What is the ‘open web’?

‘We are helping make the Internet a place…
where you and your neighbors build the world you want.
that generates not only economic value, but also civic and social value.
that is optimized for multiple languages and locales.
that is trustworthy and has minimal risk for users.’
(Mozilla Foundation site)

Two weeks ago, Mark Surman from the Mozilla Foundation wrote to friends asking how they would explain the ‘open web’ if they had ‘a few inches on CNN or BBC’. Two days ago, he summarised the responses, saying that mostly he ‘got blank stares, which may mean I asked the question the wrong way. Or that it’s too abstract. Or just that people are busy.’

I felt the same way when I asked participants of the last iSummit to build ‘checklists on openness’ that would explain for people outside the movement exactly what constituted an ‘open web’ in their field/community and what practical steps they could take to practice openness in their own work.

Initially, people thought it was a great idea. But when we got down to business, I, too, got a lot of blank stares – thinking, too, that I’d framed the task in the wrong way, or that it was just a bad idea.

But reading Mark’s question, I can’t help but thinking that this is *not* ‘too abstract’ and that the blank stares have a lot to do with the fact that we do too much talking about licenses and products but not enough explaining and talking about what the philosophy means to ordinary people. We have some great organisations like Creative Commons and the Free Software Foundation and the Mozilla Foundation and Wikipedia that individually represent a lot about what the open web is about, but the branding of these orgs has meant that we often equate them as the epitome of openness, when, in fact, openness is much more complex, and reliant on an entire ecosystem of organisations, communities and individuals.

I think that the fact that we aren’t coming closer to working out what the ‘open web’ means is a result of this complexity and this complexity is based more on the need for many communities to work together to build these understandings rather than the fact that it is too difficult to quantify.

Right now, the open web is about the ‘cool factor’ which, although an important part of any movement building, leads us to focus on very small parts of the open web (i.e. licenses, copyright) rather than making us focus on the whole (i.e. transparency, community, collaboration).

I love the phrase in the Mozilla Foundation’s opening lines: ‘where you and your neighbors build the world you want.’ because I think that the most critical thing about the open web is that the concept/definition/explanation should be localised according to different contexts. In the same way that Wikipedia has different communities (language communities in this case) deciding (and changing their decisions about) what World War II is about, an explanation of the open web should accommodate different local, dynamic understandings of the concept.

This doesn’t mean that we will never get to a point where we can give an explanation about the open web on CNN or the BBC. It only means that we need to move to this question in a way that says upfront that, although we can have a global brand for the open web, that these explanations will always be local and dynamic, and should always invite people to question the current conceptualisation of the open web, rather than to just accept it.

Having said all that, if I had an inch on CNN or BBC to talk about the ‘open web’, this is what I would say (based on the mapping that I’ve started here):

‘Think of a place where you and your neighbors decide what the rules are and that the only rule is that there has to be a really good reason to keep people out;
Where you’re greeted with a big welcome mat that says ‘Please come in and play’ rather than ‘Keep out until you’re invited’;
Where you can prove yourself by doing and making things and showing them to the world, rather than waiting in a line to be chosen;
Where you can talk and build with people around the world who see your difference as an asset rather than a liability;
Where the default is to share, rather than to keep hold to yourself;
And where what you read, hear and see is always an invitation to participate and create, rather than a one-way broadcast.

Around the world, people are building a new place on the web that engenders the principles of transparency, openness, sharing, collaboration and participation. The open web is a conversation about how the world can be better, and how ordinary citizens can help build it as an example for others to follow.’

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