The State of the Open Web: 3 Takeaways Heading into 2024
In many ways, the open web is the healthiest its been in years: the fediverse now has solid momentum, thanks to continued improvements in Mastodon and (crucially) the promised support of Meta’s Threads; web standards continue to improve (see WebAssembly and Web Components, as just two examples); and non-profit collectives like the Open Web Advocacy group are vocal in trying to limit the power of platform companies like Google and Apple.
It’s not all good news — the power of big tech companies to manipulate or outright control the open web continues to be a concern as we head into 2024. Google holds the keys to the dominant web browser of this generation, both Apple and Google have a lock over our mobile devices, and now Meta is poised to be a dominant force in the fediverse.
With that context in mind, here are three open web trends that have been significant developments over 2023.
1. The Fediverse Is a Social Web Renaissance
It’s been a torrid year for social media, due mainly to Elon Musk asserting his control over Twitter in 2023. At the end of July, Musk changed the name of the app from Twitter to X — and the service has continued to degrade since then. It’s not worth spilling any more ink over X/Twitter, so I’ll focus instead on the bright side of social media in 2023 and heading into 2024: the fediverse.
The fediverse is a collection of decentralized social media services that interconnect via ActivityPub, a specification from the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C). The fediverse is nothing short of a renaissance on the social web because, for the first time in well over a decade, social media has a chance to be truly decentralized. This has massive implications for developers; it may be the best open platform opportunity since the blogosphere in the early 2000s.
Mastodon is the current biggest app in the fediverse. Since its launch in 2017, Mastodon has often been criticized for its poor user experience (including by me), but this year it made significant steps forward in that regard. In May, the open source project announced improvements in its onboarding experience and in September it announced Mastodon 4.2, which included better search and further improvements to sign-up. There were notable improvements to the user interface too, “such as adding more thread indicators, making article previews more beautiful, and removing cropping from image previews.”
The key update in 4.2 was the improved search. For the first time, Mastodon users were able to search full-text posts across the network. There is a catch, however — the search index only includes users who have explicitly opted in. It’s unclear how many Mastodon users have made that adjustment to their settings so far, but because it’s opt-in it’s likely to be low. The only numbers I’ve seen are from a small instance called vmst.io, which reported that as of Nov. 1, just over 3% of its users had opted in and over 12% of posts were now searchable.
Regardless, Mastodon has a much better user experience than a year ago and is more open too (from a search point of view). But Mastodon is still…let’s put it this way, an acquired taste. In July, a new competitor emerged which was immediately more appealing to a mainstream audience: Threads.
Meta launched Threads primarily to challenge the ailing Twitter. It very quickly gained 100 million users, thanks mainly to its clever integration with Instagram (the latter’s users could log in to Threads using their existing Instagram credentials). But things got really interesting when Threads promised to join the fediverse, by adding support for the W3C ActivityPub specification.
Nearly five months later and Threads has yet to implement ActivityPub, but indications are that it will fulfill its promise at some point. This is certainly promising for the open web, since interconnecting Mastodon and Threads alone will be a boon — not to mention connecting to other services that have indicated they’ll join the fediverse, such as WordPress.
However, there are risks: there’s no guarantee that your (for example) Mastodon posts will be favoured by the Threads algorithm. One of Elon Musk’s tricks this year was to throttle the traffic of X users who didn’t pay for the blue checkmark; essentially a “pay to play” tactic reminiscent of pop music radio in a previous era. So, a big question for 2024 regarding social media will be: how much power will Meta exert with the Threads algorithm after it joins the fediverse? Watch this space.
2. Web Components Are Challenging React Orthodoxy
Web Components are having a moment. They’ve been an up-and-coming web standard for over a decade now, but a new pattern called “HTML web components” has emerged recently that web developers are picking up on. The pattern seems to have been coined by Jeremy Keith, a respected dev who writes the long-running Adactio blog. Earlier this month, Keith defined an HTML web component as “using a custom element to extend existing markup.” He explicitly positioned this pattern as an alternative approach to React components:
“React encouraged a mindset of replacement: “forgot what browsers can do; do everything in a React component instead, even if you’re reinventing the wheel.”
HTML web components encourage a mindset of augmentation instead.”
This idea of augmenting HTML rather than routing around it is also encouraged by more modern frameworks, including Eleventy, Remix and Astro. As of the end of 2023, it’s still largely a React world in terms of common frontend development practices, but the continued evolution of Web Components is challenging that worldview.
3. Web3 and the Metaverse Are Yesterday’s News
Things may change in 2024, of course. Especially for the metaverse, as we await the release of Apple’s Vision Pro headset (latest estimate is March). But it seems unlikely that Web3 — a blockchain-based web — will ever get off the ground, after years and years of unfulfilled promises of decentralized apps (dApps).
While I’ve given up on Web3, there is an open web angle to the metaverse which I’m still interested in, longer term. The Metaverse Standards Forum, an industry consortium with broad support (although Apple isn’t among its members) wants the metaverse to be web-compatible. I spoke to its President, Neil Trevett, earlier this year and he defined the metaverse as combining “the connectivity of the web with the immersiveness of spatial computing.”
It remains to be seen how that pans out, but both Meta and Apple have said they will support the web in their hardware and operating systems. Those are promises that devs will be keen to monitor next year — and I’ll definitely be reporting on it here.