FUTURE OF THE
AND HOW TO STOP IT
Photo by Isaac Hsieh - http://flic.kr/p/5EgDZm
Good afternoon. I’m happy to be here today — quite an honor
to get to speak at PARC — home of so many critical innovations
and contributions to the web.
This past weekend I was in Vancouver at Northern Voice and
gave a similar talk to this one, but without slides. It was an
interesting experience to go without slides for 45 minutes, but
it turns out, unicorns do exist: I was able to put together a
couple hundred sentences to fill the time and it worked out
pretty well. I hope to do the same thing today, but this time
with a few visual aids.
chris m , og
open web advocate
parc fo m ri
Engi ing Co uniti Acro t Int t
Thu y, 13 May 2010 @ 4:00 - 5:00 pm
Before I get started, my name IS Chris Messina, and I DO work
at Google as an open web advocate, which is partially the topic
of conversation today.
You can also use the PARCFORUM hashtag if you're tweeting
The name of this talk is a gross bastardization of Jonathan
Zittrain’s book, is “The Future of the Internet and How to Stop
His thinking is well worth checking out if this stuff interests
you, and I couldn’t resist a good pun so I called my talk “The
Future of the Social Web and How to Stop It.”
fu reoft int t.org
For those of you interested in reading the book, you can buy it
online or if you're a communist, you can download it for
free on futureoftheinternet.org.
Just kidding about the communist thing.
This stuff that I want to talk to you about today is the stuff that
keeps me up at night. And I haven't been sleeping much lately,
so it’s basically all I think about.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. We need to set the context
So I don’t know how many of you know who I am, and I don’t
expect that many of you necessarily do — but there is a piece
information that I think is relevant to what I want to you
about. Specifically, in January of this year I decided to give up
my own company — which I had run for a couple years doing
consulting in the social media space — to join Google.
This was a big decision for and took me a while to come to.
However, the role that I took at Google is a rather curious one.
I was fortunate enough to pick my own title, and so I chose the
role of Open Web Advocate.
Now, I think this is interesting for a couple reasons — least of
which is that Google actually entertained the idea of having an
open web advocate (whatever that means). If you think about
it, nature has environmentalists, women have feminists… but
the open web?
The web has enthusiasts, advocates, sure, but have we
congealed into a solid movement that reaches out beyond the
“it’s c nch time for t web”
As Tim O’Reilly recently said — it’s crunch time for the web.
As the web has become more popular, more infused into our
daily lives — something many of us frankly rely upon — for our
work, our livelihood, our ability to stay in touch with friends
and family… it’s become the target of a number of attacks, from
a number of different directions.
Whether you want to talk about regulation and net neutrality
in the states, or content filtering in Australia and elsewhere, or
you want to talk file sharing in France, or censorship in Asia,
you’re just hitting the tip of the iceberg. Indeed, there are some
who even worry that in the future, there may be more than one
web — in fact, there be several webs that may or may or not
But what is clear is how important the web has become, in not
a very long period of time, especially if you start counting from
the days of the first browsers.
Now, the crazy thing is that I — and I’m sure many of you —
have grown up through the transition from dialup modems and
AOL accounts and FTP programs to the modern web which is
largely delivered over broadband cables and interacted with
using hosted web services and websites. So we actually have
some perspective on what it was like before we had Foursquare
and Twitter and Facebook and all the iPhone. And we’ve seen
how powerful this technology is — and how much it’s changed
But I want take you back a decade. I went to high school in
Manchester, NH on the east coast.
(For those of you don’t know, I thought I’d show you how far
away that is from here.)
Ok, this next photo is a little embarrassing...
credit: megan higgins
I graduated in 1999 — right before Y2K — remember that? In
high school, I’ll admit it — I was a bit of an outcast. I didn’t
exactly get along with my peers; generally had a chip on my
shoulder and really didn’t have much use for school. It mostly
seemed — as I’m sure it did to a lot of kids my age — like a big
fat waste of time.
credit: megan higgins
My junior year I decided that there really wasn’t much more
that my high school courses could offer me — especially when
the best technology they had to offer was Adobe Illustrator 5
and Aldus PageMaker 2. I was able to get better software from
warez sites over a dialup modem than I could at school. And
this greatly frustrated me.
credit: megan higgins
Fortunately, I ended up getting a couple after school jobs — the
first at a print shop doing bindery work — basically stapling
annual reports together — and the second, a much more
interesting job, doing web design for a small local design
company. Now, this part of the story isn’t that interesting,
however, my work at the web design company coincided with
work that I was doing on a volunteer basis for my high school
— namely, I had taken it upon myself to build the school’s
website AND create all of the club’s and sports’ homepages.
It was an ambitious project, but I was convinced that
everything would be SO much better for everyone if parents,
students, teachers, and everyone else could keep in touch with
each other online. Of course, it didn’t occur me that people
weren’t all that interested in the web just yet. Nor that the web
wasn’t readily available to everyone. NOR that the browsers
that we had back then really weren’t that great or all that
But, this was a labor of love and it was important and — hell —
gave me something to do. So I built the site and I even added a
rotating ad banner. No, I didn’t charge and the ads weren’t
commercial in nature, but I did promote local student events
and organizations like the National Art Honor Society.
Now this was all well and good — and in fact, I was hosting the
site on my own server, the librarian and the principal all knew
what I was going. It was fine. In fact, in the meantime the
principal decided to take a special interest in me, to see if he
could reignite my interest in academics. Terrific.
So one day, I get called down to the principal’s office and I’m
brought in to his office and he sits me down and starts yelling
at me. “How could I betray him like this? How could I do this
I was shocked — what had I done? I was completely confused.
And then he showed me a printout with the Gay-Straight
Alliance banner ad that I’d put up on the site three months
You see, where I come from, people are both libertarian AND
conservative. And the fact that a bunch of snot-nosed kids at
the public high school wanted to have their own little support
club for gay kids just didn’t sit well with the administration. So
he suspended me. For five days. Now I mentioned that I
graduated in 1999. BUT — that was almost not the case. As it
turned out, the issue of the Gay-Straight Alliance — or GSA —
at my high school was just about to become a full on court case
in Boston, involving the ACLU and GLAD. As a result, the
administration really didn’t have much extra attention to pay
to my mom when she threatened to sue the school for
My suspension ended up being reduced to just a couple days
on the condition that I cut a deal: I had to turn over the entire
website and all of my source files and agree not to make any
more sites related to the high school. I refused and argued that
I wasn’t about to put another student in my position by
handing over the site’s source code without clear guidelines
from the administration on what was, and wasn’t, allowable on
the site. They refused to play ball and so I shut the site down
and the issue… somehow passed.
It later on turned out that the librarian with whom I’d worked
had secretly made a partial copy of the site — and to this day —
you can actually still see pages that I designed and wrote on my
high school’s site.
Oh, and as it turned out, the GSA won the court case and the
school district was compelled to allow the group to meet on
I tell you this story not because it’s terribly interesting
necessarily — but because it demonstrates two things:
• First, a shift in power. If the principal had believed that no
one would ever see the website, then he probably wouldn’t
have gotten all that upset. As it happened, the principal had
plans at the time to run for mayor of the city. And so he
clearly was concerned that people might stumble upon the
high school website with a nice big Gay-Straight Alliance
banner right at the top!
• The second thing was that this whole scenario probably
couldn’t happen today, what with Facebook and
sophistication around website access and control… I mean,
it’s possible, sure, but unlikely. I mean, I hosted the site on
my own server. So think about it: if my high school, let’s say,
had decided to outsource all their web needs to, say,
Facebook… well, there really wouldn’t have been that much
room for me to make the kind of statement that I made.
And yet the medium of the web, is perfectly suited to provide a
venue for all kinds of voices and perspectives. And it’s
important that, in the technology that we create, that we make
sure that we preserving freedom, choice, and the ability to
That said, I’d argue that there are actually several more subtle
threats at work — that are less obvious, and possibly — because
of how they’re being baked into the interfaces that we use to
interact with the web — potentially more dangerous to the
health, wellbeing, and longevity of the web.
There are two concepts that I want to use to counterbalance
what I see going on on the web today:
The first is what I call “pop computing”. The second is
“generativity”. Think of these as the yin and yang of the
modern, open web: two competing forces driving the way that
we are able to use — or not use — technology.
I have yet to write my blog post — that of course has been
lingering in my drafts folder for months — about this idea of
“pop computing”. But there are several symptoms that I’d like
to highlight today.
d th of t url
The first is described in a post that I actually did write called
The Death of the URL where I called out how the potential
demise of the address bar in web browsers could cause a great
shift in the way that we access the internet.
In particular, I cited four exhibits:
• “lean back computing” devices
• app stores
• short URLs (which I won’t be covering today)
WebTV is like the canary in the coal mine because people are
used to a very simple “change the channel” modality in how
they control and manipulate the device. TiVo gives you a little
more control — but for most people, channel surfing is still
where it’s at.
There’s no “channel surfing” on the web. Certainly there are
scores of directories that list sites that you can visit, but
ultimately you aren’t punching in numerical ID (like Channel
12) to get to content… you’re typing a URL.
So check out this quote from a story in USA Today about
“Manufac r s say t y ar d an im rtant on
from r n rgence failur : View s want
relate ts as te vi ons, t mput s.
“T t’s why t w Web TV dels don’t me th
brow t t uld gi peop t fr dom surf
t fu Int t, e n though t TVs ect
t Web via an et r t cab or home re
t rk. T mpani want pro te nsum
a eptance of Web TV by making t tech logy
mp u : T t m ns keyboard or u .”
“Manufacturers say they learned an important lesson from
earlier convergence failures: Viewers want to relate to sets as
televisions, not computers.
“That’s why the new Web TV models don’t come with browsers
that would give people the freedom to surf the full Internet,
even though the TVs connect to the Web via an ethernet cable
or home wireless network. The companies want to promote
consumer acceptance of Web TV by making the technology
simple to use: That means no keyboard or mouse.”
So if WebTV takes off, and it very well may — that means that a
generation will grow up with a very limited set of
expectations for how big the web truly is.
On top of that, we’re see a rise of what I would call “Lean-back
computing” devices. These are devices like the iPad, or
JoliCloud or Kindle or even ChromeOS (to some extents) that
trade freedom and self-determination for simplicity and a
certain brand of usability.
And the popularity of these devices, especially of course the
iPhone and iPad, indicates a strong desire for computing to
become more simple. And you really blame people. I think the
PC — in so many ways — has been a failure because it left much
of the computer’s core systems vulnerable to malware and
viruses that people really didn’t know any better to avoid.
So you have devices like like the Litl that are more like
“managed appliances” that look more and more like TV.
And so to avoid that fate, and to create more stable computing
experiences, people are now more willing to accept using a
tethered device that restricts their freedom in exchange for
someone else dealing with the hard stuff.
As a designer, it is hard for me to suggest that this is really a
bad thing… I mean, it means that more people will be using
computing devices and experiencing a taste for how useful
computers can be. But the reliance on central authorities — like
Apple or Amazon — to control what goes on or doesn’t go on
the devices is something that worries me.
a s r
Which brings me to my third exhibit which of course is the rise
of App Stores.
The thing that worries me about most of the App Stores is that
the gatekeepers tend to act erratically, and sometimes unfairly.
The App Store, like the Web TV experience, also only provides
a subset of the material and options that exist on the open web.
So the question becomes: who gets to determine what is
acceptable for a given app store? And if something that
you want is not allowed to be part of that App Store, how can
you get it?
This kind of “ask permission” model of content access has a
deleterious effect over time, such that, eventually, people
stop asking for things that aren’t there. They become
inured to the idea that someone else knows better and is
effectively keeping them safe.
This has all sorts of ramifications for startups, businesses that
want to compete with the gatekeepers, and again, for individual
obso scence of view source
Another aspect of “pop computing” — is the gradual
obsolescence of view source.
• More complicated web apps
• Code obfuscation
• Data services and APIs
• Default to private rather than public
So in a browser like Chrome, view source has been deemed a
“developer feature” — rather than a tinkerer’s feature — and
relegated to the status of serving as the appendix of the
browser, stuck deep in the View > Developer menu, when it
used to be a first level menu item under the “View” menu.
instant p so tion
The last aspect of “pop computing” that I want to describe is
“instant personalization”, the term that Facebook uses to
describe some of its new platform features.
Specifically, these are social features that are designed to work
without your involvement… that is, if you’re logged into
Facebook in one tab, and you visit another site like Yelp in a
different tab, you’ll automatically be signed in to Yelp, and
your friends will be there waiting for you.
On the face of it (no pun intended) I think this functionality is
awesome. It’s exactly how user-centric identity should be
However — the problem is that the act of signing in to your
Facebook account is not necessarily the same thing as saying
that you want your Facebook account to be available to every
site that you visit.
So by disintermediating you from that decision point — that is,
where the “instant” in “Instant Personalization” comes from —
it’s essentially as though Facebook and Yelp got together in a
smoke filled backroom and invited you in to the party, without
exactly letting you in on what they’d been saying about you
before you arrived.
And that’s not to suggest that they had been talking about
you, only that you just don’t know. And so, like the iPad is
magic, instant personalization creates a situation where you
are no longer in control of where your profile shows up or
which profile you get to use in different contexts.
And that choice — your ability to put whatever face forward
that you desire in different contexts — should be essential. You
should be making that decision, not Facebook.
It isn’t that the feature is the wrong feature — it all comes down
to the implementation.
And so stacked up together:
• the death of the URL
• the dying of view source
• instant personalization
...these are all trends that are giving rise to a generation of
people for whom computing will be a simple, clean, sterile
experience. And that threatens all of us.
So if we have pop computing on the one hand, then we have
this notion of “generativity” on the other.
prin p s
In his book, “The Future of the Internet and How to Stop It”,
Jonathan Zittrain introduced this term “generativity” which he
articulated in five principles:
1. how exten ly a system or tech logy
g a t of ib tasks;
2. how we it can a pted a nge of tasks;
3. how ly w ntribu can mast it;
4. how a b it is tho r dy and ab
build on it;
5. how t ns b any c ng are ot —
including (and p ps pe a y) xp ts.
• how extensively a system or technology leverages a set of
• how well it can be adapted to a range of tasks;
• how easily new contributors can master it;
• how accessible it is to those ready and able to build on it;
• how transferable any changes are to others — including (and
perhaps especially) nonexperts.
Generativity is the quality of a technology — and I mean
“technology” in the broadest sense — that allows others to
benefit from your work — without first asking you
This is largely the quality that has lead to the overwhelming
success of open source.
Now I want to talk about three examples, that are personal to
me, that demonstrate both the power and importance of
generativity in the technologies that you create:
Story of BarCamp; first BarCamp in August 2005. Planned in
six days. 300 people. $3000. Documented on the wiki. Some
basic rules that were self-evident if you attended one of these
I made the logos in the beginning and then other people just
started making them for themselves and being much more
creative than I ever was!
There have easily been over a thousand of these events since
2005 — and more are organized everyday.
And the secret of BarCamp — and why it was generative — was
because it was accessible to novices.
Just by attending a BarCamp you could ﬁgure out how to run your own.
Photo by superfluity - http://flic.kr/p/75SVAU
Started coworking in 2006. Name came from Brad Neuberg
who had started “coworking” in a women’s center in the
Mission in San Francisco. It started modest: every Thursday a
group of folks would get together, set out card tables in this
small space, and “cowork”... just to have some companionship
so that they didn’t have to work alone.
I believe I met Brad at a SuperHappyDevHouse and when we
discussed his idea, it coincided perfectly with an idea that I’d
had for some time about creating open, collaborative spaces
largely targeted at independent information workers and who I
might call, “people of the web”.
That is, we didn’t need much in the way of infrastructure
besides a wifi network, a decent place to sit, and some company
from our peers.
The first coworking space was called The Hat Factory…
But it wasn’t until we opened Citizen Space in SOMA in San
Francisco that the idea really started to resonate outwards…
I tweeted the first hashtag on August 23, 2007. It was casual,
unassuming — another one of my hair-brained ideas. I asked:
“how do you feel about using # (pound) for groups. As in
That was it. That’s all I said. And then I started doing. I would
tag my tweets at events or about different topics or subjects. I
was doing it for myself, but also to demonstrate the concept.
There were other microsyntaxes around that time and shortly
thereafter that other people tried to get off the ground, and a
few them have stuck — for example using the dollar sign to
indicate a stock ticker — but some of the other more esoteric
that required people to think more like machines than like
And so the hashtag is a great example of a generative
technology because, according to the principles:
• they can be applied to many different tasks (or topics)
• new contributors can master it very easily — though
admittedly some people take it a little too far when they’re
first getting started
• it was accessible and available for anyone to use — mostly
within Twitter — but of course, this design (a stupidly simple
one) can apply to just about any context — including events
like this one!
• and it’s also “transferrable” insomuch as people can watch
other using hashtags and then adopt them. Or, if a hashtag,
let’s say, starts getting spammed… people can transfer the
momentum around a hashtag to a new one… and so this
folksonomic system can breathe in and out as necessary. It
doesn’t require a central index or authority to function.
Some popular examples?
• #sandiegofire (nate ritter)
• #pman and #iranelection
So again, we have these two trends in the marketplace: pop
computing and generativity. I pit them against each other
because they are actually two logical halves of a whole. That is,
we need technologies — social technologies — that are simple
and easy to use and don’t take too much for granted and that
make it possible for the uninitiated, or nonexperts, to benefit
The iPhone is, after all, a great device. Is it great because it
restricts our freedom and reduces complexity and choice? I’m
not so sure.
On the other hand, we can see that simple social technologies
like BarCamp, Coworking, and hashtags, can be generative in
that they provide a simple structure or foundation — a protocol
if you will — that is adaptable to new uses and environments —
beyond the original conception or context.
The web is a generative structure. It is quite simple in its
architecture, and through the playing out of chaos theory, has
given rise to much much more complex structures.
In the beginning of this talk, I told you about an experience
that I had in high school where I encountered both the power
of authority and its desire to control my ability to influence my
environment. I also, however, realized the power of the web —
and its this power that I want to make sure continues to be
available and distributed to more and more people — NOT
And so I want to end by describing what I see as a challenge for
the open source, and open web communities.
As I pointed out in the beginning of my talk, Earth has
environmentalists, women have feminists, animals have PETA,
et… but the web — the web has us…
And I worry about what’s happening to our community.
Moreover, I worry about the open web community, and it’s
ability to adapt and to modernize itself. I think that, with the
onslaught of pop computing — more and more new developers
will be spending their time developing apps for closed
ecosystems rather than building apps that are available to
anyone on the web. And so we as a community need to
diversify — we need to think very critically about who our
audience, and how we interact and engage with the world.
Y’know there was an interesting story on NPR recently about
how girls in grade school think of engineers as these stinky
boys who work in dungeons and sit in front of computers all
day. Well, that’s not a terribly compelling vision for sure… and
the real problem is that if we don’t attract more women into
this industry, ironically or NOT ironically, we’re going to end
up just building software for ourselves — which becomes
increasingly marginalized, as more and more people opt for
controlled, sterile devices to access the web.
Now, it isn’t just that bringing more women into technology
and open source is going to solve the problem. That’s not what
I’m saying. What I am saying is that learning to be more open
minded and inclusive — of people unlike the majority in our
community is the only chance we have to perpetuate our
culture and our community in such a way that we might be able
to make an impact on the changes that are coming to
Dial it back to my experience in high school… my ability to
view the source of some random webpage and hack around and
figure out how to upload it to some web server and to get
people involved in the project and to be aware of it to the point
where the school principal fears for his reputation because of
this stupid little project…. that’s important. That means that
people of authority and people who are used to having more
control are going to increasingly want to exercise that control
into the domain of the web… as I pointed out earlier, it’s
already happening… and it’s only going to get worse and so we
need to think seriously about these threats and mobilize
Now, those technologies aren’t perfect — but they are social
technologies. And we need more of them, and it’s up to us to
After all, if we’re not going to be the advocates of an open and
free social web — who will be?