When I first fell in love with the web, it was a radically different place. Aside from the many technical improvements that have been made, I feel like the general culture of the web has changed a lot as well.
Growing up with the web as a teenager meant having access to an infinite treasure chest of content. A lot of that content was spread across blogs, forums and personal websites.
The overwhelming motivation behind it seemed to be “I made something, here it is”. Sharing things for the sake of showing them to the world. Somebody had created something, then put it online so you could see it. Visit their website (wait for the dial-up to finish), and it’s yours.
Follow any link on the web today and you’ll likely be met with a different scenario:
- Cookie consent pops up, intentionally confusing.
(You're tired - just hit "Accept All".)
- App download banner asks you to install the native app.
- Newsletter modal blocks the site, asking for your email address. (Close it.)
- Start reading a few paragraphs, before another modal requires you to create an account. (Leave site, frustrated.)
Notice how everything about that interaction is designed to extract value from your visit. The goal here is not for you to read an article; it’s to get your analytics data, your email, your phone and your money.
It’s the symptom of a culture that sees the web purely as a business platform. Where websites serve as eloborate flytraps and content as bait for unsuspecting users.
In this culture, the task of the self-appointed web hustler is to build something fast & cheap, then scale it as much as possible before eventually cashing out.
- You see it in email bots, spamming blogs for link placements and sponsored posts.
- You see it in Twitter accounts where grifters try to monetize their “communities” with useless ebooks.
- You see it in crypto, burning the planet for quick profits.
web3 and NFTs are the latest evolution of this culture. The latest attempt to impose even more artificial locks and transactions on users, to extract even more money.
This is the web as envisioned by late-stage capitalism: a giant freemium game where absolutely everyone and everything is a “digital asset” that can be packaged, bought and sold.
Don’t bring wall street to a web fight
Sure, the web has changed since the 90s. It has “grown up”.
Of course there are lots of legitimate reasons to monetize, and creators deserve to be compensated. It’s not about people trying to make a buck. It’s about those treating the web simply as a market to run get-rich-quick schemes in, exploiting others out of pure greed.
We’ve gotten so used to it that some can’t even imagine the web working any other way - but it doesn’t have to be like this.
At its very core, the rules of the web are different than those of “real” markets. The idea that ownership fundamentally means that nobody else can have the same thing you have just doesn’t apply here. This is a world where anything can easily be copied a million times and distributed around the globe in a second. If that were possible in the real world, we’d call it Utopia.
It’s also a world that can be shaped by the consumer:
Large companies find HTML & CSS frustrating “at scale” because the web is a fundamentally anti-capitalist mashup art experiment, designed to give consumers all the power.— Mia, with valuable secrets 🤫 (@TerribleMia) November 24, 2019
Sorry I didn’t quote tweet anything in order to say that.
This “mashup art experiment”, as Mia calls it, is what made the web great in the first place. It’s the reason it became a global phenomenon and much of it is centered around the idea that digital content is free and abundant.
Resource Scarcity doesn’t make sense on the web. Artificially creating it here serves no other purpose than to charge money for things that could easily have been free for all. Why anyone would consider that better is beyond me.
Freedom of content
The online game Wordle recently took the world by storm. To the utter shock of many, it is just a free piece of content. A free and open web game millions can enjoy, no strings attached.
Its creator, Josh Wardle, originally built the game for his partner and put it online. “I made something, here it is”. Despite its success, he had no intention to monetize it through apps or subscriptions - and the world is richer for it. When questioned about it, he said this:
I think people kind of appreciate that there’s this thing online that’s just fun. It’s not trying to do anything shady with your data or your eyeballs. It’s just a game that’s fun.
Because the notion that monetization is the only worthwhile goal on the web is so widespread, this is somehow a very controversial take. You can actually stand out of the crowd by simply treating the web platform as what it is: a way to deliver content to people.
Despite what web3 claims, it’s possible to “own” your content without a proof of it on the blockchain (see: IndieWeb). It’s also possible to create things just for the sake of putting them out into the world.
The best growth hack is still to build something people enjoy, then attaching no strings to it. You’d be surprised how far that can get you.
Make free stuff! The web is still for everyone.
👉 Update: On Feb 1, Wordle was eventually sold to the New York Times for upwards of a million dollars. Josh Wardle claims the game will still remain free to play for all.