It’s hard to build a good web

Every single day we’re hearing about the failings of big tech companies and what they’re doing to the web. The ethical failings, the transgressions against privacy, the rampant and shameless exclusion of most people from the opportunities that tech creates. Honestly, it is fucking exhausting to think about sometimes, and I get why so many well-intentioned people just give up.

And then those of us who are watching, we have our ideals of how the web should work. We want these ideologically pure sites that are inclusive and make money by passing the hat, but not too much money, and not the wrong kind of money, and also we don’t really want to pay for it. I mean, we want to pay for it, but if there’s a way we could also not pay for it, that’d be great.

So for those of us who are still idealistic about tech, there’s only one thing we can do. We can try to make the web we want to see. For lack of a better term, it’s a “good” web. Not the best! Maybe there are better things. And not the only web! Because even if they’re kind of terrible sometimes, Facebook and Twitter and YouTube and Pinterest and Tumblr and all the rest are also kinda great a lot of the time.

We try. And what it looks like is a small core of people who are ridiculously, absurdly, passionately supportive. Maybe enough to squeak by, maybe not. And then things get tough. You’re MetaFilter, and Google Ads don’t perform like they used to, and you have to let go some of the best people who’ve ever moderated a community. You’re MLKSHK and you have a huge spike in traffic without a huge spike in paid users, and you have to consider shutting down until there’s a last-minute reprieve.

Or you’re ThinkUp, and you’re trying to get this weird little app that you really, truly believe in out into the world. But it’s taking longer than the venture capital model of tech can wait, and you decide to make the hard choices it takes to do right by a community and forgo doing a regular round of funding.

Let me tell you something: This stuff can be fucking awful. Even with all the effort and support and sheer love that we get by making things for the web that we think will make the web better, it can be grueling and there’s a reason most websites are the equivalent of fast food instead of home-cooked meals.

I don’t know anyone who runs an independent web app or web site that hasn’t had to look a friend in the eyes and tell that friend they can’t afford to pay them anymore. Not one.

So now what?

But I see some glimmers of hope a lot, too. MetaFilter and MLKSHK got back up on their feet, and then some. I see the scrappy team at The Toast make a site that brings joy, on their own terms, in a way that I had always hoped was possible. I see NewsBlur do a great job making an app in a category that the conventional tech industry said was old fashioned or dead, and build a thriving and vibrant community on top of it. I see a bunch of sites where instead of women getting harassed, women are founders. I see a web where people are having fun with each other, while they're goofing off during their lunch hour. I see the web we'll curl up with when we're stuck at our parents' house at Thanksgiving and can't stand listening to the TV blasting anymore.

I see an industry that changes just enough to treat a mom-and-pop indie app as being just as important as anything that gets VC funding.

That’s what we tried to start working on today. It’s imperfect, and probably still a little confusing (I am struggling to explain all these concepts a bit more briefly than I did here!) but it makes me hopeful that we can do something new. Well, a little bit old-fashioned, but new.

Good Web Bundle sites

Let's Try This

A few weeks ago the folks who run a couple of the best small apps and sites on the web got together and tried to figure out a way to make it easier for those who believe in what we’re doing to support us. It’s not cheap. It’s not a thing you can tap on in the App Store and download with a click. But it is something I believe in, and that I’m incredibly proud to have made with Matt, and Amber and Andre, and Sam, and Nicole and Mallory and Nick, and Gina. And we had the help of a whole community of folks behind us.

Here’s what we made: the Good Web Bundle. I hope you’ll give it a look, and tell a few friends about it, and maybe buy one for yourself and gift the codes to a loved one for the holidays. But even if all it does it gets you to think about the web as a place that has lots of big box stores and not nearly enough Main Street shops, that’d be wonderful.


(Twitter) Famous!

What a delight to be interviewed by Bijan Stephens for Vanity Fair, especially as so much of the focus was on me as a dad and a person, rather than just the usual tech stuff.

In person, he projects an air of warm authority—more benevolent history teacher than shark-like C.E.O. This doesn’t stray far from his Twitter persona, which, even when he’s not tweeting explicitly about dad stuff, has the genial air of a one-time nerd aging into fatherhood and navigating the new, geek-friendly establishment.


Real Web History

There's been precious little documentation of the real cultural impact that the social web has had, particularly in its earliest years. So it's exciting when people in academia who are researching those topics share their findings.

I was sent a set of links this morning that I haven't had a chance to read over myself yet, but for future reference, I thought they are worth sharing and recording.

  • Blogging for Engines (PDF) by Anne Helmond. "The increasingly symbiotic relationship between the blogger, blog software and blog engines needs to be addressed in order to be able to describe a current account of blogging."
  • The Algorithmization of the Hyperlink, from Anne Helmond. "This study looks at the history of the hyperlink from a medium-specific perspective by analyzing the technical reconfiguration of the hyperlink by engines and platforms over time."
  • Where do bloggers blog? by Anne Helmond in First Monday. "The blogosphere has played an instrumental role in the transition and the evolution of linking technologies and practices. This research traces and maps historical changes in the Dutch blogosphere and the interconnections between blogs, which — traditionally considered — turn a set of blogs into a blogosphere."
  • The web as exception: The rise of new media publishing cultures by M.P. Stevenson. "This dissertation offers a history of web exceptionalism - or the notion that the web is a source of
    radical change and that it is inherently different from its ‘mass’ and ‘mainstream’ media predecessors - as well as its role in various innovations in web publishing."
  • On the emergence of blogging, resources from Rudolf Ammann. "The works and fragments listed below came about in the course of my PhD thesis on the emergence of blogging, submitted in October 2012, successfully defended in January 2013, and currently awaiting transformation into a book."

Can't wait to sit down and read them all!


Why Pennsylvanians should vote for Tom Wolf

Though I was born and raised in Pennsylvania, I haven't lived there for years. So why should anybody in the state listen to me about who to vote for as their governor? Because, this time, I can personally attest to the character of the best man for the job.

Tom Wolf is an outstanding candidate. Since I'm someone who cares about education and job creation and women's health and opportunity for workers and criminal justice reform, it's easy to see that Tom's platform aligns with my political positions. But I want to offer an insight into something deeper.

My parents came from the most humble roots. Take my dad — born while India was still under British rule, he grew up with no running water or electricity, with only a grade school that could barely keep up with his voracious mind. And all of this undergirded by unreliable nutrition due to erratic farm crops destabilized by colonial policies that resulted in one of the worst and deadliest famines in human history.

Yet despite all this adversity, my father persevered, coming to the United States, getting his PhD, and with my mother, becoming a leader in both their community and their careers while providing their two kids with nearly boundless opportunity.

Tom Wolf in Orissa

What does this classic American story have to do with Tom Wolf? Well, in that poor, fragile region where my parents grew up, one of the first interactions that many in the area ever had with a westerner was with Tom Wolf, who chose to serve in the area as a Peace Corps volunteer.

Tom's work focused on stabilizing and growing agriculture in western Orissa, the Indian state my family is from. Here is a man who was born with all the privilege and opportunity that America could afford a man, and who chose to serve those who had the least. This is what leadership is, enabling people to live their best lives on their own terms by working alongside them with respect.

My parents succeeded because they worked hard, and they were already on the path to an amazing life when Tom's work began. But countless others had their prospects permanently improved because someone who had everything was sincerely interested in helping those who didn't have nearly as much.

Leaders must be curious

Tom Wolf had an honest respect and intellectual curiosity for the culture that he was engaging. As is the custom, my parents' wedding in India involved almost the entire population of their respective hometowns, with multiple days of celebrations and events. The only American, the only white guy, the only person of such privilege who was curious and committed enough to be present at such an event was Tom Wolf.

From that bond of witnessing their marriage to decades later, in my youth in Pennsylvania, Tom Wolf and my parents stayed true friends. As my mother's career succeeded she still made time to host legendarily delicious and decadent multi-course dinners of Indian cuisine at home, and I can remember a number of times when Tom Wolf would show up and dig into the food with the gusto of a native.

Now, it's been decades since I've seen Tom Wolf. I was just a kid when we interacted, so I can't say that I know the man today, or that he'd even remember me. But I know how fondly my parents speak of a friend who knew them in their lives before they came to America, a friend who cheered them on as they cheered him on, over years as they all went on to become accomplished community members and entrepreneurs in Pennsylvania, and loving parents at home.

Around elections, everybody trots out clich├ęs like "character matters", but what do these phrases really mean? I think they must be a way of asking, "What did this person do with their time on the Earth back when the cameras weren't looking? How did a person use their privileges and good fortune to serve others?" In short, what is the sincere nature of a person who wants us to give them power?

These are the ways to measure a leader. Many people can say the right things about a slate of political positions, and mean it. But if we're going to give someone the power and the great privilege of serving as a leader, then we should expect that they've proven their character.

Tom Wolf has proven his character. He earned the respect of my parents a world away, nearly half a century ago, by honestly and sincerely engaging with people he'd never known, and simply being of service. That's what leadership is, and that's why as someone who was born and raised in Pennsylvania, who still counts many friends in the state, I ask all of you to elect Tom Wolf today.

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