San Francisco, California

The Internet Got Shrinkwrapped

I loved one of the recent episodes of the podcast Track Changes about how the web has changed and, namely, how the construction of ideas and work has become a commercialized experienced on the web. Okay, that was a very clunky sentence. But what I mean is that not as many folks are building their own websites anymore — who even needs to learn HTML if they have a business or, heck, even if they’re a web designer? Most I know despise even the title of “Web Designer” let alone the work itself. We’re all Product Designers now.

If you’re a business: a few clicks here, a few clicks there and boom! You are now the proprietor of a fancy website for a couple of bucks a month. If you’re a product designer: download this framework, click a few buttons, and voilà! You have yourself a portfolio. If you’re a writer: go to this webpage, input your email address and forever be cursed with an inbox of incoherent spam. You now have an audience numbering in the millions!

Rich Ziade, one of the co-hosts of the show, described the current state of the web like this:

It’s over. The notion of having to do the heavy-lifting is gone. Everything is shrinkwrapped.

I think this is both terrible and extraordinary. First, the terrible: the fact that we’re being sucked up into the engines of Instagram, Twitter, Medium and Facebook is an awful thing. The whole reason I fell in love with building websites in the first place is because you can do a better job than them. With a little bit of effort you can write, publish, design and develop a website better than even the New York Times! You can design a new way to communicate if you put enough time into it. You can own your words, you can choose precisely how you want to be remembered.

But, secondly, the extraordinary thing: I don’t think everyone needs to learn how a website works under the hood. Only a small bunch of nerds like me are ever going to go through the hassle of building their own space on the web and that doesn’t mean other folks shouldn’t be able to communicate just because of a technical barrier. But web design doesn’t have to be difficult. We’ve chosen to make the web read-only — in the original spec a webpage was meant to be edited as easily as a Wikipedia document.

We chose to build the web the way we did. But that doesn’t mean we have to live with it. In other words, the Internet might have gotten shrinkwrapped, but we can find ways to unshrink it. On a similar note: this is what a lot of folks don’t really seem to grasp about the government – we are the government. Voting, protesting, volunteering, and donating to causes are the ways in which we can change things. Government is only bad because we made it bad, we let it disintegrate. The government is only as good as we make it.

And the same is true of the web.