictable.
What most people don’t know is that the Like button tracks your browsing history. Every time you visit a web page that displays the Like button Facebook logs that data in your account. It doesn’t put anything on your wall but it knows where you’ve been. This even happens if you log out of Facebook. Like buttons are pretty much ubiquitous on mainstream websites so every time you visit one you’re doing some frictionless sharing. Did you opt in to this? Only by registering your Facebook account in the first place. Can you turn it off? Only by deleting your account.
This is where I draw the line. I’m well aware that everything we do online and many of the things we do in the real world creates a data shadow – a digital record of our actions. If you carry a mobile phone your location is continually recorded by your phone company. If you’re suspected of a crime or go missing then this data will be handed to the police. Most of us know this and choose to use mobile phones anyway. We know that when we buy things that transaction is recored by our bank and the shop unless we’re using cash. We know that our computers and our broadband providers record what we do online. But all these things are predictable and at least arguably necessary to provide the services we use. We might not like these intrusions into our privacy but we like the law enforcement, fraud protection and service quality that they buy us. It’s a compromise that most of us are willing to make.
What Facebook is doing is very different. When it records our activity away from the Facebook site it’s a third party to the deal. It doesn’t need this data to run its own services. Moreover, Facebook’s aggregation and centralisation of data across all our disparate fields of activity is a very different thing from our phone company having our phone data and our bank having our finances. Worst of all, the way Facebook collects and uses our data is both unpredictable and opaque. Its technology and policies move so quickly you’d need to be a technical and legal specialist and spend an inordinate amount of time researching Facebook’s activities on an ongoing basis to have any hope of understanding what they’re doing with your data.
As individuals we can opt out. It’s still possible to live a full life in the developed world and not use social networks. Some people may find it harder than others – missing out on event invitations that are only sent on Facebook, for example. Not being able to see your friends' photos because they’re only posted to Facebook. Not being able to join conversations on Twitter. But for now there are sufficient alternatives for most of us. As with smoking, it’s easier to not start using the social web than to stop. Once you’ve signed up the cost of leaving increases with every “friend” you make, every photo you post, every tweet you send. That’s why I’m holding out against Google+ for now.
For organisations and business it’s very different. We’re already past the point where social networks can be ignored. If you don’t have a social networking presence your businesses is at a significant disadvantage compared with those that do. It’s where the attention, the traffic and the conversations are. Even public and government services are finding their social networking activities increasingly important. How long before they’re essential?
The promise of the open web looks increasingly uncertain. The technology will continue to exist and improve. It looks like you’ll be able to run your own web server on your own domain for the foreseeable future. But all the things that matter will be controlled and owned by a very small number of Big Web companies. Your identity will be your accounts at Facebook, Google and Twitter, not the domain name you own. You don’t pay Big Web a single penny so it can take away your identity and all your data at any time. The things you can say and do that are likely to be seen and used by any significant number of people will be the things that Facebook, Google and Twitter are happy for you to say and do. You can do what you like on your own website but you’ll probably be shouting into the void.
If I find any answers I’ll post them but right now things are looking bleak. It’s the end of the web as we know it and I feel pretty far from fine.