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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.

Patricio Robles

Published 24 November, 2010 by Patricio Robles

Patricio Robles is a tech reporter at Econsultancy. Follow him on Twitter.

2377 more posts from this author

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Alan L

I thoroughly disagree with both the thrust and the content of this article. The market achieves traction through emotion far more than it does through rationale. Any marketing study you care to look at will verify this.

If you believe that by constantly pursuing your emotional impulses you will live a contented, balanced, meaningful life, then by all means carry on embracing the market. If, however, you think that constantly pursuing your emotional impulses will lead you to overspend, overeat, oversleep, overindulge in escapist activities and rarely if ever plan for the future, then perhaps tempering those impulses with informed rationale is a considered approach and, just perhaps, people who are smarter than you (there are some) really do know what's best for you, better than you do.

Such an approach is not at all incompatible with the ideals of liberty and democracy. Imagine, if you will, that the US constitution was crowdsourced on Facebook instead of written by the framers (who were smarter than you).

How long do you think the USA would have lasted?

over 5 years ago

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Raul

Great article Patricio. I think that if Berners-Lee thinks that Facebook and iTunes are not the kind of platforms good for people/internet, closed model as such, makes him hypocritical. People choose to be in those closed marketplaces, cause they provide the best options and value. Who doesn't like that? And isn't that what the web is for? Finding the best solution for your needs from thousands and thousand of products and pages. I agree that Facebook is already a world of it's own. And people like it, or else they wouldn't be there. Saying, that something is bad for the web, something that you shouldn't use. Makes you the same closed model guy you're fighting against. What do you think?

over 5 years ago

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Kat

Is it possible to be any more, smug, pompous and downright idiotic in one article? If embracing the market and ignoring the tech were the key you'd currently be paying over the odds to access various sites depending on what your ISP decided to charge along with all the other 'fun' corporate interests would bring. Grow up and next time try to write an article with some actual facts instead of this type of masturbatory nonsense.

over 5 years ago

Patricio Robles

Patricio Robles, Tech Reporter at Econsultancy

Alan,

Essentially you're saying that people are stupid, and shouldn't be allowed to make decisions for themselves. Hence, when it comes to the internet, Tim Berners-Lee and other technocrats should, by decree, determine what the web looks like and how it works. Facebook is bad, so we need to change it, or perhaps force everyone to use a 'better' social network, like Diaspora. We'd be doing everyone a favor, right?

Simple question: should a small group of people, and not consumers, be able to force Facebook and Apple to run their services in a different manner so that those services are operating consistently with a set of 'principles' determined by that small group of people? Yes or no? I eagerly await your answer.

As it relates to the US Constitution, it was drafted at a convention in which each state's legislature sent a representative. The process was laborious. Once finished, the document was then ratified by the states themselves. So trying to imply that the creation of the US Constitution was somehow an act of a benevolent cartel of elders made on behalf of people who were too stupid to think for themselves shows a gross lack of historical knowledge. You should not forget that the US Constitution was the product of a bloody revolution that rejected a particular form of governance.

Finally, you should note that the US Constitution contains only negative rights. In other words, it forbids others from infringing upon your ability to overspend, overeat, oversleep and overindulge in escapist activities. Which is a good thing. Because if an individual or group of people can prevent you from overspending, overeating, oversleeping or overinduldging in escapist activities, it doesn't take a Mensa member to recognize that they can just as easily prevent you from engaging in more 'beneficial' behaviors.

Kat,

It's telling that your comment has more name-calling than it has evidence for your claims.

over 5 years ago

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Ming

There's a clue in here: 

"The belief: people who are smarter than you, ... know what's best...."

Uh, yes.

Facebook - is simply the most creepy thing I've ever witnessed. Lonely people writing way too much about themselves, lurkers spying on others, ugh. It might be "real life" but not when it is recorded and analysed by anonymous creeps whose only motivation is to profit from your data.

So, yes, I'd listen to Sir Tim.

over 5 years ago

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Jonathan Wolf

This article is completely misguided. Patricio, this is like saying that because you live in your home, you should be responsible for deciding building code regulations that dictate how your home must be built. Sir Tim's point is that the internet reached a point where sites like Facebook could exist because it remained open, letting each genius stand on the shoulders of their predecessors. You, me, and the other average users SHOULD let people smarter than us decide how homes should be built since we don't know anything about it. Feel free to adapt my analogy to any other industry or technology and I feel it's just as apt. It's not Facebook's popularity that he is against; it's Facebook's closed walls. As proof that "Facebook as your one-stop shop" is bad, try using their search feature to find ANYTHING on the site....potential new friends, brand pages, etc. It's absolutely horrible. Imagine having to use this to search the web at large. The Googles of the world exist because the web was standardised enough for the search engines to start crawling. Also, the fact that you belittle Sir Tim's claims the openness needs defending a la democracy is also confusing. History has shown that humankind are greedy and selfish and that democracy DOES need defending. Throughout history, we greedy individuals seize power, money, and data for our benefit and eventually a revolution of the people overtake us. I obviously agree with Sir Tim, but I think the outcome is that Facebook, et al, will become more open...or that we will overthrow them and move on the next option. There hasn't been a technology yet that we haven't eventually moved on from, and a closed Facebook is just another example.

over 5 years ago

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Matt

I'm in 100% agreement with Jonathan on this one.

over 5 years ago

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Alan L

Patricio, It's good that you feel passionate about this topic, but you mustn't misrepresent the opinions of others. "Essentially you're saying that people are stupid, and shouldn't be allowed to make decisions for themselves." No, I'm saying that those who are unqualified experts in any given field would do better to defer to more qualified experts in that field. The market does a good job of convincing people via emotive channels to act outside their own best mid-term and long-term interests by employing anecdote and emotional appeals. This works not least because humans are evolutionary creatures and we are tuned in to our emotional responses evolved in an environment we persevered in for 200,000 years as a means of survival in all sorts of situations. But just because our natural reactions tell us that something is beneficial for survival ("Eat sugar when you find it"), doesn't mean that it is right to continue paying attention to such basic survival reactions in the contemporary environment (where, for instance, sugar is ubiquitous). On US constitutional matters, I defer to you, Patricio. As you correctly guessed I am no scholar of this subject and given, not least, that you have direct experience of US constitutional affairs, it is only right that I should acknowledge your superior understanding of such matters, is it not? I did not talk of "decrees" or of "forcing" - those are your words, not mine - but it is well that those who do actually know what they are talking about should be heeded by those with less knowledge, is it not?

over 5 years ago

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Alan L

To answer your question: "Simple question: should a small group of people, and not consumers, be able to force Facebook and Apple to run their services in a different manner so that those services are operating consistently with a set of 'principles' determined by that small group of people? Yes or no? I eagerly await your answer." No. A small group of people should not be able to force Facebook and Apple to run their services in a different manner, according to that group's self-authored principles. Should they even try? No. Are closed networks bad for the web? Yes.

over 5 years ago

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o

"incentivizing investment in infrastructure" -- anyone who talks like this (you) is self-promoting marketing scum with no understanding of anything. Sir Tim B-L has a deep technical understanding of the Web and his points are valid, not that you'd see why. Shame on you.

over 5 years ago

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