Why I’m head over heels in love with the World Wide Web

I’m in love with the World Wide Web. Maybe I should be a little embarrassed by that, but given half a chance it’s hands down my favourite topic of conversation. It all started with Paul Miller explaining that ‘the power of the Internet is to organise the real world’. The World Wide Web is just that – a web of connected humans communicating, collaborating and creating (and a whole load of LOL cats). As Clay Shirky describes it, media is ‘the connective tissue of society’, and the web is the most powerful media we have. Power has a habit of corrupting us, but the ways we’re using the web have made me fall head over heels in love with it. Or perhaps I should say, fall in love with humanity – because we’re the ones who are making this web.

So in no particular order here are 10 of the website I’m particularly head over heels in love with today…

Avaaz proves that people power can influence governments, corporations and powerful individuals. 3 million people signed the online petition that successfully opposed a US bill that would have given the government alarming powers over the internet, half a million people signed the online petition to help halt construction of a highway through the Amazon, and former presidents called on the Avaaz community to help demonstrate that there was public support to stop wasting our money on an impossible war against drugs. Other great online campaigning websites include 38 Degrees and Fish Fight.

Ushahidi was initially developed to map reports of violence in Kenya after the post-election fallout at the beginning of 2008. It’s now used internationally, and its successes include mapping: election fraud in Mexico, snow clearing in Washington DC, and most famously, the Haiti earthquake aftermath. It also shows how quickly web projects can be launched; the original platform was built within 72 hours by a couple of web developers. Wow.

TED ‘ideas worth spreading’ – and they mean it. Their talks are riveting, hilarious and inspiring. From the teenager talking about building a nuclear reactor in his garage, to radical proposals for sustainable renewable energy, or hilarious skits on conspiracy theories. They’re all snappy at around 15 minutes, and it feels like you’re getting to hang out with some of the smartest, most fascinating people in the world. They also encourage people to hold their own TED events, and feature the best talks on the main homepage. It’s normally a pretty good sign when a company opens itself up like that. Me likes.

Airbnb lets you rent out your spare room and cover your mortgage! It sounds too good to be true, but if like me (and over two million other people) you like meeting lovely new people (and having some extra cash), or you like living with a local when you travel, then it works a treat. It’s heralded as one of the most successful examples of the web creatively disrupting a commercial business model with a model that’s based around social practises. Out of 4 million nights that have been booked on Airbnb, there’s only one report of someone’s house getting trashed, and Airbnb now automatically cover hosts against this. It’s part of a movement called “collaborative consumption”, or the trust based economy, others include Zipcar (car-sharing), Landshare (get people growing in your garden), and Zopa (social lending).

Good For Nothing and other “hackathons”: are better than sex, drugs and rock and roll. You won’t believe it until you try it, but when you’ve spent the weekend working alongside world class specialists from Cancer Research to build apps to help beat cancer, along with 30 other geeks, designers and generalists then you might get it. It’s so fulfilling, and shows just how much you can achieve when you step out of pigeon holes and self-organise. Even the NHS is in on it with their own NHS hackathons. There are no egos, just a brilliant buzz. This is what work should be like. There are a bunch of other great hackathon-type events, and I’m a big fan of Code For America.

Streetlife is Facebook for your street. I don’t particularly like Facebook (the stalkerish, self-promoting behaviour it encourages seem a bit weird). But Streetlife is different. You can use it to organise street parties, find hidden local gems (I’d never noticed that we had an art gallery, ornate Hindu temple and theatre 10 mins walk of our home) and connect with your neighbours. I didn’t realise I had such a great community literally on the doorstep. A lovely example of ‘using the internet to organise the real world’.

Twitter I hated it for a long time so this is for anyone else still resisting it. You get to listen to the whole of the world at once, or just the people who most fascinate, inspire, or amuse you. And despite weird sounding hash tags, it’s so easy and intuitive to use. You don’t even have to tweet if you don’t want to – you can just listen to your mates, guru’s, Stephen Fry (whoever) and get to find out what they think are the best things they’ve found or done that day. If you get sick of them then don’t follow them. Simple innit.

Kickstarter is a way to get your great idea funded. You used to need a slick presentation deck, business plan and (hardest of all) know who to pitch to and how to get hold of them. Even if you did get funding then you’d be lumped with equity shareholders. Now you can launch your idea to the world, get lots of advance customers’ orders, and build a community around it – all before you actually ship a single product. Other crowd funding websites include Indie gogo, Crowd cube (which offers equity options) and peoplefund.it (which has a social impact focus and is a personal favourite as I helped set it up!)

Open source software sounds like it shouldn’t work, but which server do most government and commercial organisations use? Apache’s open source server. What the heck does open source mean? ‘When a software program is open source, it means the program’s source code is freely available to the public. Unlike commercial software, open source programs can be modified and distributed by anyone and are often developed as a community rather than by a single organization. For this reason, the phrase “open source community” is commonly used to describe the developer of open source software development projects. Since the source code of an open source program can be modified by anyone, it makes sense that the software is also free to download and use.’ (http://www.techterms.com/definition/opensource)

Wikipedia we all use it every day, but did you know that it’s been proven to be more accurate than any published encyclopaedia? Whenever I remember that all the information is created by people giving a couple of minutes of their time and knowledge it blows me away. It’s a great example of how kick ass open source (see above) projects can be.

I haven’t always been such a big fan of the web; I still remember frustratingly slow dial-up connections when you could make a cup of tea before your page loaded. And of course there is a dark side to the web. From cruel, taunting web trolls right through to recipes for bombs, and forums used by paedophiles and pro-ana (pro-anorexia) groups. But the web doesn’t create these problems. There is, and always will be a dark side to humans and the web reflects this. So the web isn’t somehow going to turn us all into terrorist bombers. How we use it is up to us. No one knows what might happen, but it’s going to continue to be shaped by us human ‘beans. And I think it might be a heck of a lot of fun, either way, why worry? As cheesy as it is I’ll take a lead from the Dalia Lama who says, ‘I am often asked whether I am optimistic for the future of humanity. My simple answer is yes’.

The web isn’t just disrupting a whole host of business models (see Yochai Benkler’s ‘The Wealth of Networks’ and Rachel Botsman’s ‘What’s Mine is Yours’ for great overviews). It also disrupts our understanding of what it might mean to be human. Despite centuries of western rationalist philosophy and capitalist ideologies telling us we’re fundamentally selfish, it turns out we’re really pretty kind. In fact, in an environment that encourages trustworthy behaviour, we are indeed very well behaved. As the hugely successfully eBay founder Pierre Omidyar says ‘We believe people are basically good. We believe everyone has something to contribute. We encourage you to treat others the way you want to be treated’. It goes further than websites like eBay which set up communities where trustworthy behaviour is incentivised and rewarded. Wikipedia, Apache and Linux were all originally assembled through open source (see above). It’s no coincidence that all those projects aimed to make a positive impact on our society. When we’re given the opportunity to make the most of our innately human characteristics – collaboration, creativity and even compassion, we’re happier than pigs in muck to be pretty darn selfless.