Did social media kill the Open Web?

Did social media kill the Open Web?

November 18, 2020

When mobile apps entered the scene in the early 2010s, sensationalist industry pundits exclaimed, “the web is dead!”. A large debate ensued about the role of the web and native apps, and people loved talking about which one would prevail. A decade later it’s clear that the answer is, “both”. It turns out, they weren’t competing in a zero sum game.


With social media’s rise, we’re now in round 2 of the, “web is dead” argument. There’s a whole new generation of internet users for whom the internet is their social media apps. In the same way that baby boomers viewed the browser as the internet, to Gen Z social media is the internet. This isn’t a surprise when looking at recent time spent metrics, but a less obvious and perhaps more consequential shift is happening underneath it all: content creation.

Today’s content is siloed from the web

We estimate that content creation is happening today at roughly 100x the velocity in social media’s walled gardens as it is on the web at large. While there are still 100,000+ websites being created each week, there are 100,000,000+ social posts being created across the likes of Instagram, Tiktok and Snapchat. The vast majority of this social content is both temporal (it goes away) and opaque to the rest of the web at large. Social media content is invisible to the web, and is growing far faster. This presents a big risk to the web.

core tenet of the open internet is that content can be accessed by any device with a network connection. As developers are well aware, there are protocols and open standards in place that ensure the web stays accessible, and there are massive communities of people whose entire focus is making sure that this vision stays true. However, social media sidesteps all of this and creates its own private ecosystem of content that is only accessible by using a closed protocol (ie, Instagram’s app). This gives them massive control and influence over how and what people discover, and it also means that the open web has a massive hole in it.

The implication for content creators

As a content creator today, it’s more important than ever to decide where your allegiances live. What is your primary content creation mechanism, and what channels do you use to distribute it? How does the channel influence the content that you create, and which audience is the most valuable to you and your stakeholders?

The biggest issue with this new flavor of the web is that the content creators don’t actually own the content they create. Whereas in the open web people host their own content that’s discovered through aggregators like Google, now the content hosting and discovery are bundled together. This means that creators are even more beholden to these platforms and are at risk of having their audience taken away from them. We’ve all read horror stories about creators who spent years building an audience, only to have their engagement drop overnight because a platform changed their ranking algorithm to prioritize a new type of content.

Content creators are more empowered than ever to produce content that reaches their audience, but with this change they are also more captive to the platforms that feed them. This is true for anyone that participates in the social media circus, whether as an individual consumer, creator or a business.

What does the future hold?

If the last decade has been a bundling of content creation and distribution, the next decade will be a disaggregation of these two equally important functions. Instead of creators creating content directly within a distribution platform, they will create and host it independently and then syndicate it through their platforms of choice.

Social media companies are already creating new ways to incentivize content creators to publish on their platform, like what we’ve seen from TikTok and now Snapchat. These incentive structures are attractive at first glance, but also don’t prevent creators from porting their content elsewhere. What will be the open web equivalent of Instagram Stories or TikTok? Google has an opinion on this with AMP Stories, but unfortunately these just end up being, “yet another” thing for creators to think about with no clear payoff outside of large media companies today.

In the future every creator will have their own content management system that publishes to the web at large, and cross-posts variants of that content to their distribution channels of choice. This has already happened with websites, but will continue to grow in use for other formats as well. CMS can be used for many things beyond websites, like plugging into gaming engines or auto-generating social media assets. Content authoring and content distribution are two sides of the same coin, but don’t have to be coupled.

I believe that in the near term, a higher percentage of the content on social media will be ported from the open web, and used as a bridge to connect creators’ ideas into all of the places that their audiences spend time.