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  • June 11, 2015

Keep The Web Healthy

I truly believe in the power of this simple idea: a decentralized network can exist free from the power of governments and corporations to corrupt. The web is that network and its health is immensely important to me not only as a professional but as a member of society. It is an innovation that has spurred on communication, economic and creative revolutions. Most of our modern HTTP-driven world would not exist had Tim Berners-Lee not issued his proposal for linking documents to one another within a network. That small step has evolved into a cultural powerhouse. It has torn down and rebuilt entire industries and given many of us something to do to make ends meet. It’s in our collective interest that this continue. Decorative Illustration

Despite its importance, pinning down what the web is can be tricky. It could be defined to include native apps working with data from a “cloud”. It may or may not include behemoth social networking platforms. It could even include the wifi-connected thermostat in my home that keeps the Texas summer tolerable (at significant cost, I might add).

I take the web at face value: it is a network of hyperlinked documents. It’s simple, democratic and decentralized. In that is the true genius and power of the web. There are threats to the health of the web to be sure, but the networks it runs on are not among them. The economic interests in maintaining the internet will make sure of that. We will, as a society, generally gain enormous benefit from them whatever their potential downsides. Then what of simple hypertext and the humble anchor link?

The Native Threat

The rise of native mobile applications could pose a threat to the web. It’s only been seven years since Apple’s App Store launched, and the growth has been astounding. At WWDC this week, Tim Cook announced that 100 Billion apps have been downloaded for their platform alone.

And just as the App Store began its rise to prominence, so too did the concept of the Web Application. Ajax was a hot new technology seven years ago (even if it wasn’t really a technology—nor was it really new). “Web 2.0” was the promise of moving our computing habits off of our desktops and into web applications for everything from word processing to gaming.

Ultimately these techniques were useful for creating efficient browsing experiences and are often smartly deployed in even more fantastic ways today. But after all of the hype Google has remained the only dominant player making widely used professional applications within the browser. There are others of course, serving niche markets—but the “Web 2.0” revolution never really came to fruition.

We who build the web need to recognize the limitations of this platform that we love and leverage the advantages it gives us. This means not trying to emulate a native experience, but leveraging its open nature. This means building accessible, fast-loading, and searchable web sites with valuable information, services and experiences that will keep our beloved web healthy all the while staring directly into the face of the dreaded App Store. The web we build can live alongside the native app ecosystem with each leveraging their own strengths and making up for each weaknesses.

Regulations and Censorship

The web is a decentralized platform and is democratic in the content it serves and the technology that serves it. It lives outside the control of governments and corporations have very little to their advantage besides leveraging their own accumulated resources. Any individual with a network connected computer can publish to it. The right to be participate and engage in a global conversation gives us a part of our humanity.

This right, which could be considered a core ideal to the web, is at threat from governments and corporate conspirators. Regulating the internet should be done very carefully, slowly and deliberately—if at all. We should abhor and condemn any form of censorship over the web. The consequences (intended or not) of poorly considered rules governing activity over the network could end up killing the very thing they were designed to save. Where we see it, we should be organizing and fighting against it. There are many great organizations that take up this cause, the EFF is at the top of them. But to truly keep these forces held back from corrupting the value of what we have built, we need to speak with a louder voice and become better organized. We need to do better.

Get The Web In Shape

One of the biggest challenges facing web practitioners is getting the web to perform well. We may not be able to beat native applications’ ability to leverage a device’s hardware, but we do need to compete with them in terms of experience. This means, at the most basic level, allowing users to get to content as quickly and efficiently as possible. If we waste the time, money and patience of our audiences, they will leave us behind for content that respects them. The Facebook News service—and now Apple’s own competitor in this space—is a damning indictment of the experiences we’ve been giving our audience.

There are simple straightforward steps we can take to get a head start: optimize what you serve over the server, implement critical path css and javascript on your projects, and begin the next one with a performance budget. Take a step back and consider optimizing content and construct well conceived, thoughtfully designed content. Useless, redundant or wasteful content should be removed without hesitation. And once that’s done keep looking for new ways to improve the convenience, speed, and reliability of the web.

Privacy and Closed Systems

Facebook, Twitter and other social services provide immense value to their users. They’ve grown leaps and bounds over the past half decade and in that time they’ve become a transparent aspect of many everyday lives. However, Facebook and other walled gardens are a moral land mine. They exists to push advertising messages—the valuable services that Facebook and others offer are designed to pull in as many eyeballs as possible. They’ve leveraged our social nature as humans to sling ads and collect personal data.

Regardless of how this data is used, its collection is alarming enough. A gatekeeper is the antithesis of the web’s promise and so by extension a threat to its health. We need to step up to the challenge and serve the promise of the democratic, social flattening, globally networked and decentralized medium that powers the exchange of ideas, goods, services, social justice and human progress.

We can take this on by speaking out about the dangers and supporting initiatives (legislation or otherwise) and to pull back on this trend. However, by simply making our projects with a sense of craft, pride, transparency, openness and respect for our audiences we can reverse these intrusions by setting an example as to how the web can be built with empathy.

Rise of the Dead (Links)

The defining characteristic of the web—the hyperlink—is dying. As the web ages, older links are rotting away. What useful information that could’ve been behind them is now a mystery. How useful or trustworthy is a wikipedia entry if the linked references are dead links?

The Internet Archive is taking on the work in admirable fashion, and we should all commend (and donate) to their work. But we all should also recognize that this problem will only grow as the web does, and we need to start taking steps to not only preserve the history of the web, but also its usefulness as a medium.

We shouldn’t rely solely on a single non-profit to preserve our cultural heritage on the web. We can archive our own work in a responsible manner and we can implement 404 pages that aim to enhance the preservation of the web rather than redirecting back to a Google search. Companion libraries to the Internet Archive can and should be taking on the same task, and we should all take personal responsibility for archiving our own works as best we can.

The Web as a Garden

The web is a worthy monument for society. It cannot be taken away by apps in the app store or link bait on Facebook, but it can be lost if we don’t continue to steward this creation of ours. The web is a garden that needs constant tending to thrive. And in the true fashion of the world wide web, this is no task for one person or entity. It will require vigilance and work from us all. Creating a better web won’t always be billable to clients and it will never be perfect but it’s well worth the effort. Let’s go get our hands dirty.

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