This morning there were two excellent essays from leaders of the open web, David Weinberger, one of the Cluetrain guys, and a longtime friend and colleague, and Dries Buyteart, founder of Drupal and software entrepreneur. Both are beautifully written and honest appraisals of why the open web is losing to the silos.
Both are optimistic and doing the best they can to help the open web be the powerhouse we all thought it was a few years ago. And the one we still hope it can be.
I would like to elaborate.
The promise of the open web was and is this: collaboration.
But it's always been a promise, and many have acted in their own self-interest only, and forgot that in order for the open web to thrive we must feed it.
They have taken out of the web without putting back.
Use it or lose it. That applies to muscles as much as it does to the open web.
Working together means this: If someone else has a good-enough way to do something, rather than reinvent what they do, incorporate what they do into what you do.
There's a flipside. If I have to reinvent your whole product just to get a feature, you're not part of the open web.
However, before I started writing my own, I sat myself down and asked if it would be better for everyone if I created yet another feed parser, or if I used Dan's. I decided, no matter how much work it would be to learn his way of doing it, even if it took longer to use his than to create my own (which also would have been more fun) I would be doing good for the net if I just used his. So I did. No regrets. I still don't understand how it works internally, but I've helped build a network of software, instead of creating another software island.
And in practical terms, an island is just as isolating as a silo.
One of the things that's wrong in today's software is people tend to leave off the APIs. Or, if they're VC-funded, they're likely to have the APIs in the beginning, to help attract users and developers, but as they want to become profitable, they restrict the APIs. So much so that many developers no longer trust corporate APIs. Me too. I much prefer open cloneable APIs, with more than one implementer. That makes it impossible for a platform to screw its users and developers, because if they do, no problem -- I'll just use another one.
One company that's generating a huge unicorn-level market cap is Slack. Hats off to Stewart Butterfield, the founder, and his team, who seem to have managed to create something that's both part of the open web and enormously profitable for investors. Please study this Ms and Mr Venture Capital. Note that strangling your community isn't the only way to get rich.
This is the hardest one to explain, because users seem to think they have no power re the open web and no responsibility. But the toys you love, Facebook, Instagram, SnapChat, etc, couldn't have existed if they couldn't have siphoned power from the open web. If you think the toys are getting more similar and perhaps a bit boring, this is why: there hasn't been enough investment in open web tech in the last few years. Not enough know-how for the merchandisers to commercialize.
When a developer ships a tool that doesn't lock you in, it's worth using it, even if there is a "free" one that works a little better or has a nicer design. Because the open one, the one that lets you leave when you want to, preserves freedom, and the others consume it.
It's really rare in today's world when a normal person has such power to affect the outcome, but every software developer needs users. Even just a few. Without users, how can you tune your software up to fit people who think differently from yourself. And creating new software, at this point in the evolution of this art, is still relatively easy and inexpensive. So a few users can be very powerful, but you have to choose to be. That choice is itself an act of creativity, and working-together.
Make it easy for people to post to your site and to sites they, the users, control.
For example, Facebook posts are notoriously difficult to find after they've scrolled too far down the timeline, or aren't favored by the algorithm.
Yes, Facebook let's you download your archive, but what if we could echo our writing to a personal blog, as we're writing or updating? One that would provide us or our children and grandchildren a place to look up our writing years or decades from now?
It's likely this would increase use of Facebook, because people would post stuff there to make notes to themselves and future generations. It certainly wouldn't hurt. And since Facebook has profited so enormously from the open work of others, it would be a mitzvah, something good they can do to help repay the generosity of those who came before them.
I'm illustrating the idea of working together by pointing to Dries' and David's pieces at the beginning of this post, and then elaborating on the ideas they present. I could have left the links off and pretended I was the only person thinking this way. But that wouldn't have been very powerful, and it wouldn't have helped the open web.
When you have a choice, instead of re-inventing someone else's work, use it.
That's the simplest and most powerful way to help the open web.