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The web is inherently aligned with social change

Diligent’s mission is to harness the inherent power of the Internet for social change. We do this by partnering with mission-driven organizations like non-profits or social enterprise. Some days I like to imagine the web as a wild pegasus that I’m trying to saddle and drive toward the future… but honestly it’s the web’s nature to be a powerful ally to organizations working in social change.

The web is inherently social

At its core, the web is your ability to read files on someone else’s computer. Before all the other things that we lay on top of it, it is about sharing. It is communal.

My very first exposure to the web was through my friend Chris. His dad ran a computer lab for the university and would let us in on weekends to play games. We were mostly content playing head-to-head over the local network. One day he casually offered, “You guys want to see the Internet?” and fired up what in retrospect must have been Mosaic.

“Where do you want to go?” he asked.

“Germany,” we said.

With a few clicks, we were on the website for the University of Göttingen. We stared blankly at the crude bitmap graphics and black Times New Roman with blue links on a grey background. Finally, Chris broke the silence.

“How do we talk to them?”

It was not enough that we were pulling data across oceans to render another computers files on our monitor. We needed to talk to someone in Germany.

Conventional wisdom pretends the social aspect of the web appeared suddenly in the mid ’00s with MySpace and Facebook, but this history forgets Friendster (’02), LiveJournal (’99), AOL (’91), IRC (’88), the Well (’85), and so on all the way back to ARPAnet (’69). The web has always been social and likely always will be. It’s made of people sharing things.

The web is inherently democratic

If the web is just people sharing things on their computers, that puts a lot of power into the hands of anyone with a computer.

I’m hardly the first to notice that the web levels the playing field for mass communication so I won’t dwell on it. Historians have compared the web to the printing press for disrupting the traditional dissemination of knowledge even journalists have blamed it for destroying the print industry. For every snarky article criticizing the “clicktivism” of online petitions as meaningless, there’s another uncovering those same technologies as fueling organized resistance against oppression.

Clay Shirky, researcher on how the Internet affects societies, states plainly:

Freedom of speech is inimical to autocratic control, both as cause and effect.

What’s clearly true is that owning your own web server is much cheaper than owning your own television or radio station and that renting a slice of a web server is much cheaper monthly than a smoking habit. Above all, access to almost every media platform running on these servers (e.g. Blogger, WordPress, or YouTube) is free. The web lets you broadcast to more people than at any point in human history.

Mobile devices take all of these observations and raise them by an order of magnitude. There are roughly 2.2 billion desktop Internet users and 6.6 billion mobile phone subscriptions. I’ll remind you that there are only 6.9 billion people on the whole planet. So when mobile-enabled media platforms (which Twitter has had from their very beginning), it’s no longer hyperbole to say that anyone in the world can broadcast to anyone else. It’s literally true. Okay, 95% of the anyone.

The web is inherently adaptive

In 1965, Martin Luther King, Jr proclaimed that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” Thirty years later, co-founder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation John Gilmore stated that “the Net interprets censorship as damage and routes around it.” Both men acknowledge setbacks and injustice as inevitable, but place their faith in a self-correcting system, humanity and the Internet respectively.

The cutting edge of web design—from responsive design where a site adapts to the device viewing it to agile development with rapid prototyping, nimble version control, and feedback loops—is all about managing change. Imagine a filmmaker creating a film where the actors could be replaced at any moment, script rewritten between viewings, or scenes watched in any order and you begin to understand the challenges that web designers grapple. Good web designers design for change.

A client recently asked if it was possible to come back to her site in a few months and add a few new features. My colleague told her a story about traveling in Mexico and seeing rebar sticking out of the tops of buildings everywhere he went. Finally, he asked someone and they said that was in case they ever wanted to build a second story to their house. The optimism of the story had always stuck with him. He said that he builds sites like that, except—y’know—without the rebar sticking out of the roof.

 

The web is inherently social, democratic, and adaptive. It strives to connect people, give them a voice, and then do it again better tomorrow. That’s the kind of technology I can get behind and one I can proudly build a business on.