The Web: Why Users No Longer Matter

Netflix will no longer support DVDs and will move everyone to its streaming option. Google pushed Instant, Places, and about 10 other changes on us in 2010. took out the “Maybe” button despite it being a default option.

Apple won’t support Flash. LinkedIn removed and added so many features I can no longer count. Twitter forced an auto RT button and later pushed everyone to the “new Twitter.” And last week Facebook pushed everyone to their new profile.

What do all these changes have in common? All of them have been forced on users and all of them have been met with a heavy outpouring of negative comments for delivering a worse experience.

And what’s each company’s response been? Learn to live with it.

So what does this mean for us as users?

The Big Change

Once upon a time in the field of web design and web development, sites were made for the users. When you implemented a change it was because the users demanded it, needed it, or user testing showed it was a better user experience — and when it wasn’t the change often went away.

This isn’t the case anymore. Now companies force their view of the web on the user, wait out the complaints about the change, and know that if they make users wait long enough, they’ll eventually come to accept the change or adopt a mindset of “resistance is futile” or “what’s the point, they’re just going to do it anyway.”

How do They Get Away With it?

With the recession came a huge pause in innovation and investment. There are no competitors.

If you don’t like Facebook where do you go? (I know some will say Diaspora, but they aren’t a serious contender at this stage because they don’t have users.) Facebook has some of the lowest satisfaction scores and yet 560 million registered users at last count. You do the math.

If LinkedIn pushed yet another unwanted social media change on you and Twitter makes you use the new Twitter, what can you do about it? Not much.

And Google? Well there are some options. Bing, Blekko, and DuckDuckGo that are starting to make a play, but Google is still the king and queen of the search space.

So with no competition to speak of, these top companies can pretty much do as they please and force change after change on the user with no worry of serious ramification (i.e., loss of you, the user, from their website).

A Lack of Competition Tramples Our Privacy

Google, Facebook, and Twitter (among others) are gathering more and more data on you. Every day there are new data grabs, new data mining tools, and new ways they try to convince you to give them more information.

Have you really looked at your new Facebook profile? Why do you imagine they put all that data on the top of the page there with empty places when you don’t fill it out?

It’s a psychological message: FILL ME IN! GIVE ME MORE INFORMATION! TELL ME MORE! Who do you think gets that information?

And if you want to see what Google has stored on you, then go to when you’re logged in. Most people are very surprised (or even shocked) when they see the data stored there for the first time.

Without competition, you use these sites and become numb to the lack of privacy. Why is it no longer an issue to give information to a company known for its lack of interest in preserving your privacy when you wouldn’t have given out this same information to someone who wasn’t one of your closest friends five years ago?

This isn’t the users fault. It is conditioning, combined with a lack of options.

A Lack of Competition Closing the Open Internet

News Corp. will make its information only available to iPad owners. Apple apps seem to be pushing an app only interface for some sites.

Facebook takes your data and keeps it inside the walls to where even you only have limited ability to take it and keep it. LinkedIn now makes you pay $99 a month to see the last names of anyone in the site who isn’t a first- or second-level connection. And Comcast and NBC just made a deal that passed FCC scrutiny with ramifications for net neutrality I’m not even sure I want to contemplate yet.

The lack of competition has allowed large companies to start dictating how the web will be served to us. Apple wants to give us apps and no Flash, Facebook wants us to live inside their walls. Comcast wants to tell us what will be delivered to us over their lines.

The powerful have become so powerful — monetarily and technologically — they’ve been able to dictate to us, the users, what functionality will be on their sites. Now they’re beginning to dictate how the web will be used and how it will be delivered to us.

While still in its infancy, without equally powerful companies advocating for the user, the user driven experience, and an open web, where are we headed next? What’s really at risk here?

Net Neutrality

The concept of Net Neutrality is complex. Basically, it’s “a principle proposed for user access networks participating in the Internet that advocates no restrictions on content, sites, or platforms, on the kinds of equipment that may be attached, and on the modes of communication allowed.”

Just from the examples above, it’s easy to see how this is starting to be chipped away. A ride down a slippery slope isn’t far away.

A web that is based not only on who controls it, but what device you own or website you belong to, is being defined right now by the companies and products you use every day. And now with Comcast and NBC getting FCC approval, we’re looking at the ability of a large corporation’s ability to control what sites you can visit when you go to your web.

How will it be when you can no longer get a website your friend can because your web provider doesn’t provide it? What happens to your web experience then?

Why Should You Care?

Tim Berner’s Lee says it best, so I’ll let him answer this question:

“Because the Web is yours. It is a public resource on which you, your business, your community and your government depend. The Web is also vital to democracy, a communications channel that makes possible a continuous worldwide conversation. The Web is now more critical to free speech than any other medium. It brings principles established in the U.S. Constitution, the British Magna Carta and other important documents into the network age: freedom from being snooped on, filtered, censored and disconnected.

“Now is an exciting time. Web developers, companies, governments, and citizens should work together openly and cooperatively, as we have done thus far, to preserve the Web’s fundamental principles, as well as those of the Internet, ensuring that the technological protocols and social conventions we set up respect basic human values. The goal of the Web is to serve humanity. We build it now so that those who come to it later will be able to create things that we cannot ourselves imagine.”

Final Word

The beauty of the World Wide Web is that it has been largely driven from the bottom up. It hasn’t been driven by large corporate interests forcing their ideas on users, but by people, by users forcing companies to listen to them because they could always go to the next site, the next idea.

We’re losing that ability because we have no other sites to go to. Where are the innovators? Where are the investors? Why do we have no options?

Unfortunately, there is no answer. Part of it is the economy, but there are likely other factors at play as well.

The web is where people like you and I, and people in China and Iran, and countries behind other government drawn curtains, have been able to communicate. It is where democracy starts.

It is where anyone can live the American Dream. It is where the next Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg, or Biz Stone is already building the next worldwide innovation.

What happens to all of that when the web is driven from the top down, ignoring users and forcing corporate interests?

If we don’t protect it now, there will be no reclaiming it tomorrow. So I hope you’ll forgive the bit of advocacy here in the end of my piece today.

The web is moving in a direction I find very concerning, though I find I’m in good company. I’ll end with another quote from Tim Berners Lee:

“The Web is critical not merely to the digital revolution but to our continued prosperity — and even our liberty. Like democracy itself, it needs defending.”

Thank you.

Join us for SES London 2011, the Leading Search & Social Marketing Event, taking place February 21-25! The conference offers sessions on topics including search engine optimization (SEO), keyword analysis, link building, local, mobile, video, analytics, social media, and more. Register now.

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