There has been increasing discussion around the concept of the “splinternet”: the idea that proprietary devices or sites like the iPad or Facebook are acting to fracture the old, unified Web into discrete, fragmented, and self-contained units. Josh Bernoff, for example, writes:
Web marketing has grown since 1995, based on the idea that everything is connected. Click-throughs, ad networks, analytics, search-engine optimization — it all works because the Web is standardized. Google works because the Web is standardized.
Not any more. Each new device has its own ad networks, format, and technology. Each new social site has its login and many hide content from search engines.
We call this new world the Splinternet (with a nod to Doc Searls and Rich Tehrani, who used the term before us with a somewhat different meaning). It will splinter the Web as a unified system. The golden age has lasted 15 years. Like all golden ages, it lasted so long we thought it would last forever. But the end is in sight.
Here’s what not to do: panic and try to unify things again. The shattering cannot be undone.
I do not disagree with his advice (don’t panic!), but I do disagree with the widespread premise that somehow today’s Internet consists of more fragmentation that during the “golden age” of the World Wide Web.
First, the “golden age” Web was no more unified than today’s version. The fragmented players were different, but the fundamental difficulties were quite similar. Where once we had AOL and Compuserve, now we have Facebook and LinkedIn. Previously, Internet Explorer and its ecosystem of technology provided incompatible approaches to accessing data and sites. Users of, for example, Netscape on Linux were simply excluded from access to IE-only content, or saw a much degraded view of certain parts of the Internet. Video and sound content required custom plug-ins that would run on certain platforms and not others.
Second, the fragmentation is simply not as great as Bernoff and others maintain. 10 years ago I had to write custom (brittle) Web scrapers to pull in data from external sites. Today, I can use RSS, XML-RPC, or other “glue” standards to reliable access data on 3rd-party sites. Facebook may try to control its world, but I can access it from pretty much any device with a browser, from an iPhone to a home machine running Windows 7. Yes, it may look different (but isn’t Flash really just a flashback to the bad old days of proprietary plugins?), but the core is there for every visitor. Plus, while I can’t pull out every bit of data (friends…) from Facebook, I can get an RSS feed of status updates that I can do all sorts of programmatic stuff with.
In short, the “golden age” was hardly golden, and today’s Web is, if anything, better than it used to be in terms of interconnectivity. Certainly it’s important to recognize fragmentation issues today, but let’s not pretend it’s a new problem.