AbstractPublishing content online has never been easier, particularly since the rise of social media microblogging in 2008. The positive aspects of this include inclusiveness to novice web users, who can now easily contribute to a greater public discourse with no technical training. However, unlike during the previous blog-dominated era of web publishing, social users retain little control of their content. This essay argues general web users should be provided public education campaigns on the legitimate concerns over “walled gardens” online; and further, that the onus is on those most concerned by the current online publishing paradigm to model innovative, appealing alternatives.
As online publishing has become steadily easier, its ethical considerations have increased in complexity. This is largely due to modern web publishing being dominated by massive private platforms, like Facebook,Twitter, Google, Apple, and Amazon, each of which constrain free expression and engage in mass collection of user-data. By contrast, net publishing in the early 2000s, characterized by blog posts appearing on personal web domains, was rather less restrictive and invasive.
While concern over the implications of this shift is valid, it remains nonetheless possible to view the current online publishing climate as less than entirely dire.
Committed bloggers can still publish in both traditional and innovative ways, and can encourage such engagement by others. Meanwhile, concerns over mass social microblogging are justified given the billions of previously sidelined web users these sites provide with a voice online. Still, increased transparency and education regarding social media are essential, as only the choices of a well-informed public are sacrosanct.
Despite current flaws and future risks, all users of the modern Internet, at least where it remains uncensored, can and should, for the sake of promoting worldwide discourse, engage in some form of online publishing.
Discussion of the Internet’s present and future would be rudderless without provisional contextualization of its progress until now.
Starting with a broad definition, the Internet, in addition to being a place of commerce, is a publishing platform, not unlike books, newspapers, radio, or television. But unlike past platforms, the web is participatory, meaning its users both generate and consume the content. This gives the web unique potential as an open marketplace of ideas.
Perspective is also required on , from a 1995 oddity that engaged under 1% of the world to a broadly indispensable tool for over 40% of humanity today. The internet has continued to grow rapidly, passing one billion users in 2005 and reaching three billion by 2015. At a current 8% per annum, recent growth is largely attributable to the majority of access now occurring on relatively more affordable mobile devices — luxury-priced iPhones notwithstanding.
The Internet’s first popular incarnation, arising in the mid-1990s, is often called web 1.0. Most web activity at this time occurred on “read-only” sites with clear writer-reader distinctions. This changed by the early-2000s, as more users began publishing personal blogs. The arising community, sometimes called “the blogosphere,” encouraged interconnectedness through shared and swapped web links, frequently set in a “blog roll.” This era is often called early web 2.0.
The influence of bloggers was then challenged in the mid-to-late-2000s and beyond by the rise of social media microblogging on MySpace, Facebook, Twitter, Weibo, Instagram, Pinterest, and, less publicly, SnapChat, among many others. This shift represents the move toward the social web era, or late web 2.0.
The concerns traditional bloggers have with this shift were clearly expressed in December 2012 in , a widely discussed treatise by web theorist Anil Dash that was fittingly posted on his personal website, . Among other relevant points, Dash laments the decreased expectation that “regular people might own their own identities by having their own websites.”
Untangling a Web of Concerns
Like Dash, many proponents of the early-2000s era of self-run blogs decry the net’s loss of openness and interoperability, as so much publishing now occurs on massive social media sites that collect user data and constrict creative freedom.
Given these concerns, a possible starting point toward making peace with publishing online is to understand the Internet is not, nor will it ever be, fully formed. It is an ever-changing collective output composed of all our intentions, contributions, and innovations.
Upcoming and the “Internet of Things” that has already colonized many wrists, vehicles, televisions, and thermostats. While the emerging “Semantic,” or natural-language, web, widely called web 3.0, is seen in Apple’s Siri tool and Amazon’s new Echo device.
Additional progress is being made in virtual and augmented forms of web-mediated reality. Finally, the still largely theoretical AI web could become an eventual culmination of all other web advancements; it has already been termed web 4.0.
Even more disorienting than the constant change, is understanding the reality that no web incarnation is a discrete step that replaced the others. Rather, each “version” of the Internet exists simultaneously. It is simply not the case that “read-only” sites are gone, blogs are scarce, social sharing is fading, the “Internet of Things” is DOA, or that the semantic web has no role to play, and so on.
This is not to say the Internet cannot be fundamentally debased, becoming more closed, regulated, and monitored. But so far, many of the worst of these fears have been avoided, as the has maintained enough of the public’s allegiance to combat the worst potential abuses of power, especially within properly democratic nations.
That the Internet’s previous forms and broad commitment to openness remain generally intact, while its total population has exponentially grown, deflates some hand-wringing about the unstoppable rise of social media. While social publishing would certainly be a pale wholesale replacement for a traditional blog’s more robust ability to interface with issues and inspire conversation, the blogger’s ability to blog has not disappeared. So it is more accurate to view microblogging as an addition to, not a replacement for, traditional blogging.
In fact, blogging sites like Medium and tools like WordPress and SquareSpace have only made it easier for anyone to produce long form blogs on personal sites. Recently, even more websites are to attract visitors through organic web searches that now increasingly reward high word counts.
To Microblog, or…
Mass participation in social media microblogging, though rife with concerns over independence and privacy, has provided many of the web’s billions of users the ability to publish their thoughts and opinions. Through a complex network of friends-of-friends, any of that self-published original content can reach a mass audience, or “go viral.”
Barring the possibility one may not want to reach a mass audience, in which case the chosen social site’s privacy settings can be adjusted, this beneficially creates a worldwide forum in which any contributor can join with no technical training. Access to this virtual town square has proven particularly useful to historically marginalized or oppressed groups who can publish their perspectives both easily and widely, as seen in the #BlackLivesMatter movement.
However, one cannot ignore concerns that major profit-based organizations now mediate so much of that discourse through algorithm-driven streams and inflexible user experiences. Increasingly, these mega-sites strive to keep users by prioritizing natively-posted content and opening “external links” within internal tabs. The goal of which is to harvest as much data as possible from their captive audiences.
Two Paths Forward
Two approaches, if pursued together, may overcome the social web’s current constraints and redeem it as a viable publishing outlet for the mass of new web users still to come.
The first is increased education on the perils of over-reliance on social media for online self-expression and content consumption. Schools, governments, and all publishing media must continue to raise public awareness about the trade-offs of existing online in social as opposed to personal spaces. An educated populace, after all, is one whose choices thereafter must, in a democracy, be trusted on faith.
Some hopeful signs indeed are occurring that computer literacy will be a focus for future generations. In the United States, President Obama is to help bring computer programming to public schools, while a similar initiative was in British Columbia. Additionally, are being made to instruct college students on social media data collection and the benefits of .
The second approach is that those most personally engaged by the issues of walled gardens, many of whom are tech-savvy members of the former blogosphere, must take responsibility for modelling and testing viable and appealing alternatives.
Not surprisingly, some clues on how best to structure this approach come from blog-era leader Anil Dash. Also in December 2012, Dash began to point the way in , a response to his previously-mentioned post. His first bit of advice is that the Internet’s erstwhile masters, meaning himself and the entire blogosphere community, take responsibility and accept blame:
“The biggest reason the social web drifted from many of the core values of that early era was the insularity and arrogance of many of us who created the tools of the time…We favored obscure internecine battles about technical minutia over the hard, humbling work of engaging a billion people in connecting online, and setting the stage for the billions to come.”
Dash argues the social web is winning because of its superior user experiences, which will need to be matched and exceeded in order to unseat Facebook, et al. However, he refuses to see the battle to disrupt the current configuration of web publishing as any type of lost cause.
He further states Web 2.0’s stern believers will need to pioneer new funding models, bring in “blue collar” and less “homogeneous” coders, take advantage of cloud computing to reach “web scale” with minimal server investment, exploit the insularity of the walled-gardens by showing the benefits of going beyond them, create true public spaces, and, above all, continue to blog about their cause and its progress.
Putting several of these ideas into action, Dash has co-founded an app called that taps into the data in a users Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram feeds then offers concise summaries and objective observations about the activity therein. In doing so, it subtly demonstrates how much less chaotic social media could be if its true intent were to deliver utility, as opposed to essentially trapping users to study their behaviour.
Another solution to publishing ethically online in 2016 may come from a related movement called the “indie web.” The idea of which, in its most modern expression, is to not necessarily eschew social media altogether, but to ensure that anything you post online also exists within your own private domain. Websites like help even novice users accomplish this in hours.
A final consideration should be making the indie web as easy and low-commitment as possible. This may require passionate individuals, like Dash, to create truly independent, ideally non-profit, publishing platforms that the public can post on, creating sharable links in the process, just as easily as they can currently post on Facebook.
The blogging tool is a step in that direction, but its founding association with Twitter suggests little reason to believe the ultimate goals are not highly closed, commercial, and based in user-data extraction.
The Internet is vast and ever-changing. As not millions, but billions of new netizens have arrived in just the last decade, they have changed the way typical users publish online, favouring the straight-forward user experiences of massive social media sharing sites, on which they can reach audiences both large and small.
To change this trajectory would first require educating new users on the perils of “walled-gardens” online. And then offering them something better. Clearly, neither is a small feat.
But the Internet is not going away, remains remarkably open, and will always evolve. So ardent believers, many from the former blogosphere, in the ethical imperative to restore a greater overall publishing contribution to independent, non-commercial domains have two things going for them: time and their not inconsiderable ability to affect change given their skill sets.
In the meantime, the great mass of humanity will continue to do as it has ever done. It will make use of whatever available tools provide the greatest personal rewards for the least individual effort.
Ignoring rather than exploiting this natural tendency will only hurt the mass potential of any future un-walled web publishing endeavours.
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Showing 7 Reviews
Josh’s essay “Mindful Modern Web Publishing: Toward A More Ethical Engagement” touches on a lot of points. Most important, the need for computer literacy in schools today. This is necessitated by provincial governments acknowledging that this is important. As Josh iterates, it’s not an easy path, but it’s a necessary one.
The reason it’s not an easy path is, firstly, the backing by governments, schools, and the public. But as Josh illustrates in his essay, the web changes so damn fast. We are given the example of web 1.0 > web 2.0 > web 3.0 > web 4.0 in twenty years. But we can also examine the trends and fads in social media that the web has seen, which is inclusive of MSN Messenger/ICQ > MySpace > Twitter > Facebook > Instagram > Snapchat. That has all happened since 2000. Therefore, secondly, it is difficult to change curriculum so frequently because it requires people as writers, consultants, and editors. And thirdly, like the publishing industry, social programs including education, just don’t have money for those kinds of endeavours.
I think that Josh makes a great point when he mentions that the education sector in the US and BC have taken initiatives to introduce a coding course in high schools. This is one part of how computer literacy can happen — by teaching students what algorithms are and how they exist. However, I would be concerned that as a course in itself, it would be viewed similar to a course such as business or computer science. By that, I mean that only a certain demographic of high school students would register into such a course, and that would leave a lot of students blind to issues that are facing them daily as they scroll through their news feed.
Another alternative would be the imposition of a computer literacy class similar to careers/civics or media literacy in English classes. It’s important for students to understand how they are affected by conglomerate companies in order to critically look at the information they are fed. The bottom line is education. As Josh says, “An educated populace, after all, is one whose choices thereafter must, in a democracy, be trusted on faith.” Democracy is only effective when people have trust in the system. That system must be understood in every regard in order to attain that faith.
The short goal would be to have critical students, aware of how they are affected by the web today. But the larger goal would be global discourse. We are being fed our own beliefs because of algorithms, creating an endless loop of self-fulfilling prophecies. Yet, borders could be eliminated on the web. We have an opportunity to engage with people who hold different beliefs than our own. This in turn creates understanding and critical individuals, and the ideal centre of a well-functioning democracy.
This is a very thoughtful and well articulated piece on the changing nature of publishing and participation on the Web. The author demonstrates an understanding of the history, and provides his analysis of the current situation in a way that is convincing, but, from my perspective, not entirely compelling. Specifically, I found it difficult to agree with the author about the continuing openness of the web today. While there have been some successes in fighting off the closing off of the web, there are many more instances there has been little to no resistance. As a corollary, the piece ends up downplaying the negative consequences that people like Dash are warning about. Of course, it could be that being part of the old guard myself, I am particularly sensitive to the issues and not quite ready to accept that things might not be so dire.
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This article and its reviews are distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and redistribution in any medium, provided that the original author and source are credited.