A whole lotta shakin’ going on…

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an essay on shifts on the World Wide Web

At the end of the last millennium, people believed the first era of the web (aka WWW) was coming to an end and a new one was about to start. They named the new era web 2.0. The name didn’t quite stick, but the ideas did. They became the basis of what we later called the social web. And there was a lot of coming and going: Friendster came and went, Orkut came, was bought by Google and went, Myspace came and went, Technorati came and went, del.icio.us came and went, Yahoo and AOL came and went. Some kind of just came, like Facebook, Flickr, Twitter, Wikipedia, YouTube. Later joined by Instagram, Justin.tv/Twitch, Snapchat, TikTok and so on. Feel free to fill in the blanks, this is not an exhaustive list, of course.

It’s 20 years later and change is looming again. Twitter was part of the web 2.0 but has now been bought by a wealthy innovator who decided to make it a platform more people want to use less. Fittingly, it was renamed X, visibly breaking with the familiar moniker of open communication. In a similar pattern, the CEO of Reddit decided that having third-party apps providing access to his site is way too 2010. There are dozens of browsers that you can use to browse this platform (which Google wants to change btw.), but there can only be one app to do the same thing on mobile devices? Sounds reasonable. There was some protest about it, but apparently it didn’t really make a huge dent. But something is going on.

So while I think we don’t count in eras anymore (unless you are a Swifty), since it’s almost impossible to tell when they start or end and how many there are at any time, something is clearly changing. While new services like BlueSky or Threatds are trying to pick out the eyes of the fail whale, some people are switching over to a new kind of social media. They are not centralized (you know, like the Internet still is, and the WWW used to be back in the day). They focus on privacy, interoperability, and just like the web 2.0 services back in the day, are just not quite convenient enough yet to appeal to everybody. You need to enjoy fiddling and trying and fixing and learning stuff to get into the fediverse. Here are two explanations of what it is (and one in German). Services like Mastodon, Pixelfed, Hubzilla, Friendica, PeerTube, Lemmy and many more are talking to each other using a common language (protocol) known as ActivityPub. Because they can do that, there is not one single server in operation, but a multitude of them. Big and small ones, and you can even host your own at home or somewhere on the web. And not only can instances of the same software talk to each other (like one Mastodon server to other Mastodon servers) but different types of software (like a Mastodon server to a Pixelfed server, aka the email model). They are all interconnected to various degrees, they are federated, like the United Federation of Planets from Star Trek or the Federal Republic of Germany. And just like Germany has 16 federal states with up to 16 different versions of any sort of infrastructure or law (like education), a fediverse service can be anywhere on the planet and is suited for specific types of communication. Those may emulate existing centralized services like Twitter/X, Instagram, or YouTube. Which means, as the fediverse slowly grows and becomes more diverse and user-friendly, you might be able to replace popular services if you so choose.

For some time now, it appears that some of the big players who came to light with the web 2.0, are winding down and vanishing. Some just were unsuccessful (like MySpace, orkut, Google+) or were unlucky to be sold and re-sold to different owners (like del.icio.us or Twitter). Some services like Flickr continue to work on a subscription model. Subscriptions seem fair, because one might believe, that if you pay for the service you (=your data) are not the product. But you cannot be certain of that. Because those who still are in business, only seem to be because they stuck to a central claim of web 2.0: “Data is the next Intel Inside”. Big Data is what keeps Meta, Alphabet, Amazon, and a few others afloat. In the age of machine learning and large language models and other technologies incorrectly summarized as Artificial Intelligence, we can now see, what all that collected data buys you: a head start for the next big thing. Some political advancements (usually way behind the technology) like GDPR enable users to take back their data. But for the big data brokers and silos that already exist and which possibly have sold their data for training purposes, this may come too late.

The question is, whether people will switch to alternative, decentralized and privacy-friendly services (where those exist) and take back data autonomy. And whether we can negotiate new terms for what data can and cannot be used. Maybe we can even reign in the commercial grip on what should be public infrastructure and therefor available for everyone equally. It can be a little disheartening if you remember the early 2000s` hopefulness about the open web that we now know never was. What will the next milestone in the infancy of the World Wide Web be?

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