The Ikeaisation of the Web

Several months ago, I read an interview with Facebook’s director of product design, Jon Lax (published in May 2016), which contained so many utterly wrong statements that it made me feel angry. Put in a nutshell: websites are a dying business, it’s a good thing that design tends to look more and more the same and the Web we know will soon become the vinyl record of technological history (I’ll ignore rhetorical gimmicks like ‘may’ and ‘probably’). When someone has an opinion that doesn’t match my personal view of things, that’s fine. When this someone is the director of product design of one of the most influential companies on the planet, opinions are always strategic statements. And in that case, these statements affect something I love, respect and care for: the Open Web.

So what?

Yes, the fact that someone working for a huge business does his or her best to serve the interests of the company doesn’t really come by surprise. The problem lies deeper. While in the early days, companies tried to make use of the Web in the best possible way and adapt their business to the new rules, they now play a major role in shaping the future of the Web. Netflix, Youtube and Apple work on adaptive video streaming standards and Web-TV solutions, Amazon on cloud-computing services, IoT solutions and drone delivery, Facebook and Google on profitably integrating the world’s contents into their platforms, and all of them on virtual reality, connected driving experiences, user-tracking, big data analytics, deep learning, recommender systems and personalized ads. That’s fine. Let them do that.

What makes me angry is how the Web itself is more and more seen solely as an environment for professional products and services. In favour of product innovation, web technology became so complex, that the average user lacks even the most basic knowledge of the Web’s core concepts and mechanisms.

The massive amateur and DIY-culture that made the Web attractive for businesses in the first place is now merely referred to as something nostalgic. Instead of a profound Web Literacy Education, young people learn in school how to properly use Facebook and WhatsApp. Software companies or creative agencies don’t care how things are being made, as long as the user experience is good. People don’t care if they use an app or a website (given that they even know the difference). If Facebook can deliver news articles faster and in a more homogeneous appearance inside their app, people will of course take that. Everyone got so used to aesthetically pleasing and perfect designs, that it became one of the main user demands.

The thing is: institutions as big as Facebook don’t just react to user demands. They actively shape and control them.

In order to integrate more and more sophisticated products into the Web, new standards, frameworks and means of content delivery are brought forward. These result in more homogeneous appearances and professionalized workflows in the form of frontend component libraries, design rules, build environments and application wrappers. On a more general level, companies like Facebook and Apple of course do their best to move things into a space they control. This happens with news contents, but also by advocating the idea that nobody needs to build their own websites or apps when they can just use the Facebook ecosystem for that (because, as Jon Lax puts it, “technically, that’s very complicated”).

You could of course make it easier, you could of course be a driving force in Web Literacy Education and amateur programming courses, you could of course use the power you have to enable people to actively build and create things, rather than filling out a form on your platform. You could of course work on long-term business models that serve your company’s interests while simultaneously contributing to the environment they are built upon. But that’s not on the narrow-minded, shortsighted agenda.

As things are getting more complex and the speed of technological inventions increases, smaller businesses and startups try to keep up by adapting their products and services to the agenda of the big players. If Facebook says, websites are a dying business and native apps are the future, it might be wise to shift your own focus too. They got to know, right? What they achieved is where we all want to get at some point with our own killer apps and futuristic business ideas.

The Web is so much more than that!

Let’s step back for a moment.

The Web we know is built on a simple promise: connect two documents with a hyperlink in order to create a Word Wide Web of documents, accessible through a browser:

<a href="">Link</a>

This concept has a long history. In 1960, Ted Nelson founded Project “Xanadu”, in which he envisioned a system that is capable to manage the creation, storage and reception of document units, based on their origin. In Xanadu, Nelson also imagined a deep versioning system which would manage the creation of resources in order to avoid duplicates and dead links. While the described parts of the Xanadu Project were only built as a prototype, the concept of links in between document fragments influenced all following hypertext systems, including the World Wide Web.

Screenshot of the XanaduSpace 1.0 Prototype
Screenshot of the XanaduSpace 1.0 Prototype

The origin of Nelson’s idea can partly be found in the “Memex” concept, formulated by Vannevar Bush in 1945. Regarding links, Bush imagined a system that would allow the creation of “trails” through fragments of personal documents. Those trails would be created by the user and were meant to reflect the way the human brain stores and retrieves knowledge through associative connections. The trail concept also comprises the notion of the direction of a particular reference as well as the possibility to link from one fragment to several other fragments and vice versa.

Besides many other promising ideas, multidimensional links (one-to-many documents) did not find their way into the World Wide Web (which may or may not at some point be solved through Semantic Web Technologies and Linked Open Data, but that’s another story). But if you ever read a piece of HTML code, you may have noticed something like:

<a href="chapter2.html" rel="prev">Chapter 2</a>
<a href="chapter4.html" rel="next">Chapter 4</a>

The link types “next” and “prev” let us define the position of one document within a sequence of documents (“incoming” and “outgoing” links if you wish). But it gets even better: Did you know there is a link type “first”, which lets us link to the starting point of a document sequence?

<a href="chapter0.html" rel="first">Chapter 0</a>

Now think about it. Besides linking to the first in a sequence of chapters, couldn’t this be re-purposed to specify the original source in a sequence of citations?

<a href="original.html" rel="first">Original Source</a>

Pretty useful in times of a “Fake News” debate, right? Of course you’d still need some kind of versioning system to verify sources, but it would be a first step.
But like many good ideas, the “first” link type is now marked obsolete in the HTML standard (same goes for the “rev” attribute for reverse links).

The thing is: instead of focusing on such very basic concepts, web technology rushes towards ever more complex systems, in which a single link is not much more than just a generated piece of code, compiled through a series of abstraction levels, preprocessors and application wrappers.

While in the early 90s (yes, nostalgic reference), a community of writers, poets, technologists and cognitive scientists profoundly evaluated the properties and functions of a link, the writers and poets now care for publishing platforms, the technologists for automation pipelines and the cognitive scientists for big data analytics and deep learning.

The conscious use of technological possibilities (e.g. in electronic literature) has lead to the definition of the first generalized models for hypertext and hypermedia, as well as the emergence of entire new genres (like “Hyperfiction”). Of course these sometimes highly theoretical approaches also slowed down technological developments in the field. But speed and efficiency just weren’t the measurements.
And they shouldn’t be the sole ones now.

What can we do?

  • Inspect Element and View Source

    If you have not yet done so, right click any element on a webpage and choose “Inspect Element”. Start playing around, change contents, colors or sizes. Trust me, you will get curious what else is possible and at some point create your first HTML document. This is how most web developers started. It doesn’t mean you have to become a developer, but it gives you a basic understanding of the architecture and mechanisms you are using every day. And it’s fun.

  • Start your own experiment

    Just think of a small problem you want to solve, something you always wanted to understand, and start building it with open web technologies. You will be amazed how many well documented resources there are that help you during these first steps and how many nice people are out there that are willing to explain and help.

  • Study the Web

    If you are more interested in the bigger picture, study Web Science, Digital Humanities or Computer Science. But be aware that some Computer Scientists may not fully embrace the idea of a simple Web and might rather want to reduce it to an “Export to Web” routine in their sophisticated workflow. That’s fine. The sooner you start learning, the sooner you will know better.

  • Help others

    As soon as you’re able to write a small piece of HTML, CSS or Javascript code, you are ready to start helping others solve their small problem. Become one of the nice people who once helped you understand things.

  • Share your work and knowledge

    The Web, more than any other open source environment, is built on the freedom to use, study, remix and share. Teach your skills to others, don’t be protective and share your creations. Contribute your thoughts and knowledge to the community.

  • Spread the word

    Go out there and tell people that it makes a difference which browser they use, which technology they support through daily consumption and that there’s a whole world to discover beyond the walled gardens of a handful of social media platforms. Advocate the idea of a do-it-yourself Web, where the user is in control and not just an anonymous subject of marketing analytics.

  • Start with your peers

    You don’t have to jump on a big stage or become a great writer. Just start with the people around you. If you wholeheartedly embrace the idea of an Open Web for all of us, you will be able to inspire others and get them on the team.

  • Support those who fight for you

    There are many great organizations and communities which already fight every day to keep things open, accessible and publicly standardized. Find them and support them supporting you.

When they say the Web is like box a of Lego, that’s a huge underestimation. The Web is like a box of Lego, where everyone can create their own bricks, use them twice at the same time for an entirely different structure, paint them with pink dots, scratch out the trademark and round the edges, while still being able to connect them to other bricks. Around the world. At no cost.

Facebook, dear Jon Lax, is just one website, which we currently use to share things with friends.

It may have been a mistake that such social networking capabilities weren’t integrated into the Web’s technological core at some point (in an open, decentralized and webby way). But that might one day be solved.

Until then, please leave my Web alone.

Further Reading