At the core of the World Wide Web is a simple but powerful contract: You, through your web browser, can find a computer and request a public file from it. If that file exists on the part of the computer meant to publish such things, then that remote computer will copy it to yours. Then you can read it in your browser.
Early in the days of the Web, this was more literal than it is today: people would save files on hard drives, and other people would know the locations of those files and retrieve them. Before Google, people even made lists of interesting files – or pages – they’d read. That’s how you published and found things to read on the internet.
Even though our modern internet is significantly more complicated, that contract is still the crux of things. Your web browser still requests files from computers, and those computers still send files (many, many files) back to your browser. Modern websites, like those made by social media companies, are made up of dozens of files your browser stitches together. These files contain ad code and trackers and images and and videos interactive scripts, and somewhere in there, the words you wrote.
In thinking about how absolutely dreadful the modern experience of being on the internet is, I’ve been thinking about this contract and the simplicity of it. It’s easier than ever to write something and publish it for the world to see, but in the process we’ve given up a lot, including control of the words we write.
And so, consider this an attempt to strip back down to the basics a bit. This file you’re reading right now – it’s just a single file. It’s sitting on a drive connected to a little, low-power computer in my living room. I edited the text on my couch, hit save, and the bits zipped over my local network to a computer mere feet from me. When you access this URL, the computer copies this single file to your browser, and that’s that.
Because of the way the modern internet works, and for security purposes, you’re not actually directly accessing my little computer. I use a web service called Cloudflare that protects my private IP address, and retrieves the file from my computer on your behalf. Even wanting a more simple form of publication, letting strangers access my local network still feels…inadvisable.
Besides Cloudflare running interference though, I completely own the means by which I am communicating with you. I own the domain and the hardware serving up the website. There is no social media company mediating, and I am not attempting to monetize your visit by selling your data or tracking you. By writing this file and hitting save, I am closer to actually publishing than I’ve felt in a long time. And perhaps it will help me want to publish more.