Tim Berners-Lee published today in Scientific American an article titled “Long Live the Web: A Call for Continued Open Standards and Neutrality.” He talks about the recent threats to the Web from Facebook, LinkedIn and other social networks: “Once you enter your data into one of these services, you cannot easily use them on another site. Each site is a silo, walled off from the others… Connections among data exist only within a site. So the more you enter, the more you become locked in. Your social-networking site becomes a central platform—a closed silo of content, and one that does not give you full control over your information in it. The more this kind of architecture gains widespread use, the more the Web becomes fragmented, and the less we enjoy a single, universal information space.”
Last year, when Jason Rubin and I talked to Berners-Lee, he referred to social networking sites as “pre-Web”: “We have the standards but still just a small community of true believers who recognize the value of putting data on the Web for people to share and mash up and use at will. And there are other aspects of the online world that are still fairly “pre-Web.” Social networking sites, for example, are still siloed; you can’t share your information from one site with a contact on another site. Hopefully, in a few years’ time, we’ll see that quite large category of social information truly Web-ized, rather than being held in individual lockdown applications.”
Also last year, I talked to Bob Metcalfe, who said this about what Berners-Lee gave us, the power of openness, and the important distinction (which the guys at Wired don’t get) between the layer of the Internet and the Layer of the Web: “Think about that. We designed some plumbing at the lower levels of the hierarchy, and 17 years later Tim comes up with the World Wide Web, which Ethernet and TCP/IP carried just fine. That’s the surprise. What this has demonstrated is the efficacy of the layered architecture of the Internet. The Web demonstrates how powerful that is, both by being layered on top of things that were invented 17 years before, and by giving rise to amazing new functions in the following decades. Based on the artfulness of the design of the interfaces, you give rise to serendipity. In the design of his standards, Tim nailed down both expressive power and simplicity, allowing people to easily get started… Tim Berners-Lee tells this joke, which I hasten to retell because it’s so good. He was introduced at a conference as the inventor of the World Wide Web. As often happens when someone is introduced that way, there are at least three people in the audience who want to fight about that, because they invented it or a friend of theirs invented it. Someone said, “You didn’t. You can’t have invented it. There’s just not enough time in the day for you to have typed in all that information.” That poor schlemiel completely missed the point that Tim didn’t create the World Wide Web. He created the mechanism by which many, many people could create the World Wide Web.”
Berners-Lee ends his Scientific American article on a positive note: “Now is an exciting time. Web developers, companies, governments and citizens should work together openly and cooperatively, as we have done thus far, to preserve the Web’s fundamental principles, as well as those of the Internet, ensuring that the technological protocols and social conventions we set up respect basic human values. The goal of the Web is to serve humanity. We build it now so that those who come to it later will be able to create things that we cannot ourselves imagine.”
But, as I noted just a few days ago, information monopolies have an incredible hold over us: we like convenience. Do you think you can resist it?