It’s Not Whether Google’s Threatened. It’s Asking Ourselves: What Commons Do We Wish For?

If Facebook’s IPO filing does anything besides mint a lot of millionaires, it will be to shine a rather unsettling light on a fact most of us would rather not acknowledge: The web as we know it is rather like our polar ice caps: under severe, long-term attack by forces of our own creation.

And if we lose the web, well, we lose more than funny cat videos and occasionally brilliant blog posts. We lose a commons, an ecosystem, a “tangled bank” where serendipity, dirt, and iterative trial and error drive open innovation. Google’s been the focus of most of this analysis (hell, I called Facebook an “existential threat” to Google on Bloomberg yesterday), but I’d like to pull back for a second.

This post has been brewing in me for a while, but I was moved to start writing after reading this piece in Time:

Is Google In Danger of Being Shut Out of the Changing Internet?

The short answer is Hell Yes. But while I’m a fan of Google (for the most part), to me the piece is focused too narrowly on what might happen to one company, rather than to the ecosystem which allowed that company to thrive. It does a good job of outlining the challenges Google faces, which are worth recounting (and expanding upon) as a proxy for the larger question I’m attempting to elucidate:

1. The “old” Internet is shrinking, and being replaced by walled gardens over which Google’s crawlers can’t climb. Sure, Google can crawl Facebook’s “public pages,” but those represent a tiny fraction of the “pages” on Facebook, and are not informed by the crucial signals of identity and relationship which give those pages meaning. Similarly, Google can crawl the “public pages” of Apple’s iTunes store on the web, but all the value creation in the mobile iOS appworld is behind the walls of Fortress Apple. Google can’t see that information, can’t crawl it, and can’t “make it universally available.” Same for Amazon with its Kindle universe, Microsoft’s Xbox and mobile worlds, and many others.

2. Google’s business model depends on the web remaining open, and given #1 above, that model is imperiled. It’s damn hard to change business models, but with Google+ and Android, the company is trying. The author of the Time piece is skeptical of Google’s chances of recreating the Open Web with these new tools, however.

He makes a good point. But to me, the real issue isn’t whether Google’s business model is under attack by forces outside its control. Rather, the question is far more existential in nature: What kind of a world do we want to live in?

I’m going to say that again, because it bears us really considering: What kind of a world do we want to live in? As we increasingly leverage our lives through the world of digital platforms, what are the values we wish to hold in common? I wrote about this issue a month or so ago:  On This Whole “Web Is Dead” Meme. In that piece I outlined a number of core values that I believe are held in common when it comes to what I call the “open” or “independent” web. They also bear repeating (I go into more detail in the post, should you care to read it):

No gatekeepers. The web is decentralized. Anyone can start a web site. No one has the authority (in a democracy, anyway) to stop you from putting up a shingle.

– An ethos of the commons. The web developed over time under an ethos of community development, and most of its core software and protocols are royalty free or open source (or both). There wasn’t early lockdown on what was and wasn’t allowed. This created chaos, shady operators, and plenty of dirt and dark alleys. But it also allowed extraordinary value to blossom in that roiling ecosystem.

– No preset rules about how data is used. If one site collects information from or about a user of its site, that site has the right to do other things with that data, assuming, again, that it’s doing things that benefit all parties concerned.

– Neutrality. No one site on the web is any more or less accessible than any other site. If it’s on the web, you can find it and visit it.

– Interoperability. Sites on the web share common protocols and principles, and determine independently how to work with each other. There is no centralized authority which decides who can work with who, in what way.

I find it hard to argue with any of the points above as core values of how the Internet should work. And it is these values that created Google and allowed the company to become the world beater is has been these past ten or so years. But if you look at this list of values, and ask if Apple, Facebook, Amazon, and the thousands of app makers align with them, I am afraid the answer is mostly no. And that’s the bigger issue I’m pointing to: We’re slowly but surely creating an Internet that is abandoning its original values for…well, for something else that as yet is not well defined.

This is why I wrote Put Your Taproot Into the Independent Web. I’m not out to “save Google,” I’m focused on trying to understand what the Internet would look like if we don’t pay attention to our core shared values.

And it’s not fair to blame Apple, Facebook, Amazon, or app makers here. In conversations with various industry folks over the past few months, it’s become clear that there are more than business model issues stifling the growth of the open web. In no particular order, they are:

1. Engineering. It’s simply too hard to create super-great experiences on the open web. For many high value products and services, HTML and its associated scripting languages, including HTML5, are messy, incomplete, and are not as fast, clean, and elegant as coding for iOS or the Facebook ecosystem. I’ve heard this over and over again. This means developers are drawn to the Apple universe first, web second. Value accrues where engineering efforts pay off in a more compelling user experience.

2. Mobility. The PC-based HTML web is hopelessly behind mobile in any number of ways. It has no eyes (camera), no ears (audio input), no sense of place (GPS/location data). Why would anyone want to invest in a web that’s deaf, dumb, blind, and stuck in one place?

3. Experience. The open web is full of spam, shady operators, and blatant falsehoods. Outside of a relatively small percentage of high quality sites, most of the web is chock full of popup ads and other interruptive come-ons. It’s nearly impossible to find signal in that noise, and the web is in danger of being overrun by all that crap. In the curated gardens of places like Apple and Facebook, the weeds are kept to a minimum, and the user experience is just…better.

So, does that mean the Internet is going to become a series of walled gardens, each subject to the whims of that garden’s liege?

I don’t think so. Scroll up and look at that set of values again. I see absolutely no reason why they can not and should not be applied to how we live our lives inside the worlds of Apple, Facebook, Amazon, and the countless apps we have come to depend upon. But it requires a shift in our relationship to the Internet. It requires that we, as the co-creators of value through interactions, data, and sharing, take responsibility for ensuring that the Internet continues to be a commons.

I expect this will be less difficult that it sounds. It won’t take a political movement or a wholesale migration from Facebook to more open services. Instead, I believe in the open market of ideas, of companies and products and services which identify  the problems I’ve outlined above, and begin to address them through innovative new approaches that solve for them. I believe in the Internet. Always have, and always will.


Predictions 2012 #4: Google’s Challenging Year

We Need An Identity Re-Aggregator (That We Control)

Set The Data Free, And Value Will Follow

A Report Card on Web 2 and the App Economy

The InterDependent Web

On This Whole “Web Is Dead” Meme

176 thoughts on “It’s Not Whether Google’s Threatened. It’s Asking Ourselves: What Commons Do We Wish For?”

  1. Security concerns also impact how the web will evolve. When Anonymous takes your site down the closed garden of an iOS app begins to look very attractive. 

  2. John, you are so right! The world I prefer to live in avoids the next generation of cable operators! We need diversity and we need to eliminate creating boarders; that’s what essentially makes the web so empowering!

  3. Google is ruining the web search experience by indexing brand pages and social content from your G+ network. The web search experience has always been very clean with search results on the left and ads on the right side of the page. By indexing brand pages, Google is getting more content that originates from the brand / marketing teams into the natural search results section.

    Add Facebook & Twitter streams to these and you will see very few natural results which will be really useful to your query…

    The web should go back to pre ‘Search + Your world’ update by Google…

  4. Interesting post.

    To point #2, I’ll note that Google, Mozilla, Cisco and others are currently working on both WebRTC (realtime peer-2-peer audio/video/data in HTML5 – enables video calling and a lot of other things) but also the W3C is/has defined a full set of device APIs for HTML5 (camera, mic, GPS, positional sensors, etc).  Mozilla’s “Boot 2 Gecko” project/experiment is making heavy use of them.

    In a more general way, I’ll note Mozilla’s mission and actions align with keeping the web open and moving it in that direction.  This is behind many of the mobile and device-focused efforts Mozilla has undertaken – Boot 2 Gecko, Firefox for Android, etc.  Especially these mobile devices (phones and tablets) are poised to move the web back into a technological and potential walled-garden lockin of a magnitude unseen since we broke IE6’s dominance.  It also drives our efforts to supplant or provide alternatives to convenient-but-tracing things like “Login with Facebook” (or Google, etc).

    (longtime Mozilla contributor and recent employee, posting as an individual)

    1. Agreed. I think over time this issue resolves. I just want to point out that it may not if we don’t keep up work like yours.

  5. How ironic. Google depends on open walls, yet they have hinted how they intend to shut their own. Last November Google stopped serving referral keywords from Google Search when the person searching is logged into a Google account. This resulted in websites loosing valuable keyword referral data which had been part of the Internet ecosystem since search & analytics day 1.

    1. Yes I’m not sure I get that decision, I’m sure Google has reasons, I have not read deeply on that subject. I’ll go look.

  6. You may want to know why botanical slimming soft gel want to lose weight. The first thing you need to know is that meizitang botanical slimming is not something healthy. The risk of developing heart disease will be higher if you are meizitang strong version. In fact, the risk of developing some kinds of cancer is also higher. This is already a very solid reason for you to lose weight. You want to become healthy! Of course there are also other reasons. For example, you may need to attend to the wedding of your best friend and you want to look good on her meizitang diet pills.brazil coffee,slimming coffee,weight loss coffee, brazilian slimming coffee

  7. I too, prefer the Internet over Facebook. I don’t know what is going to happen. The Internet is one of the first (if not the first) medium that is open to the entire world. If you think about, radio, press, tv and telephones have been controlled when they were created. That is the beauty of it. I hope it stays that way. The reason, while I do agree that there is filth everywhere, it’s that the place harbors or has the contribution of some of the great, anonymous minds that have shaped the Web to be this open place of absolute and pure knowledge to be shared everywhere.

    There is a Hemingway quote that is said on the movie Seven, that says, “The World is a Fine Place and Worth Fighting For”. Its true about the Internet as well.

  8. “I see absolutely no reason why they can not and should not be applied to how we live our lives inside the worlds of Apple, Facebook, Amazon, and the countless apps we have come to depend upon.”

    I’m confused. How can you apply values inside a world that the gatekeeper can prevent you from ever entering? If I’m an a developer who has an app rejected, how do I apply those values?

    1. As far as I can tell from research to date, if you do get in, you can share out. You’re right that if Apple says no, you’re hosed. Then again, Apple has let a lot of apps in that run counter to its dominance (IE other browsers, Google Voice, etc)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *