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Bringing Back a More Spirited Web

Web Trend Map

That image above, resembling a subway map, is an imaginative visualization of the World Wide Web in 2007.1 The company that created this graphic, the design firm Information Architects, stopped updating it in 2011.

In a recent blog post, they explain why there won’t be a 2018 edition: “The most important ingredient for a Web Trend Map is missing: The Web.”

The Web has lost its spirit. The Web is no longer a distributed Web. It is, ironically, a couple of big tubes that belong to a handful of companies. Mainly Google (search), Facebook (social) and Amazon (e-commerce). There is an impressive Chinese line and there are some local players in Russia, Japan, here and there. Overall it has become monotonous and dull.

How can we fix that, and bring back at least some of that spirit? The folks at iA suggest we need more bloggers, those who used to write online and those new to the concept.

If you are one of those old or young bloggers, please join in. Drop Facebook, drop Twitter and drop Medium for original thought. Own your traffic. You can use them to engage in discussion. But don’t get lost in there. Write daily. Publish as often as you have something to say. Link to other blogs.

Completely agree. I would especially love to see more teachers online, posting content to their own domains instead of to Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and the other closed tubes. Creating communities of educators that own and control their message. Instead of producing material for greater advertising sales.


Thanks to Doug Belshaw for the link that triggered this rant. He includes lots of interesting links like that in his free weekly newsletter, Thought Shrapnel.

1. Click the image to see a larger, more readable version.

Still Blogging, And Everything Else

Dave recently returned from a year-long blog hiatus, the natural consequence of completing a doctoral program, to ask Does Anyone Still Blog?. My first response was to say, of course. There are plenty of us still working in this structure called blogging, even if the term has been largely drained of it’s original meaning.

However, after more thought and a wonderfully thought provoking talk by Jim Groom, Dave’s question becomes more complex and undeserving of a simple yes or no answer.

Jim discussed A Domain of One’s Own and DS106, two projects out of the University of Mary Washington with the goal of empowering students, faculty, and pretty much anyone else in their community, to be a web publisher and, more importantly, to control their digital identity.

It’s not about writing personal posts that are displayed in reverse chronological order. At least not ONLY about that. People Instagram, Facebook, Vine, Tube, pin, and publish their content in a variety of formats, including text-based blogs, using an ever expanding collection of tools.

Jim, and his colleagues, caution that when we add our work to those other sites, we are contributing to their content and thus ceding control of our work to those companies. Instead of, or maybe in addition to, everyone needs their own place on the web to present their digital presence in exactly the way they want the world to see them. And it needs to start before students arrive at college.

Here in the overly-large school district we’ve talked for years about the idea of student portfolios, a place for kids to keep their work from year to year, built as they progress from the elementary years to graduation. The discussion always comes back to the how: what storage system could we use that is both flexible enough to handle any format and is not dependent on location? And never forget security!

Maybe we need to start A Domain of One’s Own far earlier than freshman year of college. What if every child got their own domain when they entered Kindergarten?1 What if we started in elementary school to help kids build their digital presence in responsible ways that reflected their personalities. To learn what it means to publish to a larger audience?

As soon as I typed that last paragraph I could already hear some of my colleagues reciting the usual COPPA this and FERPA that lines. I know there are problems to be worked out but it’s a concept that needs to be addressed. Many, if not most, of our kids are already publishing in the real world, while we still live under the illusion that we can “protect” them without actually teaching them anything meaningful about the process of working in that world.

Anyway, getting back to the original question, yes Dave, people still blog. But blogging is just one part of the larger mosaic of tools for expressing yourself on the web.

Oh, Dave also asks if anyone still uses RSS. Again the answer is yes (I wouldn’t have found his post without the feed being in my aggregator), but just as many people are publishing their thoughts, creative works, and opinions to the web without calling it “blogging”, they are also using RSS without that specific acronym.

All part of the wonderfully flexible and malleable structure that goes into publishing on the web.

Permissionless Innovation

Last Wednesday was the 25th anniversary of the world wide web. Or at least March 12, 1989 was the date Tim Berners Lee published his proposal describing the concepts behind the web. Ok, any excuse for a celebration.

At first the Guardian article 25 things you might not know about the web on its 25th birthday looks like just another x-number-of-stuff list tied to the anniversary. But it’s actually a very good overview/opinion piece about why the web has become so powerful in its relatively short lifespan. And why it’s important to fight back against the many corporations who want to limit and restrict that power.

That thing number 3 is especially important.

The importance of having a network that is free and open. The internet was created by government and runs on open source software. Nobody “owns” it. Yet on this “free” foundation, colossal enterprises and fortunes have been built — a fact that the neoliberal fanatics who run internet companies often seem to forget. Berners-Lee could have been as rich as Croesus if he had viewed the web as a commercial opportunity. But he didn’t — he persuaded Cern that it should be given to the world as a free resource. So the web in its turn became, like the internet, a platform for permissionless innovation. That’s why a Harvard undergraduate was able to launch Facebook on the back of the web. [emphasis mine]

I love that phrase “permissionless innovation”. It’s the true power of the web, covering work done by the developers of the software behind this site, Twitter, RSS, Evernote, and all the other web-based resources that I and many others use every day. Just the fact that anyone can throw up a blog like this one without filing a bunch of official forms and for only pocket change is amazing.2

It’s also a concept we should be teaching our students, although the concept of kids doing something on the web and not asking permission is one that really, really scares a lot of people.

No Reason To Be Surprised

This final thought from Seth Godin’s post today got stuck in my head.

We shouldn’t be surprised when someone chooses to publish their photos, their words, their art or their opinions. We should be surprised when they don’t.

Of course, that’s not true of kids.

We seem to be very surprised when they publish to the web, especially material we deem to be inappropriate (a judgement call), which seems rather silly since we do very little to help them understand how to post appropriately.

Maybe it’s different in your school district, but around here we work very hard to make sure students don’t publish anything during school and overreact when we discover they’ve done it elsewhere.

Of course, many in our system will tell you that we do provide the tools for students to learn these skills. They come in the form of various “walled gardens”, resources which kids understand are artificial and far underpowered compared those they have available in their real world.

Free Doesn’t Mean Forever

Last week the big buzz around my small corner of the internet was the leak that Yahoo planned to shut down Delicious, the venerable (if anything on the web can be called that) social bookmarking site.

While the fate of the service is far from settled, the whole dustup got me thinking again about our dependence on free when it comes to web utilities.

These days, almost all the services I rely on either charge a subscription fee, or have a relatively solid “freemium” business model, one with a basic level that’s free (sometimes with ads) along with one or more paid levels.

Delicious, however, is the one important piece that doesn’t fit. I’ve been using it since before Yahoo bought it in 2006 and always wondered how they could possibly survive with no visible means of support.  We may soon have an answer.

Of course, when it comes to teachers and schools, free is very popular, especially when budgets are tight.  But even in good times, government bureaucracy can make it difficult to get approval for annual subscriptions from small web companies.

Which means many educators are building lessons and activities for their students on free services that may or may not be available in future academic years.

Doug at Blue Skunk Blog has also been speculating on the longevity of Delicious and other web services while trying to finish a book about this moving target.

I’ve also been attempting to predict which tools are more than a flash-in-the-pan. I’ve been using word processing software for 30 years. I think it is safe to say that in some form or another it will be around for the next 10. It would really honk me off as a time-stressed teacher to put a lot of time into a tool that won’t serve me for a very long time.

And even paying for an account doesn’t necessarily guarantee a site won’t disappear and take all your data with it, which I suppose is a good argument for do-it-yourself.

For myself, part of the concern in the uncertainty surrounding Delicious is that I’ve spent a lot of time and effort helping colleagues learn how this service (and others) fits into their information management flow, both personally and professionally.

I know it would be more future-proof to put everything in general terms – social bookmarking, instead of Delicious – but most in the still-just-getting-started audience are looking for specific recommendations, not concepts.

At the end of his post Doug asks his readers which of today’s technologies will still be used by educators in five years.

By that time I would hope terms like “blog”, “wiki”, and “social bookmarking” disappear in favor of the much simpler concept of sharing information online, regardless of content or format.

Hopefully, by then we’ll also accept the reality that somebody needs to pay something to make it happen.

Update (12/20): Clarence also speculates on the death of free in the wake of the Delicious news and changes in other formerly free web services.

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