I recently finished the very good, classic work Small Pieces Loosely Joined, by David Weinberger. I enjoyed it very much (my brief review is here).
book is 12 years old, however, and the Web has changed a lot in that
time. While I found many of the ideas, especially the philosophical
ideas about the Web, both insightful and applicable, as I was reading, I
couldn't help but think about the ways in which the Web has drifted
from the Web Weinberger knew in 2002.
In fact, coincidentally, Weinberger himself recently wrote
about one of the ways that the web changed since then. Weinberger knew
that it was social, but in the early days, that sociability was built
almost exclusively around interests - mailing lists, irc channels,
forums, blogs - they are all built around people interested in the
content that is produced. Now, much more of the experience of the web is
built around real-world relationships - Facebook, Snapchat, Twitter,
etc. For most people, these are populated primarily with people who they
know. In ways that are both good and bad, the web is more intimate and
more insular than it was.
Secondly, the web was a
purpose-built place. Many of Weinberger's arguments revolve around the
idea that the web is a place apart from the "real world" - where what is
created is created intentionally, and build around the interests of its
creators. While the core of this claim is still true today, much of the
web is now co-created with algorithms.
There are very few
web pages that are designed exactly as they are. Most pages at least
have ads which are chosen and served up by an algorithm. Many are
created by algorithms in even more explicit ways. For example, Amazon
suggests other items that you might be interested in, based on what
similar consumers purchased in the past. Your Facebook feed is filtered
based on the relationships you have with others - how many times you've
liked someone's posts, how many friends you have in common, etc.
is really interesting - we are living in a space that is altered based
on what browser we are using, what sites we have visited, what purchases
we have made, etc. It's as though when you went to the mall, all the
stores you like were put closest to the entrance, and the salad places
magically disappeared from the food court. Then, when the next person
came in, their favorite stores and food magically moved to prime
There are some dangers. The idea of a filter bubble
is one - the idea is that it is good for us to be exposed to things we
don't like, ideas we disagree with, etc. While I agree that this is
something to worry about, let's not forget how amazing what we have is -
the algorithm-based world of the web is one with better ads, more
interesting content, and ways to find and connect with others who have
things to say which are particularly interesting to us.