Submitted by: Bryan Behrenshausen
Writer and Editor, Red Hat
What is the Open Web?
The “open Web” is the idea that the World Wide Web should remain accessible to as many people as possible. It has both technical and cultural dimensions.
Technically speaking, the open Web is a series of technological standards and protocols that govern certain modes of interaction between humans and computers. We might think of “protocols” as sets of rules that define what’s acceptable and expected (indeed, what’s possible) when two or more of these agents attempt to interact.
The term “World Wide Web” typically names a collection of three such protocols, all built atop the Internet (which is itself a different series of technical protocols!):
· HTML (hypertext markup language), or rules related to how people might compose materials for the Open Web (and how machines might interpret and render those materials)
· HTTP (hypertext transfer protocol), or rules for how computers “speak” to one another across the Open Web
· URI (universal resource identifier), or rules for how humans and machines locate and identify materials distributed around the Open Web
Key here is the fact that these standards are open; that is, the technical descriptions, or “rule books,” that outline, explain, and govern them are publicly available. As a result, anyone with access to those rule books can learn the standards, create materials that adhere to the standards, write software that operates according to the standards, and interact (in a “standard” way) with others doing the same thing.
The open Web’s open standards foster and ensure interoperability; anyone or anything adhering to the standards (or “following the rule book,” to use again that rather strained metaphor) can interact. Any two computers running a standards-compliant webserver can interact to exchange files. Any two humans writing in standards-compliant markup can compose and share materials. And any human/computer dyad can work together to locate and access these things.
Culturally speaking, the open Web is something more akin to a spirit or ethos—a belief that adhering to standards is not only welcome or desirable but fundamental to the continued operation and utility of the World Wide Web itself. It’s a set of principles and practices that its advocates advance as the “right way” to organize, maintain, control, and grow the World Wide Web. This facet of the “open Web” concept usually manifests in discussions about Web etiquette and “best practices.”
Open Web advocates tend to be critical of structures and practices that delimit access to resources and materials. Various social media platforms serve as cases in point; built as part of the World Wide Web, they nevertheless function to “slice” the Web into multiple disconnected parts. Facebook users can’t interact directly with LinkedIn users; Twitter users and Instagram users can’t easily “follow” one another. And people who don’t use any of those services can’t interact with anyone who does!
The same is true of the various pay-for-access publications and databases that exist across the Web: Subscribers can read them, but they can’t always share what they’d like with non-subscribers. The “open Web” alternative to systems like this might look something like Opensource.com, the community-driven open source storytelling website I help edit and curate. Anyone with Web access can read the site—no account needed, no payment required, no limitations imposed.
Most services like the “closed” ones I just described act, in the words of their critics, as “walled gardens”: beautifully manicured and maintained (but nevertheless cordoned and closed) environments that don’t allow users the ability to interact between them. (Incidentally, this mode of operation is something of a return to the earliest days of online service providers—like AOL or Compuserve or Prodigy—which restricted user activities in much the same way.) This runs counter to the spirit of the open Web, which would champion fewer impediments to direct and transparent discourse. The ascendancy of so-called “app culture” marks an acceleration and intensification of this tendency.
Distinguishing these twin dimensions—that is, the technical and the culturaldimensions of the open Web—is useful analytically, but the distinction is much less appropriate empirically. The technical and the cultural are always already bound up in one another in ways that make any easy “split” between them difficult in lived experience and actual practice.
For example, when Tim Berners Lee invented and first published core Web technologies in the early 1990s, he soon after helped establish the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), a global body tasked with maintaining and advancing those standards. Members of that body discuss, debate, and determine the technical future of the Web through processes that are intimately tied to their culturally-specific visions for what the Web should be. Likewise, Open Web advocates literally use the Web to talk about the Web; that is, they’re relying on open standards and protocols for facilitating their discussions about open standards and protocols (so, in this way, open Web advocates are what Christopher Kelty—in his book on open source culture, Two Bits—calls a “recursive public”). These technical and the cultural dimensions are strands of the same open Web double helix.
Why is the open Web important?
The open Web is important if one believes (as I do) that the World Wide Web should function as an accessible platform for discourse and collaboration. Alternatives to the open Web haven’t inspired much confidence in their ability to perform this function.
A future without an open Web is a future of radical fragmentation, one in which people are increasingly isolated from one another, marooned on incompatible digital islands, and beholden to those with the power to determine what everyone reads, studies, watches, and says (and, similarly, who’s allowed to read, study, watch, and speak). It’s a future in which people can’t engage in basic interactions without first releasing details about their identities to multiple stakeholders capable of tracking their activities and tailoring their potential views of the world.
What changes do you hope it will bring for your industry?
I’m a writer, editor, and educator—so much of my work involves working with words to articulate and share ideas. Quite frankly, the World Wide Web stands to be one of the greatest boons to publishing and education in the history of modern technology. But it needs to remain open if it’s going to fulfill its promise.
And while I might like to pretend that ostensibly lofty pursuits like “writing” and “teaching” might be somehow disembedded from a broader context, the truth is that they aren’t. Their future is inextricably tied to a political economy.
So is the World Wide Web’s. And likewise, the future of the Web—”open” or otherwise—largely depends on the social, political, and economic systems that crisscross it. That means the future of the open Web is something that only makes sense (something that’s only discernible) when assessed against a field of forces that shape it.
As a student participating in my Duke University course “Foundations of an Open Source World” keenly noted during a recent class meeting, most contemporary strategies for generating economic value via the World Wide Web seem antithetical to open Web principles. They involve paywalls and tierd access schemes and subscriber-only materials and all other manner of exclusionary techniques. Another value-generating option, advertising, has spurred numerous anti-user practices (pop-overs, auto-play videos) and race-to-the-bottom writing techniques(listicles, slideshows, clickbait headlines) that make using the Web a tedious and frustrating experience. So it, too, seems unappealing (even if it keeps the Web “open” in a more technical sense by allowing visitors to access more materials in exchange for their attention and annoyance, rather than private or sensitive data).
I suppose, then, that my answer to the question is that I truly hope someone, somewhere, will devise a method for making reading and writing for the open Web more valuable than doing so on and for a more closed Web—a method for Doing Open Web Publishing Right—and soon.
What is the future of the open Web?
My hope for the future of the term “open Web” is that it will become redundant—and that redundancy will obviate the need for it! The Web should be synonymous with “open”; “open” should be the default approach to building the Web. In the future, I only want to be talking about “the Web.” No special terms or linguistic modifiers needed. Simple as that.