Every day, millions of people rely on independent websites that are mostly created by regular people, weren’t designed as mobile apps, connect deeply to culture, and aren’t run by the giant tech companies. These are a vision of not just what the web once was, but what it can be again.
Think of every time you’ve sent someone a Snopes link to debunk a spurious story that’s been shared online. The casual way we might look up the credits for an album on Discogs, or for a movie on IMDB. The absurd details of popular culture captured on TV Tropes and Fandom, linguistic oddities documented on Urban Dictionary, technical questions answered on Stack Overflow, lyrics we quote from Genius, memes on Know Your Meme — all of these are a powerful and valuable record of the world around us, created and captured by millions of ordinary people. And there is, of course, Wikipedia standing astride them all, as perhaps the pinnacle of people-created web references.
Now, these kinds of sites are far from perfect. Each ecosystem of information has too many barriers to creation. Their communities of moderators and contributors are often exclusionary, echoing the gatekeeping of the media and institutions that preceded them. Some of the information on the sites is inaccurate, or skewed.
But even with all their flaws, the existence of dozens of massive, collectively-maintained, curated and organized libraries of communal culture are still something like a miracle of the web. Tellingly, these kinds of sites rarely get launched these days, and the ones that have survived all follow a fairly common set of patterns. They often start as a labor of love from one person, or one small, tightly-knit community. The knowledge or information set that they record is considered obscure or even worthless to outsiders, until it becomes so comprehensive that its collective worth is undeniable.
Their business models have evolved as the internet has evolved, and they tend to start as pretty pure web experiences, that have then had to iterate, often with limited resources, to accommodate the dominance of search engines, the rise of the mobile web, the pervasiveness of social networks, and the societal challenges of organized harassment and targeted misinformation. Through it all, they’ve grown and adapted, and handled the inevitable community challenges. Many have diversified their business models with everything from memberships and subscriptions to merchandise and events.
But here’s the thing: Taken together, these sites are as valuable as any of the giant platforms run by the tech titans.
For as much video as we see on YouTube, as many photos as we browse on Instagram, there is just as much time, attention and energy spent every day on exploring and referencing these deep databases. They don’t have fancy filters or complex recommendation algorithms, but they meet a variety of deep human needs around creation and expression and often, they also help people simply do their jobs.
A Web At Risk
At Glitch, we find a tremendous amount of inspiration in the open-ended creativity of these communities, but I think everyone who loves the web finds joy from the seemingly-endless ideas captured on these sites. We just don’t think of them as a cohesive whole like we do with the big apps that live behind a button on our phones. We urgently need to pay attention to this cohort of sites, though, because their position is precarious. Just as we’ve seen with Google introducing its algorithms and devastating the first generation of the social web, with the rise of native mobile apps and social networks like Facebook and Instagram limiting our links and locking us into their walled gardens, these people-made web communities are deeply vulnerable to the whims of the big players. We have to recognize their collective value before they’re facing an existential threat.
If we’re going to build a new web, and a new internet, that respects our privacy and security, that doesn’t amplify abuse and harassment and misinformation, we’re going to need to imagine models of experiences and communities that could provide a better alternative. There’s not going to be a “Facebook killer”. But there could simply be lots of other sites, that focus on a different, more constructive and generative, set of goals.
The good news is, we don’t have to imagine what that more human, more expressive, more valuable web could look like. We just have to pay attention to the fact that we visit it every day.