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It’s Alive: The Perpetual Frankenstein of the Web

It’s Alive: The Perpetual Frankenstein of the Web

November 10, 2010
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" So, is the web really dead? I would vehemently disagree with any such statement. Yes, the web is changing, but it always has. "

In the September issue of Wired magazine, editors Chris Anderson and Michael Wolff debated the “settled” notion that the web is dead.

The Wired article needs debunking for its unreasoned assault on the web. Far from being in decline, the web is finally coming into it’s own as the primary force behind human communication and creativity. I’ll leave aside Wired’s absurd and misleading infographic, which has been thoroughly debunked by Rob Beschizza, and instead focus on the fundamental fallacies of the Wired article: That web traffic is declining; that app usage signals the end of the web; that the web consists in its entirety of those sites constructed of html or reachable by a Google search; and that no (real) money can be made on the web.

Wired’s first, and most preposterous conceit revolves around their contention that web traffic is in decline. Wired’s very source, Cisco, indicates exponential growth of the web, both over the past decades and the past few years. Since 1995 web traffic has grown from about 10 terabytes a month to an estimated 7 exabytes. That’s about 7,000,000,000,000,000,000 bytes, or about half the sum of all human knowledge. Each month! Clearly, the web is in decline.

Since these numbers utterly belie the death of the web, Wired relies instead on how much of the total traffic routed over IP networks is web pages. By this relative measure the web does, in some sense, appear to be in decline. Such artificial statistics mislead the reader. By counting only actual web pages, Wired assumes that every byte of data is of equal import — thousands of Wikipedia articles or tens of thousands of emails consume the same bandwidth as one 20-minute video of a water skiing dog. From any practical standpoint far more communications has occurred by sending those emails or browsing Wikipedia than with the video. Nonetheless, each video is counted as being separate from “the web”, even if it is served as a part of a web page, and counted with the exact same weight as thousands of web pages. Furthermore, Wired fallaciously differentiates traffic accessed on mobile apps and other devices from traffic accessed directly via web browsers.

Even assuming Wired’s flawed counting, such analysis is worthless. Wired contends that bandwidth delivered via apps, videos, etc. — any means not a web browser — is not a part of the web. The actual video on a YouTube page is not a part of the web? A tweet sent via a mobile app is not a part of the web? While actual web pages constitute only a fraction of the total traffic on the Internet, the web is the organizational structure underlying and enabling everything from apps to videos. The interconnected web fundamentally informs our understanding of the data that passes through it. Assuming such traffic falls outside of the web may well indicate the death of logic, but not of the web.

How does Wired arrive at the conclusion that apps aren’t a part of the web? They assume that apps represent an inherently “closed” technology because they are distributed by manufacturers via channels other than web pages. And because they cannot be crawled by Google, of course. As to the latter, the web is clearly greater than that which Google can crawl. While Google has become a central feature in the web, its does have competitors, and will have more competitors as time goes on. As to the apps themselves, the fact that they are individual pieces of code rather than being web pages does not make them somehow less open. To the contrary, many apps work together. You can find a restaurant on Yelp and then book a reservation on Open Table. You can do this on their websites, or via their apps. We are finally beginning to see the kind of linking between apps that we often see between websites, which makes apps more a part of the web than less.

Commerce is the fundamental driving force of the web. Without web commerce we’d have no Amazon, no iTunes and even no porn! Wired tries to argue that as commerce fundamentally revolves around content that the web is diminished, becoming a traditional media business. Yet how would commerce on the web occur without content? There are some services people will pay a little for, but most Internet services are essentially infrastructure whether directly, as in servers or, indirectly, as in business email service. The bulk of the commerce that actually occurs on the web consists of people paying money to gain access to content; whether it be unlimited access to babe of the month, or some shady 24-hour rental of a major motion picture, money changes hands on the web to the benefit of all involved. The magic of commerce, driving the web. The web not only needs to be a marketplace for content, but would suffer mightily without it.

Facebook also is decried in the Wired article as “a parallel world to the web” — an evil redoubt of Zynga games and pokes ruled by a caricature of Mark Zuckerberg, part joker and part Dr. Evil. But Facebook is not some alterna-web. Instead Facebook might better be seen as an alternative to Google, organizing the web around circles of friends instead of keywords. Furthermore, just as mobile apps largely serve to link websites to mobile devices and data sources, so too Facebook apps are often a mechanism of self-curation of data, harnessing the power of the masses to organize their own experience of the web. Far from killing the web, Facebook serves to link together information in a social instead of semantic structure.

So, is the web really dead? I would vehemently disagree with any such statement. Yes, the web is changing, but it always has. Frequent, disruptive change made the web a transformative force in society. The web does not conform to rules or structures, instead it molds to changes in usage and needs. To say that the web from apps and Facebook to skiing dogs and naughty nannies is dead is to completely ignore the mercurial permanence of the web. Death and taxes may be the two constants in the universe, but the web and porn follow just behind. Long live the web!

Christopher Lewicki runs Saguaro Digital, a software and systems development company. Christopher also lectures in computer science at a major university in Tucson.


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