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The Power of the Playground

Arguments for an open web

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Photo courtesy Ray Bouknight via Flickr

The beauty of the internet is that anyone could put out a shingle.

That’s John Battelle on last week’s Track Changes podcast. John brought an unusually optimistic viewpoint to the state of media and publishing on the internet today. He’s a firm believer in the flexibility and resilience of the web.

At one point in the episode, we started talking about deep linking. John argued that while the hyperlink is fading in influence, the concept of linking would survive and thrive. As he described it, we won’t be linking between pages in browsers but rather between apps on our phones. So for example, if you’re reading something on your phone and tap an Instagram image, it will take you directly to Instagram. It’s nice and convenient.

But let’s face reality. The majority of us aren’t hopping around from app to app, spending relatively equal amounts of time across an array of apps. We live in just a few apps.

Facebook barely hides its agenda. Links stay within Facebook. The only way out is to copy the link and paste it elsewhere. No share sheet. No integration or even acknowledgement of the rest of your phone. The result, which we discuss in the podcast, is a complete appropriation of not only the experience and context of content but also the economics.

We should be careful here not to frame this as some awful injustice. Nobody broke the law here. Facebook and others deliver experiences that captivate people. Still, when a piece of content that cost tens of thousands of dollars to produce leaves the creator with 5% of the winnings, it’s tough to stand by and watch.

Is there a way out? John seems to think so. He’s convinced that ultimately, it’s a relationship between the publisher and the reader. That platforms like Facebook will have to cope with this reality down the road.

Does there need to be a way out? Maybe this is the new reality. The whole notion of a “publisher” has been upended anyway. YouTube stars with millions of subscribers carry as much influence as hallowed publishing brands today. Maybe we’re just defending the Old Guard and it’s too late.

Ultimately, this isn’t about us and our ability to accept change. It’s about something more fundamental: the network that to date was agnostic and free to all is no more. Without a few closed platforms, you can’t be heard. The broadcast spectrum is no longer insulated from and regulated outside of commercial influence. We’ve been preoccupied with net neutrality when the true means of distribution have been appropriated by a few commercial entities.

US Radio Frequency Allocations 2011 (Wikimedia Commons)

Pause that sense of injustice for a second. From a pure free market perspective, we’ve hit the wall and we’ve limited ourselves. For the open market zealots, it’s counterintuitive. Regulation and protection of the means of distribution actually allows for far more explosive growth. The web allowed for tremendous value creation because the standards and tools — the web server and browser — were commercially agnostic. An incredible playground was put in place.

At Postlight we talk about disruption a lot. We grew up watching the web as this massive open playground. We’re addicted to that level of freedom. We’re fully aware of the might of companies like Facebook and Google, but we’re also keenly aware of the power of the platforms and systems that churn underneath.

It’s a lofty, almost nerdy, romantic view of things, but we believe in that freedom and the power it brings. It’s fun to build things that have utility. But it’s way more fun to build platforms that empower others—even, or especially if, you don’t control that platform. That means we may not get to become the next Facebook, but isn’t the whole point of the Web that you don’t have to be Facebook in order to do something useful?

Story published on Mar 27, 2017.