Thinking about the Social Web


Photo by Matthew Burpee on Flickr

Several articles recently caught my attention and got me thinking about the current state of the Social Web.

In the first one, Don Tapscott interviewed one of my favourite authors – Clay Shirky – on the Internet as a Distractor and Disruptor. At some point Shirky says:

Five years ago, I was giving talks with slides of Amish barn raisings, saying “We need to figure out a way to use the network for this sort of constructive work,” but I’ve since come to conclude that the Internet is better at No than Go, which is to say it is a medium that favors extensive ties over intensive ones

A few days ago Anil Dash wrote a blog post entitled The Web We Lost. The main argument was:

We’ve lost key features that we used to rely on, and worse, we’ve abandoned core values that used to be fundamental to the web world. To the credit of today’s social networks, they’ve brought in hundreds of millions of new participants to these networks, and they’ve certainly made a small number of people rich.

But they haven’t shown the web itself the respect and care it deserves, as a medium which has enabled them to succeed. And they’ve now narrowed the possibilities of the web for an entire generation of users who don’t realize how much more innovative and meaningful their experience could be.

And two other posts explored the difficulties with attribution and contributing to the Commons on social platforms such as Facebook or Instagram.

Alexis Madrigal dissected the phenomenon of fake photos of the Sandy storm in the post If You Can’t Beat ’em, Subvert ’em: Countering Misinformation on the Viral Web. In it he stated:

People have been creating and spreading bullshit since language was invented. But the way that the sites work is part of the problem. Right now, social networks are platforms of decontextualization. They could make creating chains of attribution easier. They could preserve the data embedded in photographs better. Instagram and Facebook, especially, in their closedness, make it more difficult to find any given source of information. Sooner or later, all the networks are going to have to take on the responsibility that comes with being millions of people’s window on the world. Facebook, in particular, optimizes what you see for what you’re most likely to click on. Is that the appropriate way to deal with news about a massive, dangerous storm?

And Ryan Singel wrote the following in the opinion article for Wired “Dear Facebook: Without the Commons, We Lose the Sharing Web”:

By creating legal frameworks for licensing content in more flexible ways than traditional copyright laws, Creative Commons became a core part of the original Web 2.0 movement. That movement conceived of a web where platforms should strive to enhance – not put walls around – sharing communities.

But today Creative Commons isn’t as easily accessible in our most popular social networks. And that means we’re at risk of losing much more than the web we have already lost.

Whenever I’m invited to speak about Social Media or Social Business I always try to emphasized the importance of some key foundations of the Social Web – sharing, contributing to the Commons, mass collaboration, innovation, distributed value… – now apparently endangered by a web of dominant platforms, big in number of participants but small on ethos (the one practiced, not the one written in statements).

Reading these articles worries me. But at the same time they leave me a bit optimistic for while we keep writing, speaking, showing (by our own actions) how there’s a better way to build and contribute to our Social Web, then there is hope. Hope that we regain the Web we seemed to have lost.

(update on the 28th of December: this topic, and especially Anil’s post, seems to have resonated with some of the smart folks I know. My friend Samuel Driessen also wrote about this at


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