A Web Pattern Language

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A fantastic map of the web

To the west is the skyline of Big Social—the Twitter and Reddit city squares, the endless Facebook suburbs, the Instagram Luxury Resort, the Great Medium Bloghall, and the quirky borough of Tumblr. In between, smaller forums and squares dot the map, catering to specific interests. The Amazon Megamall sprawls through the shopping center, casting shadows over the corner of Shopify Main Street and Stripe Avenue. The Amazon Pipeworks and Google Metro hum beneath the city.

On the streets, bots and humans mingle, indistinguishable from each other, and mobs of anonymous trolls camp in the alleys. As people navigate the streets, the advertising displays change to suit their individual preferences and interests, and hidden cameras watch and analyze the traffic, tracking each visitor's habits and gathering valuable information about them.

To the east is the Archipelago of Personal Websites and the less densely populated frontier of the Open Web, dotted with isolated islands and woodland cabins with one inhabitant each, lonely as a single player Minecraft game, sending messages to each other in archaic RSS and email bottles. These homesteaders are traditionalists. They see the ever-expanding borders of Big Social as the end of a way of life. They want to see the return of the vibrant early web, or of what they think the early web was. And they're out there, building and hoping others will dismantle the city and join them on the frontier.

Beneath the advertising and surveillance covered streets of Big Social are underground networks of small communities—Discord servers, direct message chats, and carefully gated forums—nestled among the ruins of Web 1.0. The rogues who meet in these secret societies are faced with a dilemma—the Archipelago of Personal Websites feels increasingly distant and disconnected, a life that is a far cry from the promise of what community could look like on the open web. The city offers a constant, increasingly dangerous assault on their privacy and the integrity of their social fabric by bots, trackers, and trolls. Staying cloaked in the underground is a cozy shelter, but it means abandoning the promise of what the web could have been and could be still. It means losing what remains of the Open Web to the insatiable surveillance machine.

Thirty years into its life, this is the web we live in, the web we live with, the Web that Is. And it's the web we love—beneath the dust of broken links, tracking scripts, and terms of use, hypertext is still magic, and every link is a wonder.

"If something isn’t on the web—and of the web—I find it hard to get excited about it. I’m somewhat jealous of people who can get equally excited about the web, native, hardware, print... in my mind, if it hasn’t got a URL, it’s missing some vital spark." —Jeremy Keith

We're standing with one foot in the remnants of the old web, the other caught in the vortex of the new web, trying to find ways to adapt. When we imagine the next thirty or hundred years of life on the web, what do we imagine it might be like? Will the surveillance megacorporations consolidate control and force the cozyweb into further isolation, creating a cyberpunk dystopia? Will the centralized web miraculously collapse into itself and a new open web nostalgitopia emerge? What does a healthy web look like, and how might we create it?

Luckily, despite the consolidated influence of Big Social and efforts to control the web, the open web still lives. The initial seed, the power to freely publish, build, and access remains intact. We don't have to scatter underground or retreat into isolated islands, we can be stewards of the web itself, the web that is. We don't have to abandon the web to the robots and trolls, and we don't have to cling to a false, ideological nostalgia. We can tend the web so it becomes a textured, diversely patterned place that reconciles the tensions between public and private, community and solitude, commerce and citizenship. We can develop a better shared language about what we want the web to be so we can all contribute to helping it emerge as a place we can all live freely, safely, and meaningfully.

The indieweb homesteaders: I sang a song in hypertext

The homesteaders are reviving buried patterns that had promise but are now extinct or endangered. For the homesteaders, the danger is in distrusting all new patterns by default, becoming blind to the shortcomings of the old patterns, and finding themselves all alone in a web ring of one. What we can learn from the open web homesteaders—what works, what's missing, why nostalgia won't help.

The cozyweb network: all good things of this earth flow into the city

The rogues are experimenting with new patterns between the gaps, trying to carve out new possibilities and discover what's missing and what might work that we haven't tried before within the framework of the Streams. For the rogues, the risk is abandoning the web for their own communities, dismissing promising old solutions as been-there-done-that, and finding themselves stuck in communities that re-create the dysfunction of the mainstream at a smaller scale. What we can learn from the cozyweb network—what works, what's missing, why fleeing won't help.

Toward pattern languages: Digital spaces that live echo physical spaces that live

Indieweb nostalgia and cozyweb retreat are both responses to the same idea: that the web is worth saving, defending, and growing. Each stance on its own is incomplete, but they are both essential parts of the overall fabric of the web. Sharing a vision of a healthy, living, diverse future for the web, and how it might emerge—introducing pattern languages.