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Building the user-centered web: an update #indieweb

Back in 2009, I wrote:

Right now, we have to register with each application we want to use. What if we required each application we used to register with us, in digital identities under our own control?

What if, using these identities, anyone could connect to anyone else, and anyone could store their data anywhere as long as the storage provider followed the same broad standards?

The web itself would become a social networking tool.

By establishing a general standard for social application interactions, the services and technologies used to make connections become less relevant; the Internet is people, one big social network, and users no longer have to worry about how they connect. We can all get on with communicating and collaborating rather than worrying about where we connect.

The full piece was based on a talk I gave at Harvard University's Hauser Center for Nonprofit Organizations. It declares a number of problems to solve:

  • User control: users should have ultimate control over their data.
  • Ownership: granularity of ownership, and the rights implied by ownership, is complex in certain contexts. Sometimes a single-user model of ownership is appropriate - but sometimes not.
  • Privacy & Transparency: the ability to control who has access to your data footprint across the web, but also a clear knowledge of what happens to that data.
  • Platform: software that actually embodies these properties.

In the interim, there have been many articles about the continuing silo-ization of the web - notably The Web We Lost by Anil Dash. In other words, the problem has become worse, not better. Generally speaking, users have less control, less ownership, less privacy and fewer platforms to choose from in 2013 than they did in 2009.

A glimmer of hope has been the indieweb, which I've written about at length. This is a movement that champions ownership, but through it, principles like user control, privacy, transparency and a healthy ecosystem of platforms are also promoted. Idno, the open source platform that powers this site, adheres to many indieweb principles.

There's more work to be done. I believe that contextual display advertising is the single biggest obstacle to a web that is under the control of users. In our advertising economy, users are tracked throughout the web in order to determine which ads will be performant for them. Mozilla Lightbeam is an extraordinary project that highlights the pervasiveness of the problem. Wherever we leave a data footprint, we are tracked.

The irony is that contextual advertising isn't even very effective! Fraud is rife in online advertising, and the price of online ads has dropped for eight straight quarters. As a result, publishers need to drive higher and higher visitor numbers, leading to less subtle growth strategies, often bordering on the unethical. Platforms seek vastly increased engagement, leading to an inability to remove your content, what amounts to spamming you to bring you back to the app, and a reduction in integration hooks that might make the software more useful within the context of a user's entire suite of applications.

On the content side, meanwhile, viral sites like Upworthy and Buzzfeed are king, which is great if you're writing about the top 15 things you might not know about Miley Cyrus - but death if you're a niche publisher, community or information source trying to make ends meet.

What if we rethink advertising in the same way that we're rethinking personal sites with the indieweb? "Niche" - in other words, highly specialized - communities are in many ways the lifeblood of the web. They're one of the things that makes it special; the fact that there can be a place to meet for any interest group. Finding platforms that will adequately financially support these groups, as well as by giving them responsible software that gives them control, privacy, transparency and ownership, will be hugely empowering.

Building the open web we want isn't just about software. It's about the mechanisms involved that will make it sustainable for people to create the right kinds of businesses that use it as a platform.