The Web At A New Crossroads


Guest post by Chris Messina and Jyri Engeström (thanks to Brynn Evans for editing and Brad Fitzpatrick for comments on the draft)


Around 2003, things began to change.

Technology was then the black sheep, having left overnight millionaires destitute and without change to afford their $4 lattes. Even the posers had left San Francisco and gone back to suburbia to be office managers at Walmart.

It was a sad time for everyone — that is, except the die-hards and the hackers. The web for them had never been about making money, but about reshaping culture and toppling the old order. 2003, therefore, was the perfect time for a resurgence: the people who kept pushing on in the Valley and elsewhere were a concentrated motley crew of innovators and builders. They cared about technology for technology's sake and about developing and advancing web culture.

What they didn’t realize, however, was that the services and technologies that they were destined to build would need to be cobbled and sewn together using a system that would fight them every step of the way — not out of spite — but because of its architecture. By definition the network available was decidedly anti-human: in 2003, there was only the document-centric web.

The document-centric web

We’ll spare you the history lesson of the origin story of the internet, but suffice it to say, the web we have today is because a bunch of scientists, academics, and government folks needed a way to share static documents — not set up identities or have a dynamic conversation in public. The net was decidedly antisocial and anti-serendipity, from the beginning.

Keep that in mind when you consider what happened around 2003: masses of people started blogging, publicly. Services like Blogger and TypePad surged; LiveJournal and WordPress started to grow stubble and Drupal emerged from a college dorm. In the absence of innovation since the bubble burst, people started to realize that the web could be a place for personal expression and public conversation — and blogging became the “it” thing to do.

The problem was that tools were built around the document model of publishing. Many people maintained collections of blogs that they kept handy as bookmarks — and visited regularly, sometimes several times a day (depending on the prolificness of a given blogger). The more savvy audiences discovered desktop feed readers that fetched new content automatically. But conversation was fragmented and inconvenient: to comment, you had to visit the publisher’s blog and create a single-purpose account there; to post an original response, you had to have your own blog and know how to send a trackback to the post you were responding to.

The pace was slow and cumbersome, but most early bloggers didn’t mind. Their new medium was exciting, expansive, and controversial. And for the time, it fit the write-print/publish model many people had become familiar with thanks to Microsoft Word and other text editors — and which was in turn rewarded by Google’s link-based approach to search.

But two things were lacking in the first generation of Web 2.0 tools: personhood and aggregated conversation streams. The document-web hadn’t made room for people-friendly affordances like “faces,” and didn’t conform to our restless animal brain, which is well suited to working with a flow of short snippets of information.

Proprietary, real-time platforms

Enter: the real-time web. If 2003–2006 could be defined as the emergence of social media on infrastructure still dominated by the document-web, 2007 through the present will be defined as the transition to the "real-time" web, even if through a proprietary side-road.

We’ve had chat, SMS, and other forms of asynchronous (near) real-time data streams for some time. But, just as blogging did to email, every new generation is about pushing down the walls that cage one-to-one and one-to-few interactions, turning the same private publishing tools into many-to-many-to-many-more public publishing platforms. Emphasis on the noun: from tools to platforms.

The catch? This real-time web is not mature yet, since the platforms that sequester all of our activities today are proprietary ones like Facebook and Twitter. These are convenient, to be sure, but of limited utility to users with cross-site ambitions, who require interoperability.

While “brand-mediated" profiles and relationships may not seem completely odious on the surface, there are four major drawbacks to keep in mind:

  • Tying one’s identity and communications to a single silo means relying on a single point of failure, degrading the overall reliability and stability of the system. (Remember the failwhale and efforts to keep Twitter from going offline during the Iran uprising, for example).

  • Handing over management of one's identity to a company means being dependent on their decisions and priorities. (Consider the 5,000 friend limit on Facebook; Twitter's arbitrary suggested users list; and examples of users being ousted from various services for controversial reasons).

  • A web built on top of a few proprietary platforms means less diversity and ultimately smaller scale than a web built on non-proprietary protocols and standards (consider how useful email, the web, and the internet itself became once open standards for interoperability were adopted, and the power of "small pieces loosely joined").

  • And finally, on an ethical and emotional level — it just doesn't feel right.

Fortunately, there are a number of initiatives that are gaining in popularity and finding pockets of adoption throughout industry, leading us to a juncture, where in one direction is the status quo and in the other is what we call “the people-centric (real-time) web”.

The people-centric (real-time) web

If the document-centric web was dominated by static pages, then the people-centric web is about placing you at the center (as Time Magazine did famously in 2006). We're seeing the rise of dynamic, portable friend lists and non-brand-mediated identities that can be used across a range of standards-compliant websites. People are beginning to move freely between silos. Individuals are increasingly able to bring their data with them and substitute one service or service provider with another, as one can switch between Outlook and Thunderbird for email, or Photoshop and Pixelmator for image editing on the desktop. Relevant information and friends' activities are starting to come to users via distributed push publishing. (Thomas Vander Wal has called this the “come to me” web).

Let us briefly describe the key enablers of this emerging new phase:

Portable profiles means that instead of creating an account on each service you join, you can now host your identity in one place and bring your profile and friends with you to other sites as you surf the social web. Webfinger, OpenID, Portable Contacts, and OAuth all make this possible (and for bootstrapping profiles from the legacy document-web, we have Google's Social Graph API).

Distributed push publishing means there is no longer a need to rely on proprietary platforms. The emerging standards here are PubSubHubbub (PuSH) and rssCloud (see comparisons on TheNextWeb and TechCrunch).

Synchronized conversation threads means that users can participate on the same conversation thread across multiple interfaces and services (we are still waiting for a standard, for which various geeks are actively devising a plan).

Much work remains to make cloud services fully interoperable, but the foundations are in place to turn the web into a truly people-centric place. This call to action goes out to developers, corporations, and individuals alike. Best of all, it's not that hard to start supporting these efforts:

Let people use existing accounts to sign in and sign up for your service. First, the signup ritual offers the least amount of value to users so get it out of the way as fast as possible! Plus, it's an automatic barrier to entry — you'll see an increase in successful signups by reducing the friction in logging in up front (as Plaxo did). Second, unless it's core to what you do, this will also save you the chore of managing profiles on your service. Third, people have so many profiles these days, they can't keep track of them and they certainly don't want to be creating yet another. Instead, figure out a way to subscribe to someone’s existing profile — and keep a reference of it up to date on your site.

Sharing information and activities from your site is how other people will discover you. Stickiness as a business practice was a byproduct of the document era of the web; on the people-centric web, portability is critical. Data, identities, relationships, and activities need to flow between sites in order to expose insights, spread knowledge, and engender meaningful social interactivity. This sounds complicated but is relatively straightforward. To begin, your site can make available atomic units of data, exported as streams of activity that indicate who acted in which way upon what object. It’s easier than it sounds and formats are available to support this modular approach (see: Activity Streams)

As a user, consider how much control and security you really want over your online identity. How do you feel about leasing an identity from a web brand? Unsure about the benefits of owning your own? Some providers (Google, Yahoo, Flickr, MySpace, AOL) let you use their accounts as OpenIDs — a great step towards portability, and beneficial to everyone. The catch with any leased identity is that your identity will be under the provider's brand, profile constrained by their design decisions, and personal data subjected to their terms of service. As an alternative, acquiring your own domain and setting up your own profile with an independent is becoming much easier with free services like and More innovation is needed in this area to make independent identities for people and organizations first class citizens on the social web, and their setup and management simpler, accessible, and secure!

What's yet to come

It’s 2009, going on 2010. For the past three years, the web has been morphing into a real-time and people-centric place. We've seen this trend among individual users — through their actions and demands for better social experiences — but also increasingly among companies and developers. We want a web that's more "like us" than the old model was. We want a web where people are as important to the architecture of the system as documents.

And with this new model come new opportunities for innovation and personalization. It is possible to build applications for participating in decentralized conversations around various ideas and trends. This presents a new opportunity for identity management apps, community sites, social dashboards, real-time search, messaging hubs... and even browser makers, hardware manufacturers, and ad networks. Mobile platforms are also growing, as people connect over non-desktop devices. These small handheld technologies further underscore the importance of portable identity, microcontent, decentralization, and (near) real-time delivery. A document-centric approach just doesn't make sense in a mobile world, and with new ground being broken in fields like augmented reality, demand for increasingly rich social experiences powered by open standards instead of proprietary platforms will continue to grow.

But consider the future: the benefits of a people-centric model are still evolving and remain to be fully realized. It's critical to not be complacent with the platforms we've grown so accustomed to. If you wear the developer's hat, now's the time to get on board, read the specs, and implement support for OpenID, Activity Streams, OAuth, PubSubHubbub/rssCloud, or the other mentioned open standards that are relevant to your users. If you are a user, don't be afraid to be vocal and ask the services you love to show they love you back, by giving you the rights to your data and the tools to take it with you elsewhere. If you're a business, realize that the distributed potential of the social web has barely been tapped, and that you have a choice between (as Robert Scoble calls it) gifting your branding power to someone else, or leveraging these standards to turn your own site from an island to a node in a network of social activity as wide as the web itself. In the end, the internet as a whole will be better off if we stay in control of our own destinies.


Chris and Jyri are presenting a workshop on this material at their MindTrek pre-conference tutorial on September 30th in Helsinki. Early bird tickets are still available at a discounted rate; reserve yours today! Also, don't forget you can still register for MindTrek, the Nordic conference on social media (Oct. 1st–2nd) in Tampere, Finland.

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