Closing the Web to keep it open

The Forrest Gump of the Internet

Robinson Meyer at The Atlantic profiles social media's least-well-known billionaire, Evan Williams. Williams founded Medium, and co-founded Twitter and Blogger.

Williams wants to keep Facebook and other closed, for-profit media silos from eating the Internet. So Williams launched Medium — a closed, for-profit social media silo. But Medium is attempting to preserve the freedom of the open Web.

The dangers of corporate consolidation dominate [Williams'] metaphors. A favorite idea is that the web’s current state resembles the factory-farmed food system. “If your job was to feed people, but you were only measured by the efficiency of calories delivered, you may learn over time that high-calorie, high-processed foods were the most efficient ways to deliver calories,” he says. They would be the most margin-friendly way to deliver calories. But the food still wouldn’t be good—because the original metric didn’t take into account “sustainability, or health, or nourishment, or happiness of the people.”

I proposed that Medium is trying to be the Whole Foods of content. He laughed.

“Maybe we are,” he said. “Not that Whole Foods is perfect, and we’re not perfect either, but we are trying to figure out how to optimize for satisfaction and nourishment, not just activity or calories.” …

Williams still comes off like a cheerleader for this better world. He told me that a Medium user wrote an open letter to him, saying that though they had posted to the site every day for a month, they had not gotten more than 100 “recommends” on their post yet. (Every social network has its atomic unit of dopamine-like recognition: Facebook has likes, Twitter has hearts, Medium has the recommend.) He said he wanted to reply and tell the guy to step back.

“Think about what you’re doing,” he says. “You’re playing this game for attention that half of humanity is playing. And you’re competing for not only the thousands of people who publish on Medium the same day, the millions of people who publish on websites that have ever published, the billion videos on YouTube, every book in the world, not to mention what’s on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, Vine, everything else, right now—it’s amazing any people are reading your stuff!”

That this can still happen—that any subset of readers can still find and read an amateur writer’s work—is what excites him most about Medium. Talking about the centralization of the web, he continually returns to the “bad world.”

“The worst world, the scary version, is if the tricks to get attention are a skill developed and owned primarily by profit-driven companies,” he told me. “I’d go back to the food analogy. What are people going to be consuming most of the time? They’re optimizing for clicks and dollars. Can a person who has a unique perspective play that game? Are they just going to get trounced?”

In response to this article, Dave Winer says the open Web is like Central Park, and Facebook, Twitter, etc. are like the exclusive, expensive apartment buildings that surround it.

Internet pioneers discuss ways to make it open again

The Fathers of the Internet Revolution Urge Today’s Software Engineers to Reinvent the Web

Organized by Brewster Kahle, founder of the Internet Archive, sponsors included the Ford Foundation, Google, Mozilla, and others, speakers included Tim Berners-Lee, who literally invented the Web, and Vint Cerf, co-author of the TCP/IP protocol that underlies the Internet.

Berners-Lee noted problems with the siloed web of today: It’s tough to do something simple like sharing between Facebook, Flickr, LinkedIn, and other siloed services. “All they want to do is share the photos with the colleagues and the friends—and they can’t,” Berners-Lee said. “Which is really stupid. You either have to tell Flickr about your Facebook friends, or move your photos to Facebook and LinkedIn separately, or build and run a third application to build a bridge between the two.” He also criticized the need to trade privacy for access.

The Internet pioneers suggested some solutions.

[Tekla S. Perry/IEEEE Spectrum]