Why media companies should support a decentralised Web

By Ben Werdmuller


San Francisco


The Web isn’t something that just happens to you.

We still don’t understand the Internet.

Back in February, here in this INMA blog space, Martha Ortiz wrote:

We have to be honest with ourselves and recognise the Internet broke the traditional newspaper business model. It took us too much time to understand it, accept it, and react creatively to it. In fact, there are plenty of companies still struggling to move into a multi-media business because there is too much print-only culture in their teams.

Media companies act as though they need to react to the Internet when actually the Web is a wide open space.
Media companies act as though they need to react to the Internet when actually the Web is a wide open space.

It would be hard not to agree with Martha wholeheartedly. It took far too long, and the result has been seismic for the entire industry. But there’s also an implicit assumption here: that the Internet is something we need to react to.

It would be easy to think the entire media industry was at the mercy of the Internet. In a world where Facebook controls how our content is shared and discovered, and where a single company’s algorithms can mean the difference between life and death for a media company, it can feel like all we can do is react.

But this is far from the truth.

The Web is open.

Unlike Facebook, CompuServe, or AOL — and unlike every media title in the history of the world — the Web isn’t owned by anybody. No single person decides how it should or shouldn’t work. There is no CEO or board of directors, no core development team.

The Web is an evolving common space that ebbs and flows based on the creative technologies created by armies of volunteers at separate organisations all over the world.

There are standard bodies like the World Wide Web Consortium, but even they aren’t the be all and end all. They don’t build the code or dictate what can or can’t be done. They’re community aggregators, helping to provide a focal point for the activity happening worldwide. This is how it’s always been done. Images, audio, animations, colours, Javascript — all of these things, which we now think of as being core to the Web, were created by diverse groups of decentralised volunteers.

The Web belongs to everyone. Anyone can help build it. And that means it belongs to publishers, too.

The prevailing business models of large Internet companies are an existential threat to the media industry. These content silos control how content is found, how it is published, how it is shared, and how it can be monetised. The result has been catastrophic for many media businesses.

But the correct response isn’t to beg those companies to change their business models to better support media. Strategies like building subscriptions into Facebook Instant Articles might be useful Band-Aids, but they won’t save the media industry.

Publishers need to help turn the Web into a platform that reduces dependencies on any one company for sharing, discovery, or monetisation in order to create a more resilient ecosystem for everybody.

The Web was originally designed as a platform for documents that link to each other; there was no interactivity. What you might find surprising is that there is still no interactivity. Services like Twitter and Facebook added the ability to establish an identity, connect with like-minded people, and both share and discover information.

But those are hacks. You need to log into a specific Web site (Twitter or Facebook) if you want to share something, which means those Web sites own every social interaction on the Web — and they can control it all.

What if sharing and discovery were built into the Web? What if nobody owned our identities, our reading histories, or our profiles? What if media organisations didn’t depend on anybody’s algorithm?

What if we could build that world?

Projects are already in progress. The IndieWeb movement seeks to build social interactivity into every Web site. Activity Streams allow you to represent social activities — like sharing and starring content — in a machine-readable way that any application can access. There are many more.

Truly understanding the Internet means understanding that everyone who uses it has the power to shape its future. The next big leap for media has to be into helping to turn the Web into an online platform where there are no single points of failure for sharing or discovery.

Rather than asking internet companies to change their algorithms and business models, media companies should lean into the open-source nature of the Internet and start building it alongside them.

Media is core to democracy, which means a more decentralised Web — one where publishing, sharing, and being found are all free and open — is in all of our interests. By making social functionality part of an independent Web, we remove the single points of failure — and points of control — that make the Internet so brittle for media businesses.

But time is of the essence. The time to start is now.

About Ben Werdmuller

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