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Candy and soda might, under certain circumstances, have a negative impact on an individual's health. But most of us would probably find it ridiculous to state that candy and soda threaten the existence of the human race.
The man who invented the web, however, might be accused of making an equivalent argument when it comes to the web's version of candy and soda -- all of those 'closed' services so many of us love, like Facebook and iTunes.
In a Scientific American piece, Tim Berners-Lee, argues that some of the web's "most successful inhabitants have begun to chip away at its principles." Those principals? According to Berners-Lee, "The web evolved into a powerful, ubiquitous tool because it was built on egalitarian principles."
The inhabitants apparently working against egalitarian principals include the consumer internet's most cherished online treasures:
Social-networking sites present a different kind of problem. Facebook, LinkedIn, Friendster and others typically provide value by capturing information as you enter it: your birthday, your e-mail address, your likes, and links indicating who is friends with whom and who is in which photograph. The sites assemble these bits of data into brilliant databases and reuse the information to provide value-added service—but only within their sites. Once you enter your data into one of these services, you cannot easily use them on another site.
This is apparently very, very bad:
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.
Berners-Lee's plea to save the web from itself touches on everything from the threat of social networks to network neutrality. And it's usually as wrong as it is impassioned.
From the very beginning, Berners-Lee's belief that "egalitarian principles" drove the web's rise masks the real story, which is the important part: as the internet became accessible to the average person, really cool things were built on it. Startups like Yahoo pioneered the ability to search for useful and interesting information on the web. Companies like Amazon and eBay made it possible to shop without leaving your home. And so on and so forth. The value of the things that were becoming available on the internet attracted more and more people, incentivizing investment in infrastructure and driving down access costs.
The average person didn't really care how the web worked, because the web has never been about technology. In the absence of a useful online offerings and content developed by individuals, entrepreneurs and businesses, the web wouldn't have been popular today.
When it comes to the 'closed' social networks that Berners-Lee is concerned about, most of his criticisms could have been leveled at AOL in its hey-day. AOL's walled garden eventually withered up and died, of course. The market presented consumers with alternatives, and what was in AOL's walled garden became far less attractive than what was outside of it. Berners-Lee acknowledges this, but he doesn't trust the market. Somehow, "If a walled garden has too tight a hold on a market, however, it can delay that outside growth," as if markets are destined to grow at a particular pace and in particular fashion because somebody believes it so.
Will Facebook, et. al. meet the same fate as AOL 1.0? Only time will tell. Facebook isn't AOL in that anyone with internet access can set up a Facebook account, but the world's largest social network certainly faces plenty of challenges in the years to come. So long as it continues to provide an experience that's sufficiently attractive, however, chances are plenty of people will find that Facebook is making life better, not worse. Closed model or not.
The same goes for iTunes, which is also criticized by Berners-Lee. "You are trapped in a single store, rather than being on the open marketplace. For all the store's wonderful features, its evolution is limited to what one company thinks up," he laments. But again, Berners-Lee conveniently ignores the reality: 'marketplaces' have multiple vendors! If you don't like what's in Apple's store, the solution is simple: go to another store. Can't find a store that offers what you want. Do what countless others have: start your own!
When one looks at Berners-Lee's commentary, a clear pattern emerges: many of the web's most popular offerings (and their purveyors) are really, really bad. The subtitle of Berners-Lee's piece argues that "the web is critical...to our continued prosperity — and even our liberty", and that "like democracy itself, it needs defending."
But the rub is in who is going to do the defending. Behind Berners-Lee's piece lies a belief that is as paternalistic as it is misguided. The belief: people who are smarter than you, including technocrats like the web's 'inventor', know what's best for the web.
Such a view, of course, is at odds with the concepts of liberty and democracy, and it's detrimental to innovation to boot. When it comes to what offerings sink or swim on the web, each person gets to vote every single day with his or her clicks. If the web is truly built on egalitarian principals, it doesn't get more egalitarian than that.
The market doesn't lie. Its signals reveal what people want and need, and what they value most. Berners-Lee would like to ignore those signals because today's web doesn't match his own vision of what the web should be, but on a daily basis, it is individuals -- not the man who 'invented' the web -- who decide where the web goes.
Thankfully, that's the way it should be.