Over the weekend we watched as yet another Twitter exodus occurred, thanks in part to the latest controversial changes made by the new leadership team under Elon Musk. On the surface this appears to be just another sign of this mature social platform crumbling in real-time, but it might actually be emblematic of a larger paradigm shift that’s occurring online. Then there are others, like Threads, rushing to capitalise on the chaos.

See, Twitter isn’t the only one going through some weird changes. Take a look around at the biggest social apps, services and platforms and you’ll quickly notice that there is a common theme playing out. Gone is the relative stability that we have all grown to rely on for at least a decade, replaced by series of ever-increasing changes that is fracturing the internet we once knew.

Paid-only features, subscription models, API lockdowns and login screens are popping up left and right. Companies are rushing to prevent third parties from indirectly monetising their user’s data, whilst simultaneously looking to squeeze more revenue from that same userbase. With all the segregation that’s occurring, many would argue that this is the end of the open web. But what might actually be transpiring is far more interesting.

We could be witnessing the birth of a who new era, one I’m calling Web 4.0, otherwise known as Web For-um. It’s the next evolution of the internet, but it’s one that will see us return to the ways of the past.

The history of the internet so far

Okay, that title is somewhat misleading. I’m not actually going to detail the internet’s humble origins as a United States Department of Defence project up to the present day. We’d be here for days, and besides, you’ve got better things to do with your time. Instead, let’s breakdown the last three eras of the internet, including the one we are living through right now.

It wasn’t long before the growing userbase sought to do more than just ping each other and receive electronic mail from the Queen of England.

In the beginning there were servers. Then came interconnected networking (inter-net) between servers and client computers. As these distributed networks grew in size, access became easier to manage and was more readily available to commercial entities and the general public. It wasn’t long before the growing userbase sought to do more than just ping each other and receive electronic mail from the Queen of England. The introduction of Bulletin Board Systems (BBS) where a pivotal point in the history of the internet, becoming the place that people could virtually gather to talk and share information asynchronously.

Similarly, the indexable discussion system known as UseNet allowed people all around the world to find and join communities of internet users that were centered around a topic or theme. These, along with the act of trawling static web pages for information (made easier by newfangled ‘search engines’ like AltaVista, Yahoo and Google), the first era of the internet became known as Web 1.0 – although it wouldn’t get this name until the very next era defined everything that it lacked. Namely, rich media and social interaction.

Web 2.0 gave us friends and feeds

If first era of the internet was all about reading and disseminating information across the world wide web, Web 2.0 would build upon this foundation by encouraging users to get more interactive with each other. Leaving notes on someone’s website through a ‘guestbook’, posting a comment on an article or joining a chatroom were the hot new activities. Around this time, we saw the rise of blogging and then the true star of the show; social networking. These platforms allowed all of these activities to occur in one place, along with the sharing of social media like pictures, video and status updates. The web became more than just a series of links and walls of text, it’s purpose extended to encourage social interaction and the sharing of multimedia.

At this time, everyone was thrust together in a huge co-mingling of people from all walks of life. And for a brief moment, all was well. You could find almost anyone online and add or follow them as you pleased. The only issues were if they were on a different platform, and some of the politics around just who you would bring into your circle. The status of a relationship was rarely talked about in the real-world, but suddenly it was on full display online. Beyond “single”, “married” and “friends”, labels like “top friends” or “it’s getting complicated” were used to define your personal relationships on social platforms early on. Great for classification, though it could sometimes alienate and cause fights if both parties didn’t agree with the label they were assigned.

Then there were some even weirder moments. Sometimes you’d have a friend request from someone you were certain you’d never actually met in real-life, because, how bizarre would it be to connect with someone you’d never seen offline, right? Sure, you could accept the friend request from that person who said they went to school with you and pop them in a restricted group until you could verify who they were or forgot about it. After all, it was a busy time to be on the internet, as it seemed like a new platform popped up every other month. Social sites like Bebo, Friendster, MySpace, Twitter, Tumblr and Facebook popped up, along with Instagram, YouTube and Snapchat. Most are still around to this day.

Algorithms as an answer

Each platform had at its core some way to show you content from everyone in your network – a feed of updates, posts, photos and more. As your network grew, so did the amount of information you would receive. Notifications on that new little device in your pocket called a mobile phone would keep bringing you back to the platform, where you’d invariably find yourself hitting refresh to make sure you never missed a beat.

Never mind, here comes algorithms to save the day.

Only, as your friend and follower count increased, so too did the chance you would miss something from your closest friends. Never mind, here comes algorithms to save the day. Designed to surface “relevant content”, algorithms were the social company’s genius plan to keep your feed full of content that you’d likely be interested in. Surely a logic-based set of calculations that are optimised to increase your user experience and thus engagement with the platform will never cause any issues in future, right? It’s not like someone might be motivated to show you incendiary content that would elicit a reaction, thus further propelling highly controversial media into the mainstream, dividing public opinion and fracturing society as a whole. Or, engineering said algorithms to foster addictive and compulsive behaviour that could lead to negative mental health outcomes. Nope, that’s just crazy talk.

Four people standing arm-in-arm on a cliff, facing the sun as it rises.
The dawning of a new age – a smaller yet more connected internet. Credit: Helena Lopes/Unsplash.

Then came the age of the entrepreneur

Okay, so if Web 1.0 gave us information and Web 2.0 let us build social networks, what is, or rather, was, Web 3.0 about? Well, for starters, the cool kids call it “Web3”, and the third era of the internet was all about cash, coins, moula and money – both virtual and real. See, at this point in time a new tech giant was being minted every few years. Facebook and other social platforms had us all filling out our online profiles with likes and favourites, and all that data was super valuable to advertisers. It basically did their job for them, helping to build target audiences that they could then sell to, based on interests and other relevant demographics.

People began to build things; apps, tools and services that helped solve niche problems or remedy old issues in new ways. Then they sold those tools to others, who’d go on to build their own solutions.

But they weren’t the only ones who figured out you could make a buck on the internet. For the first time in history, information became democratised. All of humanity’s collective knowledge was just a click or tap away. You could easily loose hours trawling Wikipedia, or even sign up to a University degree that was administered 100% online. Or you could just watch cat videos and people sticking things up their nose on TikTok. More and more people began to build things; apps, tools and services that helped solve niche problems or remedy old issues in new ways. Then they sold those tools to others, who’d go on to build their own solutions.

It wasn’t long before anything and everything was ripe for monetisation. The term “entrepreneur” was thrown around with increasing regularity, as did “content creator”. Next came Etsy and Gumroad, allowing you to sell your digital (or physical) wares to the world. And sites like Behance, Dribble and Pinterest helped you find other creators or get an idea for your very own product.

Not content with selling small-time digital goods, the internet longed to float the ultimate virtual product; money itself. And thus, cryptocurrency was born. Internet scam or the next big thing? The jury is still out on that one. Just don’t go buying a cartoon picture of an ape with an imaginary value proposition – support a worthy cause instead with your hard-earned money.

Setting the stage for Web 4.0

The last few years have seen rapid change both online and in the real world. First came pandemics and lingering geopolitical tensions, and that’s before Artificial Intelligence marched in decided to shake up life as we know it.

The bill is now due for the endless social party we’ve been having the last decade and a half.

We’ve also spent years now with social media, which appears to be doing more harm than good. It’s hurting our kids, harming our mental health and threatening our democracy. New features are developed, pushed and often dropped on a regular cadence as these companies strive to discover the next big thing. But ironically, the killer feature been right under their nose the whole time. It seems that all we want to do is talk with our friends and family, maybe seek out a job or buy a product. Small time conversations that echo what we do in the real-world. Oh, and there appears to be something going on with short-form video and mixed reality, but those topics for another time.

Adding to the current environment is the realisation by many companies that the bill is now due for the endless social party we’ve been having the last decade and a half. Just because something was edgy or cool, doesn’t mean it is necessarily profitable. Big digital media companies that relied on views and capturing shifting demographics have found out the hard way that eyeballs don’t always translate into dollars. Giants have folded in the last two years because their backers finally got tired of paying the bills. It seems like ads are going to be stuffed into every nook and cranny of the internet, and if you don’t like that, there’s always a subscription you could buy to make them all go away.

If it’s free, you are the product

After all, big tech rarely volunteers its goods and services for free. Facebook built a free to join social network that advertisers could raid, Twitter and Reddit are trying to package up user data to sell to the highest bidder, and Google’s entire business model is to give things “for free” and sell ads against your usage of said things. There’s always a hidden cost attached, and for years now we’ve been privy to venture capitalist’s deep pockets funding our social platforms and online activities. Only now, it’s time to pay up.

Likewise, Reddit, Twitter and YouTube have recently made moves to lock down their platforms in a bid to improve their profit margins. Of these, Reddit and Twitter have limited access to their APIs and the amount of data they willingly share to the outside world. This is due in part to the fear that AI companies are scrapping their data to help build large language models. Whilst that might be true, it has also pissed off the users of both platforms, leading to mass protests at Reddit and an exodus or users and advertises from Twitter. People are fed up with the sudden and rampant “enshittification” of their platforms and are looking to making a move to places that resemble the internet of old.

New Threads, same as the old ones

Good news is, there are plenty of options to choose from, serious alternatives for those who wish for simpler days or would rather just not give their personal data to Google or Facebook. Speaking of Meta, the company has just rushed out its own shiny new Twitter-like social platform, Threads, which has already amassed over 30 million accounts.

Will this be the new platform that everyone flocks to? The answer is complicated. On one hand, the linking of Instagram accounts means the network effect and mass adoption can be easily achieved thanks to seamless integration and burgeoning curiosity. After all, a social network needs users that can easily find and communicate with each other. That’s a challenge we’ve seen Mastodon struggle with, though the company remains optimistic that the future of social is acceptance of open standards like ActivityPub, something that Threads will apparently support. Meanwhile others like Bluesky are developing their own, open standards and decentralised protocols.

What makes this latest era any better than the last three?

But beyond that, the world has also become wary of Meta’s data harvesting, with users in the European Union not able to access the new platform thanks to EU policy designed to protect its citizens from “digital gatekeepers”. Couple this with the plans for the service to be yet another “town hall” powered by an algorithmic feed, and it’s hard to see how this is anything but a Twitter clone. Conversely, Substack has a ‘recommendations’ feature where authors can suggest other creators you might be interested in. Sure, there might be bias baked into that, but that exists in the algorithm and advertising spaces too, so it’s up to you to decide which source you want to direct your attention toward. Oh, and they have a Twitter clone too.

So, with the giant social platforms in flux, and a bunch of new services rushing to fill the void, what makes this latest era any better than the last three? Or is it a case of just being different?

Going back to our human roots

People were never supposed to gather en masse for extended periods of time. There’s a reason why throughout most of human history we’ve been congregating in small communities, and that has something to do with the fact that our brains can only handle socialising with a set number of people. That figure is in the hundreds, not thousands, or millions.

With so many communities locking down, we are seeing a shift toward siloed social platforms. People are beginning to return to some of the fundamentals of the early days of the web. Forums are back, as is personal blogging thanks to services like Substack, Medium and Ghost. Sure, there are social elements, but for the most part it is smaller groups that are discussing the latest entry from their favourite authors.

And that’s the essence of what Web 4.0 is all about. A return to small group conversations, genuine connections and engaged audiences, which don’t have to number in the millions.

Likewise, a holdover from the most recent era seems to be continuing thanks to its adaptability to the ways of Web 4.0. Patreon (and similar services) allow creators to ask fans for funding in exchange for access to a private community which helps to foster connections both between the members and the owners. Monetisation and socialisation, together at last. Or at least in a more sustainable fashion. There’s a real sense of belonging to a community that is going on here, where cohorts of people spring up around creators and personalities with niche interests. Members get algorithm-free content and conversations that appeal to them, creators get cash. Everybody wins.

Same, but different

Then there are other platforms, like Post, which at first glance appear to be Twitter-like but are actually more akin to a Web 1.5 experience. So far there are no ads to speak of, and instead monetisation occurs through an optional paywall and tipping system, with funds paid back to creators and publishers. It’s a place where you can follow authors, leave comments on articles and gather around topics to enjoy civil discourse with other, interested members, without the vibe of feeling smashed together. It has the feel of a bunch of smaller conversations occurring in parallel, where people have broken off and formed their own, tiny tribes. Follow authors and publications that appeal, explore hashtags if you like, or converse with your friends at your own speed.

It’s kind of like sitting in a restaurant and having a conversation with your friends, whilst other discussions are occurring at the tables all around you. Smaller scale, but nonetheless civil, sensible and sane.

And that’s the essence of what Web 4.0 is all about. A return to small group conversations, genuine connections and engaged audiences, which don’t have to number in the millions. The recent pandemic made us all realise that value of spending time with those we care about, and it seems like we’ve taken that message and are now applying it to our online activities. The next wave of internet apps might not need to rely on a massively connected audience to be successful, just create a place where we can have authentically human experiences. A corner of the internet where we can assemble in tight-knit groups, to talk about what we love, or loathe, about life.

The web isn’t in a death spiral. It’s evolving into a more intimate internet.

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