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The missing building blocks of the web

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 03, 2018

The original promise of the Web was “small pieces loosely joined” but has over time became “walled gardens fighting each other”, an approach that’s been under increasing scrutiny lately. In The Missing Building Blocks of the Web, Anil Dash argues that some neglected precepts of hypertext and the web could help steer us back towards a place that’s more oriented towards people, to “rebuild the web into something that has the potential, excitement, and openness that got so many of us excited about it in the first place”. One of the concepts he highlights is authoring:

When Tim Berners-Lee invented the world wide web, he assumed that, just like in earlier hypertext systems, every web browser would be able to write web pages just as easily as it read them. In fact, that early belief led many who pioneered the web to assume that the format of HTML itself didn’t matter that much, as many different browsing tools would be able to create it.

In some ways, that’s true — billions of people make things on the web all the time. Only they don’t know they’re making HTML, because Facebook (or Instagram, or whatever other app they’re using) generates it for them.

Interestingly, it’s one of Facebook’s board members that helped cause this schism between reading and writing on the web. Marc Andreessen pioneered the early Mosaic web browser, and then famously went on to spearhead Netscape, the first broadly-available commercial web browser. But Netscape wasn’t made as a publicly-funded research project at a state university — it was a hot startup company backed by a lot of venture capital investment.

It’s no surprise, then, that the ability to create web pages was reserved for Netscape Gold, the paid version of that first broadly consumer-oriented web browser. Reading things on the web would be free, sure. But creating things on the web? We’d pay venture-backed startup tech companies for the ability to do that, and they’d mediate it for us.

Dash also argues for more embedding — not just YouTube videos but “a little functional part of one website embedded in another”. I know this isn’t what he’s referring to, but embedding is anything but neglected: the entire online advertising and tracking industry (Google, Facebook, etc.) is built on embedding little bits of their sites on billions of other web pages. Maybe a little bit less of that sort of embedding?