The death of the web, the rise of the app, and the future of digital culture

A feature exploring Wired’s controversial cover story “The Web is dead,” first published in the Observer, August 2010. This is a slightly different edit to the published version.

According to the latest cover story in tech bible Wired, “The Web is dead, long live the internet.” The headline is attached to a feature by the magazine’s editor-in-chief, Chris Anderson, outlining what he calls the abandonment of “the open, unfettered Web… for simpler, sleeker services.” And it’s created quite a stir.

The web, of course, is not the same thing as the internet. While the internet describes the underlying network of the many millions of computers around the world that share a common set of communications protocols, the world wide web – to give it its full title – is the service invented by Sir Tim Berners Lee in 1989 that sits on top of this network, allowing users to use web browsers (Internet Explorer and Firefox are the most popular) to view interlinked hypertext pages.

Anderson’s thesis is that web browsers are precipitously declining as the dominant way of using the internet. Statistically, his analysis has its dubious points – as John Naughton explores elsewhere in the Observer, this glosses over the fact that internet usage itself is increasing at an exponential rate. But Anderson has hit one cultural nail on the head: there’s now far, far more to the internet than web pages. And this implies a serious shift, not only in what the internet itself is used for, but also in what digital culture – which over the last two decades has been almost synonymous with the open, unfettered architecture of Berners Lee’s web – can be said to mean.

The most important issues, here, are as much social as technological. Earlier this year, asked what he felt Google’s biggest mistake had been, the company’s director of research Peter Norvig picked “the social aspects” of the web. “Facebook came along and has been very successful and I may have dismissed that,” he explained. “I think I missed the fact that there is real importance to having a social network and getting these recommendations from friends. I might have been too focused on getting the facts and figures.”

It was an honest response, and also something of an understatement. This year has seen Facebook’s active users swell from around 350 million to over half a billion. The website has now overtaken Google itself as the most-visited page among American internet users. With services like Twitter also on the rise – and Google’s own attempt at a real-time social networking service, Google Wave, quietly crashing and burning – a sea change is taking place in what the internet is used for, with the interpersonal pushing past mere information as technology’s greatest driving force. And while Google itself remains a potent force, both its business model – which relies on serving targeted advertising next to search results – and its stated mission, to make information online “accessible and useful,” are threatened by the growing importance of closed systems like Facebook (to which Google has no access).

This isn’t even the biggest issue for the old-fashioned web, though. For, as Anderson notes, perhaps the most transforming technological force of recent years has been the growth of next generation mobile devices. Suddenly, the world is full of smart handhelds that can go online in a way once possible only with a computer. It’s estimated that within five years there will be more mobile internet users than computer-based ones; and these devices are ill-suited to the conventional world of web browsers. Small screens plus limited time and concentration mean that users are in urgent need of well-crafted, convenient programs: self-contained internet applications known as “apps” that entirely bypass conventional browsing, and that offer everything from local restaurant recommendations to instructions on making the perfect cappuccino. Each is a complete, miniature internet experience; each is good for no purpose other than its single, intended use.

According to the latest figures from Ofcom, the average Briton’s daily media usage now stands at seven hours and five minutes. Television usage, especially amongst the young, is down, while social networking takes up almost half of all internet time – much of it conducted while out and about, or engaged in other tasks. As a modern digital consumer, you tend to know what you want, and want to do it with a minimum of fuss. You’re busy, you’re interested in what your friends are saying and doing – and you’re prepared to pay for elegance and convenience. The first thing you touch when you wake up is your smartphone; it’s also the last thing you touch at night, when you set your alarm for the morning. For everything in-between there’s Facebook, Twitter, RSS, streamed radio and television, and your games console. No need to roam the wilds of the open web at all.

This is a caricature, but a useful one, for it offers one of the most convincing visions yet to emerge of what Web 3.0 might look like: an arena not just of ever-more-powerful desktop screens, but of smart, ubiquitous devices, and the constant augmentation of daily reality with digital experience.

Perhaps inevitably, the company currently closest to embodying this is California’s other global giant, Apple, within whose exquisite walled gardens more and more consumers are gathering to play. Buy an iPhone, an iPod touch or an iPad – as over a hundred million people now have – and you’ve entered into a bargain that, to some advocates of the open web, is nothing less than Faustian. Everything you buy for your device must be obtained through Apple, who will take their cut of any monies charged, and must approve every item sold their marketplaces. Your device will be beautiful, intuitive, secure and – as far as the critics are concerned – sterile. And a small number of people will be getting very rich indeed out of all this.

As conventional media companies have found to their cost, the web doesn’t favour old-fashioned advertising models. Profits wither online: there’s nowhere to hide from the numbers that have told newspapers, magazines, broadcasters and bloggers alike that their millions of visitors are worth only a pittance, and that “free” most often means “bankrupt” for the creators of traditional content. Enter what Anderson terms “artificial scarcity”: the deliberate decision to lock users into to a particular framework or resource, relying on the fact that they’ll be willing to pay, one way or another, for something sufficiently indispensable.

One digital medium that learned this lesson long ago is video games, which excel at creating electronic environments hermetically sealed off from the outside world. World of Warcraft’s 12 million players are worth well over a billion dollars a year in income to the company that runs their virtual world, Activision Blizzard; a value that rests on the game’s impervious isolation. Only in-game effort by players can generate rewards and status. Its rules are universal and absolute; the company’s word is final, and any cheating or exploitation is ruthlessly dealt with. Users wouldn’t have it any other way.

In one sense, the web has always been a matter more of surfaces than fundamentals. Google is not synonymous with its own website any more than Facebook or Amazon are with theirs. In each case, the companies’ value lies in the vast data engines they operate, for which the web is simply one point of access. There’s a Google app for the iPhone, just as there are apps for Facebook and Amazon. In terms of ethos, though, there’s a world of difference between them; and perhaps the most crucial factor to examine is not so much the divide between the web and the internet as the new, potent alignment between personalisation and gated communities.

Personal relationships are, inherently, not an open business. Our online presences are increasingly substantial, important and valuable to us – and this means there’s an increasing demand that they exist within services that offer both security and a variety of levels of visibility, rather than an information free-for-all. The major controversies of Facebook’s brief corporate history have all centred on the issue of privacy – both the security of users’ personal details and the question of who is able to view these – and its ability to prosper relies in large part on providing adequate tools and guarantees around users’ identities and relationships. This month, the most recent version of the Facebook app for iPhones rolled out a “places” functionality, offering users the chance to “discover moments when you and your friends are at the same place at the same time.” Like it or not, the idea of gating and restrictions is central to the success of such services.

Does all this, as Chris Anderson suggests, constitute a new digital paradigm? For some observers, what we’re seeing is the ugly resurgence of a trend we were lucky to escape in the early 1990s: a world of tethered appliances, sterile software and infantilised consumers that, had it become a reality, would have prevented innovative companies like Google or Facebook arising in the first place. As the author and digital activist Cory Doctorow put it earlier this year, in an impassioned piece entitled “Why I won’t buy an iPad (and think you shouldn’t, either),” “As an adult, I want to be able to choose whose stuff I buy and whom I trust to evaluate that stuff. I don’t want my universe of apps constrained to the stuff that the Cupertino Politburo decides to allow for its platform. And as a copyright holder and creator, I don’t want a single, Wal-Mart-like channel that controls access to my audience and dictates what is and is not acceptable material for me to create.” For others, though – including Wired’s own Michael Wolff, whose piece on the future of the web ran alongside Anderson’s – a necessary balance is being restored: between the staggering power of open resources to generate innovation, and the capacity of closed ones to serve particular human demands while generating revenues.

Culturally, the internet does appear to be on the cusp of a new phase, for which the current generation of apps and social networks are simply the vanguard. The open web is very far from dead; yet mere “facts and figures” – searched for, shared and shared alike – no longer define our online lives. We are becoming a society of networked individuals, accessible to each other and the net at all times. And so the net is in turn becoming more like our society, complete with its special interests, levels of access, factional divisions, and obligations to pay for certain guarantees and conveniences. As more of who we are and what we do migrates online, we are bringing other worlds with us.