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Never before in human history has a single technological innovation so completely disrupted the way we communicate, collaborate, and conduct business than it has with the internet. The invention of the World Wide Web in 1989 by Tim Berners-Lee changed everything, connecting people and organizations around the globe in ways that were once impossible.
The web as we know it today is largely based on what has come to be known as “web 2.0” principles — a platform for collaboration and user-generated content that has spawned some of the most popular and influential sites on the internet, such as Facebook, Google, and YouTube.
But while Web2 was a revolution in its own right, it is now clear that it was only the first step toward a truly connected global community. In this article, we will explore the rise of Web2 and the factors that have led to its discreditation.
The age of information
The early days of the internet were dominated by a few large corporations, such as AOL and Yahoo!, who controlled the flow of information and charged users for access to their platforms.
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This began to change in the late 1990s with the advent of Web2, which ushered in a new era of user-generated content and collaboration. Web2 sites like Wikipedia and YouTube allowed anyone with an internet connection to share their thoughts and ideas with the world.
This was a stark contrast to the previous model, where only a select few could control what information was shared with the masses. The rise of social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter further democratized the internet, giving individuals a powerful tool for sharing their views with the world.
The power of the individual
The rise of Web2 marked a shift in power from institutions to individuals. For the first time, regular people had a platform for sharing their thoughts and ideas with the world. This had a profound impact on society, as it gave rise to new movements and campaigns that would not have been possible without the internet.
The Arab Spring, for example, was a series of pro-democracy protests that swept across the Middle East and North Africa from 2010 to 2013. These protests would not have been possible without the use of social media to organize and share information between protesters.
How Web2 went wrong
Despite the positive impact it has had on the world, Web2 has also led to some serious problems — problems associated with this new ability to share information freely and without consequence. The main problems, of course, are the following:
Moral and political arbitration
While Web2 was a major step forward for the internet, it is now clear that it has reached its limit. The centralized nature of today’s platforms means that they are subject to the whims of their owners, who can choose to censor or remove content that they don’t agree with.
This was evident in the 2016 US presidential election when Facebook was accused of deliberately suppressing conservative news stories.
The Facebook-Cambridge Analytical data scandal exposed the problems with today’s platforms, as it showed how user data can be mishandled and used to manipulate public opinion. It also exposed the centralized nature of these platforms, which gives the owners complete control over what users see and do not see.
It is clear that we need a new model for the internet — one that is decentralized and based on the principle of data ownership. Under this model, users would have complete control over their data, and platform owners would not be able to sell or use it without their consent.
This would create a more level playing field, as small startups would be able to compete with large corporations for users’ attention.
Fighting in the shadows
Another factor that has led to the corruption of Web2 is the rise of the surveillance state. In the wake of the 9/11 attacks, the U.S. government embarked on a massive program of domestic surveillance, collecting data on millions of innocent Americans.
This program was exposed by Edward Snowden in 2013, and it showed how the government was using these platforms to spy on its citizens. Since then, we have seen a steady erosion of privacy rights, as the government has continued to collect data on our online activities.
On the other side of the equation is reckless anonymity, which has given rise to a new breed of internet troll. These trolls hide behind anonymous accounts and use the internet to harass and threaten people.
This problem was highlighted in 2014 and 2015 when women in the video game industry, including Anita Sarkeesian, Brianna Wu, Zoe Quinn and others were harassed and threatened by an anonymous group of trolls using the hashtag “#Gamergate.”
Elections in countries like the Philippines have suffered because of wide-scale disinformation campaigns that use social media to spread false information to distort the image of certain political candidates, whether in exaltation or disgrace.
What to expect
This op-ed is meant to be an introduction to the factors that have led to the downfall of the second iteration of the internet. You can clearly see that these problems are centered around the tenets of centralization, the commoditization of data, reckless anonymity and unmitigated human greed.
In the next few articles of this series, we will begin to explore how a new version of the internet — one which is decentralized and based on the principles of data ownership — can address these problems.
In part 2, we will explore the concept of free speech, attitudes toward censoriousness and moral arbitration by big tech.
To conclude, Web2 has allowed users the power to create, to be able to participate in the ebbs and flows of the worldwide conversation, but it has gone too far in giving those with the biggest megaphones the most power. Decentralization is key to evening out the playing field and giving everyone a voice.
Daniel Saito is CEO and cofounder of StrongNode.