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The Open Web and "the masses"

Matt Fantinel

by Matt Fantinel

19 Sep 2023 - 6 min read


Back when I started using the internet, most of its content was split between millions of different websites and platforms. They were all accessible via search engines, and there were plenty of websites that existed only to aggregate content from others. There were social networks (Orkut was a huge hit in Brazil), but their scale never reached the levels we see today, and overall, if you wanted to see anything, you’d have to look for it.

Cut to today, most of the content is either hosted on a handful of platforms or at least found inside them. Large scale social networks and search engines that are increasingly displaying information without requiring you to open another website have made it incredibly easy to find content you’d never find otherwise.

This convenience has led to a boom in internet usage. Before, you had to be a “tech person” or at least slightly interested in tech to be able to understand how the internet worked, and then be able to find the good stuff. This transformation in how we find and see things would be great, if not for a huge, non-obvious problem: we are now locked in to those platforms.

Ideally, that wouldn’t be a big deal. Most of those platforms are free, right? Well, not really. You pay with your data, with being the subject of psychological experiments, and with the price of becoming dependent on it. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, I highly recommend watching The Social Dilemma documentary on Netflix (I know, another locked-in platform. But there’s some nice content on the website itself).

To many people, deleting a Facebook/Instagram/Twitter account would mean they will no longer see updates from things they care about (mixed with things they don’t). To many journalists/writers/brands, deleting an account would mean losing the majority of their traffic. Some companies even base their entire business on a single platform, as can be often seen in Brazil where WhatsApp is often the only way to contact/hire/buy something.

So, can we really call the web open, or free? If we are virtually obligated to sign up and sell our soul accept the terms and conditions of at least one overly powerful corporation to be able to have a “normal life”, can we really say we have a choice?


Swimming Against The Tide

There’s been quite a resurgence of some technologies and concepts that go against all that. Mostly, in the form of personal blogs and them being accessed via RSS readers. Plus, decentralized social media is now a thing and has gathered a relatively significant audience, especially since Twitter’s destruction.

If you don’t know what RSS readers and decentralized social media are, yeah, that’s their main issue. They are systems that aim to give you some of the convenience of social media feeds back, but without the downsides!

  • RSS is a method of sharing content in a standardized way. A lot of websites have RSS feeds (including mine), which are files that hold the content of, for example, all the blog posts. This means that if you use a RSS reader app, you can read whatever I write, and all the new posts will be automatically delivered to you! You just have to subscribe.
    • RSS has existed for a long time, and most websites had a feed. When social media got popular, however, the number of websites with a RSS feed started getting smaller. Nowadays, it seems that the number of websites offering them has started growing again.
    • There are a bunch of RSS reader apps, in all shapes and forms. Some of the ones I know are Feedly (free, for all platforms), NetNewsWire (free, for iPhone, iPad and Mac), Feedbin (subcription, for Web, iPhone and iPad) and the one I use is Readwise Reader (subscription, for Web, iPhone and Android)
  • Decentralized Social Media are, as implied, social media services that communicate with one another. I wrote a few months ago about my migration from Twitter to Mastodon, and Mastodon is only one of many in an universe of projects that can talk with one another. What does this mean?
    • It means that, even if I have my profile on a specific Mastodon server, I can still follow and interact with people that created their account on a different social media. So, nobody is virtually obligated to have an account in a specific place;
    • It also means that I can take all my connections with me in case I wanna move from one service to another. I’m never stuck using a service I don’t like just because my friends or followers are there;

My use of the internet is now heavily based on both of these systems; I follow some news websites’ RSS feeds so I can read the news in a single place while drinking a cup of coffee; I follow cool people's blogs via RSS so I can read all the cool stuff they’re writing about; and I can also follow the same cool people on Mastodon (even though some use something else) to see they complain about the heat or make bad jokes in their social media.

This is very nice! And the best thing is - if I ever wanna start using another app, or change devices, I can do that without losing anything. It’s liberating. It’s the Open Web.

But how feasible is it?

Most of the previous section was spent explaining concepts. They’re not really that complex, but the fact that they need any explanation at all is already a sign that they’re not feasible for “the masses”.

You see, if you are still reading this, you're probably in a small group of people that actually cares about their online experience. For most people, being locked in a service isn't really a concern, which is why those services grow so big. It’s unfortunate, but the convenience those services provide is (or was, at some point, when they got us hooked) so big that I can’t think of anything that could create any kind of mass exodus from them. The closest we’ve ever got to it was the Twitter → Mastodon migration, and that was around what, 10 million people? 10 million is a lot for Mastodon, but only a fraction of Twitter’s userbase.

But honestly, that’s fine. As I’ve recently started to realize more and more, it really doesn’t matter if what I’m using or doing is popular or not. If I do things a certain way, the only person it needs to work for is me. And honestly, the social bubble I’m in is really fond of the Open Web too! There are nice discussions, and it never feels like a small group. In fact, there’s always new people around!

I think I’m gonna create a page with suggestions of nice RSS feeds to follow. One more thing to my to-do list, I guess 😅

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