Blogs, Platforms, and the Once and Future Web
First Lady Michelle Obama (2018) by Amy Sherald. Obama's official portrait as part of the on-going series maintained by the National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution. source
Author's Note: This post was originally published Nov 18, 2020 on (the currently defunct) Byline.
This is the first Beta version of Byline. As one of DashKite's first products, it's so exciting to be writing my first post to share with you! Welcome! 😊
So, what should I write on such an auspicious occasion? It's a question I hoped to answer while working on Byline, and on Monday an answer presented itself.
It Is What It Is
Michelle Obama took some time to compose a thoughtful reflection on her experience participating in the 2017 Trump transition and on the importance of democratic transitions.
The post struck me. Not just for Obama's reflection, but the medium: Instagram. Discussion online focused on the substance of her statement, though occasionally there was note that she made a “lengthy Instagram post”. (only 325 words, btw)
After spending the past three weeks constructing Byline I have the clarity to say: 1. Instagram is not a blogging platform 2. but what Obama shared was definitely a blog post!
So, it begs the question, why did Obama select this medium for her message?
For an author, one essential problem is “How do I reach my audience?” And for a prospective audience member, they must find some way to distill high-quality information from an ocean of possibilities. On the Web, social networks are where those goals can be reconciled.
In that analysis, Obama's selection is straightforward. She has 44 million Instagram followers — more than her Twitter and Facebook follower counts, combined. It is the largest audience she can summon, so Instagram is a clear winner.
But it's so painful.
Consider that Instagram mangles the image she selected. That Instagram presents her words with subpar typography. That Instagram then de-emphasizes those words in favor of that image it mangled. That Instagram applies heavy-handed, opaque algorithmic curation that dampens her reach.
Now consider Obama's message. She's writing about American democracy, its importance, and its imperilment. But she has assessed her most effective platform to be one that her husband recently named as part of the “...single biggest threat to our democracy...”
It is what it is. Sobering. Heartbreaking. Infuriating. But it's not destiny.
The Once and Future Web
It is now a mainstream idea that Silicon Valley companies and their products will not automatically make things better. We recognize they are causing harm, menacing people's safety today, and threatening a Black Mirror tomorrow. That seems banal — but it was just a few years ago that such views were held only by malcontents and troublemakers. So, I think it's important to acknowledge the progress we're making by identifying the problem.
While becoming aware of these abuses is important, we've also lost something: that people used to be really excited about the Web. And if you're too young to remember the before times, that might sound like I'm being hyperbolic or joking, but I promise I'm not!
There was period of the Web that was optimistic, experimental, and collaborative. Not without problems, but for people who could access it, the Web used to be weird in a good way. While figuring out what it was and how to use it, you could sense possibility. And when enough people networked, they could organize in ways that were impossible without the Web — like how queer people were early adopters of online dating, years earlier than our straight counterparts.
Also during this era, a remarkable suite of technologies went through Beta. HTML, CSS, and JS were developed, along with the first commercial browsers. Whole protocols were being hammered out. HTTP had actual competition! HTTP's design had to be formalized to support a civilization-scale network. The first versions of what is now TLS were a hot mess that took many, many iterations to get right. And that was just to get a page to load. Other technologies like wikis and RSS also originated in this era.
The point is, there was a lot going on. The optimism was warranted because there was possibility.
But when you look around at the formal platforms that exist today; the ones that mediate most consumers' experience of the Web; the ones that surveil your actions, experiment on you, and build walled gardens. You should look at them and be disappointed.
It is failure that Michelle Obama felt her best option to broadcast a clarion call for democracy involves it getting typographically smooshed on a page with a multi-second load time (42/100 Lighthouse performance score). Existing platforms have done far, far less with orders of magnitude more resources than their forebearers.
It's your Web. Expect better from it.
That's why this blog is titled “The Once and Future Web”. It references the King Arthur myth as my way to describe my goals. I see DashKite as part of a generation of companies that will help humanity rekindle the alchemy of the early Web and claw back that future I want to live in. It's time to treat the Web for what it is: an ecosystem. We can apply lessons of ecology to avoid the mistakes of the past 30 years and fulfill the Web's original promise: to build a truly 21st century distributed computing platform.
That's a big goal and a lot of work, but we're worth it. I'm not alone, and neither is DashKite. One step at a time. Check out our site if you'd like to read more or to reach out.
Okay, that's all I have for now. I'll keep you posted. One step at a time.