Toward a decentralized web and the future of publishing

On the role that visually coding designers like you could play in creating a freer, more democratic web.

John Moore Williams
August 14, 2018
Inspiration

If you’ve been paying any attention whatsoever, you know that the web’s role in our global culture is at a crisis point. We think Webflow — and similar, code-free web publishing tools — can be part of the solution.

Tim Berners-Lee invented the web to do one simple thing: facilitate the spread of information. Initially just for academic institutions and organizations, but he quickly recognized the potential for it to do even more, and in open sourcing the code for his idea, made that publishing power available to everyone.

Potentially.

Fast forward to 2018. Access to the web is now regarded as a human right — but only half the world enjoys that right. And for the roughly 50% of the world already online, the web often seems to be narrowing down to just a few disproprotionately powerful platforms. Platforms with the cultural and fiscal capital to sway elections, shape public perception and global policy, and deeply impact financial futures on both personal and international scales.

When one speaks, it’s always at the cost of others’ silence. That means that these platforms have outsized control of how publishing — the dissemination of information — works.

And while that can be a force for positive change, as in 2010’s Arab Spring, when thousands of activists used popular web platforms to spread the word in ways the powers that be fumbled to curtail — it can also lead to the viral spread of disinformation, shaping the outcome of events like the 2016 U.S. presidential election. However you feel about the election’s outcome, there’s now little to no doubt that foreign forces influenced the results.

As the findings about data leaked to Cambridge Analytica suggest, much of the impact these efforts had on American citizens was facilitated by the deep data social networks are able to cull from their users — not to mention, naive thinking around the security of said information, and the inherent value of connecting people.

As Facebook exec Andy Bosworth said in a leaked memo:

We connect people. Period. That’s why all the work we do in growth is justified. All the questionable contact importing practices. All the subtle language that helps people stay searchable by friends. All of the work we do to bring more communication in.

Leaving aside Bosworth’s subsequent disavowal of his own words, there’s an open acknowledgement here that social platforms’ “subtle” nudging of people toward more data connection, more data sharing, is “questionable.”

To be transparent, we use Facebook advertising at Webflow. We do so exactly because of the unique combination of broad reach and specific targeting data they offer. If you’re not cool with that, you can opt out of them.

With all we’re learning about the disproportionate power centralized networks can wield, it seems that what we need, now more than ever, is a return to the web we lost.

A decentralized web. A web that truly offers anyone the power to publish without relying on the massive platforms to provide a place to do so. A web that doesn’t constantly assail us with requests that we turn over personally identifying information in exchange for the right to share our lives, thoughts, and feelings with each other. Or simply, for the right to read an article.

What we need is a way to share with each other from our own spaces. Spaces we control, where we clearly and openly share what, if any, data we collect from you, the people we share with.

Many developers and organizations hope to create this version of the web via the blockchain. And there’s no doubt that’s a path ripe with potential. But as MIT’s Neha Nerula and Chelsea Barabas argue in the decentralized web, blockchain-powered solutions pose numerous challenges — not the least of which is the inaccessibility of such solutions to the average user of the web.

To my mind, we don’t need to wait for developers to overcome these challenges. We can start decentralizing the web today — we just need the power of publishing back.

And that means we need more visual web publishing tools. Tools that translate the imposing languages of web publishing into more approachable formats — much the way the GUI translated the arcane command line into the tool you’re using to read this, right now.

How visual tools can power a revolution in publishing

Google, Facebook, and Amazon provide platforms for both content creators and content consumers. They’ve managed to attain this role because, let’s face it, publishing content to the web without the aid of these platforms is difficult.

This is something that often gets left out of the discussion about decentralizing the web. It’s not just about democratizing access to the information published on the web. It’s about democratizing access to the tools of publication themselves.

Funding developers directly to create a diverse ecosystem of publishing platforms and curation websites is another place to make a difference.

from the decentralized web, a report by the MIT Digital Currency Initiative and the Center for Civic Media

And that’s where Webflow comes in. Because to democratize access to web publishing, you need to lower the barrier to entry.

Namely: code.

Granted, there are numerous ways of publishing content to the web without having to code. But the vast majority enable publishing in order to monetize said publishing. And that just gets us back to the same issues with the big platforms.

To democratize web publishing, you need a way to produce code without needing to know every detail of coding — much the same way tools like Word democratized desktop publishing. Because web content consists of HTML and is styled with CSS, you need to give people the power to work with HTML and CSS — without having to overcome the rather formidable barrier to entry these unfamiliar languages represent.

These aren’t particularly difficult languages to learn — but that doesn’t make people want to learn them. And even people who do know them inside and out often complain about the difficulty of using them! If CSS is so “easy,” why are there so many 3,000+ word articles — followed by another 3,000 words of debate — about topics so fundamental and ostensibly “basic,” as the units of measurement the web uses.

Besides: don’t technological platforms exist to remove barriers to entry? Has anyone ever yelled at Lyft: why don’t you just teach people to drive?!

Popular publishing platforms like WordPress (the .com version), Medium, and Blogger democratize the publishing of HTML, but they do so within fairly constrained presentations — i.e., CSS templates.

These all represent a great step. But we don’t think that takes publishing far enough.

Because publishing isn’t just about combining words and images and unleashing them on the world. Publishing is the art of presenting the right content in the right way. While separating design and content make sense for the design process and the maintenance of sites, the reality is that design and content, when done right, are inseparable.

So the next step toward decentralization the web is to give people a way to control the presentation of that HTML. Because content (HTML) works best when presented effectively (via CSS). The latter has always been the big stumbling block, for CSS is notoriously finicky, and even more difficult to translate into a visual interface.

This is exactly how the GUI computer — you know, the one you’re reading this on right now — democratized non-HTML publishing: by taking a code-heavy format and making it visual, and thereby, usable for (pretty much) anyone. And then it added presentational controls sufficient to allow people to not only publish what they had to say, but to publish it beautifully.

But we’re not stopping there.

We’re also building tools that enable you to model and structure your content in future-friendly ways, without learning a new coding language. And enabling you to serve responsive images without writing line upon line of code. And giving you hosting that doesn’t require endless battles with cPanel, FTP, and other painful acronyms. And giving you free access to HTTPS, so you can run your sites with a sense of security for yourselves and your visitors, without having to manage security for yourself.

All because we believe not just in the power of the web, but in the power of the web + you. And that the barriers between you and that power should be as low and easy to scale as possible.

We haven’t solved all the problems, obviously. But with your help, we’re getting there.

We believe the web should be yours

That’s what we’re building here at Webflow: a platform to help you overcome the barriers to publishing on the web that a whole slew of technologies represent.

Because we believe the web should be yours — a platform for the people. Not a walled garden presided over by the unassailable, titanically wealthy technocrats that be. Not a method of controlling information and how it’s disseminated. Or of selling your attention to the highest bidder.

Yours. To do with as you will.

John Moore Williams

Head of Content Strategy at Webflow. Nice to meet ya. Follow me @JohnAMWill.

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