Since I had a terrifying dentist appointment the other day I needed something to listen to whilst I clenched my fists in absolute terror. And that’s when I realized that I hadn’t listened to Web History yet, originally written by Jay Hoffman over on CSS-Tricks and now excellently narrated by Jeremy Keith.
It’s real good and works perfectly as a podcast. Starting at the very beginning of the Internet (the pipes, the infrastructure, and the remarkable invention of packet switching), Web History dives into the beginning of the standards process and the browser wars, and then looks into the communities—like Neopets—that first appeared, and then grew, and then vanished (almost!).
Sitting down in that chair whilst the dentist kicked my ass, I realized once again how marvelous the web is. It’s still a beautiful, impossible idea:
It was hard to explain, difficult to demo, and had overly lofty ambition. It was created by a man who didn’t have much interest in marketing his ideas. Even the name was somewhat absurd. “WWW” is one of only a handful of acronyms that actually takes longer to say than the full “World Wide Web.”
This is what’s shocking to me whenever someone tells me that the web is for “more than documents” as if, well, documents and writing and language zipping between us all isn’t somehow magic enough. So listening to Jeremy read Hoffman’s blinding enthusiasm and excitement for the web was genuinely inspiring. It made me wanna sit at my desk and tinker with new, weird ideas.
Afterwards, I began comparing all this hope and enthusiasm that I still have for the web with Robin’s notes on web3. His piece is excellent and kind and although he disagrees fundamentally with web3 and all the awfulness of it, he still has the humility to explore why folks are so drawn to it:
I think Web3 is propelled by exhaustion as much as by excitement. This isn’t apparent on the surface, but I believe it’s there, lurking just below. If you are 22 years old, Twitter has been around for about as long as you’ve known how to read. YouTube is fixed as firmly as the stars. I honestly don’t know how that feels, but I wonder if it’s claustrophobic?
This is an important point Robin’s making in this post: the web is just not as exciting to most folks as it was several decades ago. In fact, if anything, it’s seen as a paved-over, pre-built thing now. The web is something that can no longer be improved or pushed forwards for most folks. And now we rarely see optimism about the web in the press or in popular culture (and for good reason!). But the problem is that today the web is only shown as a place to go and do bad things, not fall in love, or discover who you are, or build something lovely in. The web poisons those we love; it gets your grandad to join a cult, it makes our children depressed, etc.
Claustrophobic is certainly not how I feel about the web, but I imagine most people do. They feel trapped by it. The future feels like it’s already owned by Google or Facebook or some other enormous corporate interest, so I can understand that impulse to create something new like web3 because of that. Fuck the corpos, man! Let’s build our own thing!
But ugh. I can’t help but feel that all these crypto folks are looking in the wrong place. Merging the blockchain and the web is not how we make the web better, less scary, more safe, more free. The blockchain is not punk rock.
On this note: Ethan wrote about the problems with AMP and how it was very un-web like back when Google forced publishers to use it and single-handledly messed with an entire industry. But instead of digging into the specifics of the AMP “standards”, Ethan quotes Ursula Franlin where she reminds us to think about which people a specific technology helps and which it hurts:
The questions to ask are “Whose benefits? Whose risks?” rather than “What benefits? What risks?”
Who is the web for? Everyone, everywhere, and not only the few with a financial stake in it. It’s still this enormously beautiful thing that has so much potential.
But web3? That’s just not it, man.