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August 17, 2010

Filed under: tech»web

The Web's Not Dead, It's RESTing

Oh, man. Where to start with Chris Anderson and Michael Wolff's dreadful "The Web Is Dead"? With the hilarious self-congratulatory tone, which treats a misguided 1997 article on push technology (by the equally-clueless Kevin Kelly) as some kind of hidden triumph? With the gimmicky, print-mimicking two-column layout? How about the eye-burning, white-on-red text treatment? Or should we begin with the obvious carnival-barker pitch: the fact that Anderson, who just launched a Wired iPad application that mimics his print publication, and who (according to the NY Times and former employees) has a bit of an ongoing feud with Wired.com, really wants you to stop thinking of the browser as a destination.

Yes, Anderson has an agenda. That doesn't make him automatically wrong. But it's going to take a lot more than this weaksauce article to make him right. As I noted in my long, exhausting look at Anderson's Free, his MO is to make a bold, headline-grabbing statement, then backpedal from it almost immediately. He does not abandon that strategy here, as this section from the end of the piece shows:

...what is actually emerging is not quite the bleak future of the Internet that Zittrain envisioned. It is only the future of the commercial content side of the digital economy. Ecommerce continues to thrive on the Web, and no company is going to shut its Web site as an information resource. More important, the great virtue of today's Web is that so much of it is noncommercial. The wide-open Web of peer production, the so-called generative Web where everyone is free to create what they want, continues to thrive, driven by the nonmonetary incentives of expression, attention, reputation, and the like. But the notion of the Web as the ultimate marketplace for digital delivery is now in doubt.
Right: so the web's not actually dead. It's just that you can't directly make money off of it, except for all the people who do. Pause for a second, if you will, to enjoy the irony: the man who wrote an entire book about how the web's economies of "attention, reputation, and the like" would pay for an entire real-world economy of free products is now bemoaning the lack of a direct payment option for web content.

Wolff's half of the article (it's the part in the glaring red column), meanwhile, is a protracted slap-fight with a straw man: it turns out that the web didn't change everything, and people will use it to sell traditional media in new ways, like streaming music and movies! Wolff doesn't mention anyone who actually claimed that the web would have "transformative effects," or how streaming is not in and of itself fairly transformative, or what those other transformative effects would be--probably because the hyperbole he's trying to counter was encouraged in no small part by (where else?) Wired magazine. It's a silly argument, and I don't see any reason to spend much time on it.

But let's take a moment to address Anderson's main point, such as it is: that the open web is being absorbed into a collection of "apps" and APIs which are, apparently, not open. This being Chris Anderson, he's rolled a lot of extraneous material into this argument (quality of service, voice over IP, an incredibly misleading graph of bandwidth usage, railroad monopolies), but they're padding at best (and disingenuous at worst: why, for example, are "e-mail" and VPNs grouped with closed, proprietary networks?). At the heart of his argument, however, is an artificial distinction between "the Web" and "the Internet."

At the application layer, the open Internet has always been a fiction. It was only because we confused the Web with the Net that we didn't see it. The rise of machine-to-machine communications - iPhone apps talking to Twitter APIs - is all about control. Every API comes with terms of service, and Twitter, Amazon.com, Google, or any other company can control the use as they will. We are choosing a new form of QoS: custom applications that just work, thanks to cached content and local code. Every time you pick an iPhone app instead of a Web site, you are voting with your finger: A better experience is worth paying for, either in cash or in implicit acceptance of a non-Web standard.
"We" confused the two? Who's this "we," Kemosabe? Anderson seems to think that the web never had Terms of Service, when they've been around on sites like Yahoo and Flickr for ages. He seems to think that the only APIs in existence are the commercial ones from Twitter or Amazon. And, strangest of all, he seems to be ignoring the foundation on which those APIs are built--the HTTP/JSON standards that came from (and continue to exist because of) the web browser. There's a reason, after all, that Twitter clients are not only built on the desktop, but through web portals like Seesmic and Brizzly--because they all speak the language of the web. The resurgence of native applications is not the death of the web app: it's part of a re-balancing process, as we learn what works in a browser, and what doesn't.

Ultimately, Anderson doesn't present a clear picture of what he thinks the "web" is, or why it's different from the Internet. It's not user content, because he admits that blogging and Facebook are doing just fine. He presents little evidence that browser apps are dying, or that the HTTP-based APIs used by mobile apps are somehow incompatible with them. He ignores the fact that many of those mobile apps are actually based around standard, open web services. And he seems to have utterly dismissed the real revolution in mobile operating systems like iPhone and Android: the inclusion of a serious, desktop-class browser. Oh, right--the browser, that program that launches when you click on a link from your Twitter application, or from your Facebook feed, or via Google Reader. How can the web be dead when it's interconnected with everything?

You can watch Anderson try to dodge around this in his debate with Tim O'Reilly and John Battelle. "It's all Internet," O'Reilly rightly says. "Advertising business models have always only been a small part of the picture, and have always gotten way too much attention." Generously, O'Reilly doesn't take the obvious jab: that one of the loudest voices pitching advertising as an industry savior has been Chris Anderson himself. Apparently, it didn't work out so well.

Is the web really a separate layer from the way we use the Internet? Is it really dead? No, far from it: we have more power than ever to collect and leverage the resources that the web makes available to us, whether in a browser, on a server, or via a native client. The most interesting development of "Web 2.0" has been to duplicate at the machine level what people did at the social level with static sites, webrings, and blogs: learn to interoperate, interlink, and synthesize from each other. That's how you end up with modern web services that can combine Google Maps, Twitter, and personal data into useful mashups like Ushahidi, Seesmic, and any number of one-off journalism projects. No, the web's not dead. Sadly, we can't say the same about Chris Anderson's writing career.

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