Whose Web Service Is It Anyway?
When I first read David Lazarus’s "Web 2.0 is all about the money," I was livid. I contemplated a scathing rebuttal refuting everything he said and adding some personal insults for good measure. Such a violent response is most unlike me. Generally speaking, I am a laid back guy; so why did this spark such a response in me?
We react most viscerally to those things that touch on our vulnerabilities and areas that we care about deeply. Invariably, if I feel an overwhelming need to refute someone else’s position in public, it’s because of the truth in it, not the falsehood. So Lazarus's article triggered a virulent immune response in me, and I want to analyze why this was so.
First, what is web 2.0? This Tim O'Reilly article offers one good perspective, defining the qualities of a web 2.0 company. From my perspective, the advantage of web 2.0 is that it puts users in the middle of the picture. In the classic ‘web architecture diagram’ the middle of the page is filled with companies and systems talking to each other and round the edges are eyeballs, click-throughs, attention streams…. People. In web 2.0 the diagram should have the user at the center and we are thinking about how the systems revolve around and serve that person, not the other way around. This is called ‘User Centric Architecture’.
Why my personal attachment to all this? Well, my work is often included under the web 2.0 umbrella. I specialize in identity standards and data sharing standards; I spend my time trying to invent, implement and drive adoption of ways for people to reclaim privacy and security on the web. I don’t do this alone. I am privileged to work with top architects at many of the big software companies, tech foundations, academic institutions and individual contributors of astounding intellect. My evaluation, having worked with these guys, deeply, for many years now, is that we are all genuinely motivated by unselfish, altruistic goals. We can rationalize both bottom line and top line business cases for our technologies, otherwise no one would even talk to us, but deep down we are truly trying to improve the internet for individuals.
So what royally pisses me off is when people look at a single business case - such as Lazarus’s focus on Google buying DoubleClick - and declare the entire user-centric identity movement to be cynically motivated.
Yes, Lazarus is right: Google buying DoubleClick is scary shit. The amount of accumulated knowledge Google already has about each of us is already mindboggling. I am seriously considering switching to a different search engine to stop feeding the Google monster. They no longer have that feisty startup, "one of us," "you can trust them," kind of vibe. They are starting to feel like the Microbucks or Starsoft of Big Search, the corporate behemoth forced to constantly absorb new technology or face the wrath of their share holders.
But let's not jump to conclusions. Just because Google fits many of the criterion of a web 2.0 company, and Google suddenly starts to act in a manner that is potentially ambiguous from a ‘user centric’ perspective, this does not mean that all web 2.0 companies, technologists, and tech evangelists are cynical, money-grabbing scum.
Maybe I’m just a starry-eyed optimist suffering from incurable naiveté, but I tend to think that most people are basically okay. In my line of work, I often interface with those individuals in large corporations responsible for making their organizations more sustainable and socially responsible. I find these folks genuinely horrified by the amoral practices of corporate enterprises around the world. They want to make a real difference. They aren’t greenwashing and perpetuating destructive practices for the benefit of PR. Unfortunately, sometimes they improve one aspect of a company's practices, while another division does something questionable. But this doesn't invalidate their work, or the ongoing effort to improve corporate practices. The same principle holds true when it comes to building a better internet.
I have enough trouble with people who insist that the world is going to hell in a handbasket and there’s no point trying to make a difference, without pundits like Lazarus who perpetuate cynicism and make overarching generalizations from specific cases (as my couples therapist tells us, that’s a bad thing to do.). Today we live in a feudal internet where corporate ‘landlords’ control every aspect of the web; every action you take is subject to observation, the fruit of your activity is harvested by others and sold, without your knowledge, participation or approval. This is wrong… but it can be changed. I am working with very smart people to make this change a reality.
I’m sure that back in the Middle Ages when serfs and yeomen first muttered about throwing off the yoke of oppression many said that nothing could be done. Several revolutions later, the pessimists were proved wrong (in many places, while in many places that struggle still continues). So the last thing I need is people pointing fingers at our work and questioning the motivations. I know a lot of the people who are driving web 2.0 from within big organizations and from small grass roots startups and I know them to be, on the whole, good people who are trying to do a lot more than just make money. I know people at Google and I have seen their passion for user centric, truly secure, infrastructure. That doesn’t mean that I agree with everything they do, it doesn’t mean that one person, or even a small group of people in an organization that size, can stop them from doing some scary stuff. I do know that there are people on the inside trying to make sure that things are improved; people that genuinely care about improving privacy and security for Google users. Let’s support them, not shoot them down. The same is true for the entire web 2.0 movement, let’s support the good and question the bad. Let’s not throw the baby out with the bath water.
My primary focus in blog will be the ongoing struggle to create an Internet that serves the public interest, one that incorporates the highest ideals that the evolution of web 2.0 points toward. I will watch the industry and I will watch the tech watchers and give you my honest perspective. I will tell you about companies that are doing good work and trying to improve things, and alert you to those that are being sneaky. In the same way as buying green produce supports and helps people make deeper changes in industry practices, we can vote with our on-line attention and dollars, giving our business to those online companies who put you in the middle of the picture.
Andy Dale spends his time trying to make the internet a better place for people to do what they want to get done.Tweet