This weekend the World Wide Web turned 29 years old. And in that time, it’s grown from a democratic experiment to connect the world into a finely quantified advertising machine, in which almost every link you click and video you watch is subsidized, somehow, by advertising.
To mark the occasion, Tim Berners-Lee, the man widely credited with inventing the web itself, spoke out about the problems with that model. For starters, while half of the world is online, half of the world is still without access. While the web is technically free, it tracks our every move because advertisers crave surveillance. While platforms like Facebook and Google connect us to friends and information, they control over half the world’s online ad revenue, which means independent media sites must rely on their good graces to stay afloat at all. Thanks to Instagram and Snapchat, #sponcon blurs the line between reality and commercials. Plus, in this ad-driven world, scale is ultimately what matters most, and scale begets scale. Because so much of the web points its way to Amazon affiliate links, it helps the world’s largest online retailer grow even bigger, rather than promoting competition.
In other words, the internet sold out, and our world has been shaped accordingly. But Berners-Lee suggests that there is a web beyond the ad-driven one we’ve built today that would solve many of its worst problems, if only we think harder about fixing it:
Two myths currently limit our collective imagination: the myth that advertising is the only possible business model for online companies, and the myth that it’s too late to change the way platforms operate. On both points, we need to be a little more creative.
While the problems facing the web are complex and large, I think we should see them as bugs: problems with existing code and software systems that have been created by people–and can be fixed by people. Create a new set of incentives, and changes in the code will follow. We can design a web that creates a constructive and supportive environment.
In other words, the web has a design problem–and it reaches down to the design of its very business plan.
So how could we solve it? Berners-Lee doesn’t pretend he has the answer, but people are already thinking about it. Many proponents of cryptocurrencies and blockchain actually see the technology as a means to decentralize the web, to allow each of us to have an identity free of Google or Facebook or any other conglomerate. Blockchain would also allow us to pay directly for what we consume, operating invisibly in the background of our web browser. Perhaps crypto is not the answer we need, but it’s a good example of how rethinking some of the fundamental technologies and business models of the web can create an entirely new way to consume it. And if nothing else, it might answer to the humans who use it first, before deep-pocketed salesmen.