Thanks to the mistrust of big tech, the creation of better tools for developers, and the weird and wonderful creativity of ordinary people, we’re seeing an incredibly unlikely comeback: the web is thriving again.
If you had to pick the unexpected breakout consumer tech hit of 2022, you could make a pretty strong case for Wordle. In a matter of weeks, the popular word game went from obscurity to ubiquity, grabbing attention and users at a torrid pace, and even earning the kinds of celebrity and pop culture shoutouts that usually cost millions, all before being snatched up by the New York Times. The hype may have died down, but the game is still wildly popular.
But what’s perhaps most amazing about Wordle is what it’s not. It’s not an app that you get from an App Store. (Though there were of course knockoffs that almost immediately showed up there.) It’s not covered in ads, and it’s not stealing your data or doing creepy things with your personal info. It’s not built by some giant Silicon Valley startup pumped full of investor money — it was built by just one guy, Josh Wardle. And it’s not designed to take over the internet, it’s just one web page, built with love for one person and limited in the amount of your time and attention that it wants to capture.
Wordle has so many great traits because it’s part of a long tradition that’s been somewhat dormant in pop culture in recent years: it’s made on, and for, the web. It is still truly possible for one person to make a website, without asking permission of any of the giant tech companies, and create an experience that touches millions of people. Maybe it’s to share a meaningful experience, or a fun game, or a weird obsession, or just to tell a story — the web was born to make these things possible.
While the core technology of the web is decades old, the tools that help make it and run have been quietly evolving into something extraordinary in the last few years, too. There’s a flourishing of powerful new frameworks that make it simpler than ever to build flexible, responsive, useful sites. New hosting platforms let those sites be deployed and delivered faster and more reliably than ever. And you can build one of these sites in literally under a minute, then collaborate with people anywhere in the world to iterate on making the site better.
A moment of possibility
I’m lucky to get a front-row seat to this kind of creativity (at Glitch we’ve seen people build millions and millions of web apps and websites this way). But the signs are visible to everyone now — the broad cultural forces that are driving this web renaissance are obvious and profound.
There is the mistrust of big tech that is obvious to even the most casual observers of technology. In some corners of the tech world, there’s a lot of hype around the idea of “web3”, a loosely-defined set of ideas related to cryptocurrencies, blockchains, and the metaverse. That stuff is fuzzy (or simply overhyped) to a lot of people — why is Facebook called Meta now? — but many of the underlying themes are resonant.
People should have ownership and control of their data online. Users should be able to connect to services and then move between them freely without having to ask permission from any big tech companies. Creators should be fairly compensated for their work. Communities and movements should easily be able to form groups and collaborate together to achieve their goals.
All of these ideas that animate the enthusiasm for web3 also inspired and motivated the early days of (what later came to be called) Web 2.0, and even drove that early era when the web didn’t have a version number at all. Each era started with a flourishing and rich ecosystem of many small, independent players, and then titans formed (companies like AOL and Yahoo in the first era, Google and Facebook in the second) and started to exert massive control over the web, bending it to their wills. But the web itself has always been open, waiting for each of these new generations to discover, or rediscover, its potential.
What’s more, many of the strongest (and smartest) advocates in the web3 world agree — we don’t even necessarily need a bunch of weird new crypto coins to open up the internet again, or to catalyze a new era of web creativity. For example, despite all the hype about the Metaverse, the vast majority of AR and VR content that’s being created is being created on the open web, far more than is being made for any proprietary device or platform. For the first time in a generation, the fandoms for today’s pop stars are building websites and apps on the open web (many of them remixes of Wordle, or its spinoff Heardle) just as they did in generations past on LiveJournal, Tumblr or MySpace. It’s proof that the rapidly-advancing technologies of today’s open web solve so many of the needs that people have, whether it’s a giant corporation trying to reach more customers, or just an individual creator who wants to make millions of people smile. We mostly just need to get started.
So if we have the tech, then why hasn’t it happened already? The biggest thing that may be missing is just awareness of the modern web’s potential. Unlike the Facebooks and Googles of the world, the open, creative web doesn’t have a billion-dollar budget for promoting itself. Years of control from the tech titans has resulted in the conventional wisdom that somehow the web isn’t “enough”, that you have to tie yourself to proprietary platforms if you want to build a big brand or a big business.
But now, the entire ecosystem has seen that there’s no safety in being subject to the whims of the tech giants. Some don’t like having to pay to promote their content online. Some don’t like being deranked by capricious algorithms. Some don’t like being on a treadmill of constantly trying to optimize for search engines. Some don’t like being on platforms that promoted hate or abuse. Everyone has something that frustrates them.
On your own site, though, under your own control, you can do things differently. Build the community you want. I’m not a pollyanna about this; people are still going to spend lots of times on the giant tech platforms, and not everybody who embraces the open web is instantly going to become some huge hit. Get your own site going, though, and you’ll have a sustainable way of being in control of your own destiny online.