The Web, metalanguage

My understanding of the Web is apparently not shared by everyone. Considering discussions going on about, the Web as a public resource, or the promotion of an “open” Web; I decided to give my point of view on this, and to show what issues are at stake here. So first, here is my definition,

The World Wide Web, or what we refer to as “the Web,” is all that uses a common metalanguage: the Web metalanguage.

  • This metalanguage is like every language. Nobody owns it, everyone can speak it and understand it.
  • Like every language, it has its rules: grammar and orthography. For the Web, this rules are what we call the web standards, formalized by the W3C. The W3C is like L’Académie Française for the French language.
  • However, grammar and orthography allow creativity, flexibility. You can make of words whatever you want, you can transform them, use them for other purposes, invent them. Some of your inventions will become mainstream, some will be forgotten… It’s how the language evolves over time; just like the Web has moved from a hypertext system to a hypermedia system with pictures and soon videos.

In order to read this language, all you need is a Web browser. The Web browser is just here to give an “easy version” for most people. That’s where it becomes important to respect standards. However, today, a lot of Web browsers aren’t just Web browsers.

The Web, as a metalanguage, allows hypermedia publications and for that, it uses a set of transport protocols: http being the main one currently. However, all that uses this transport protocol is not necessarily the Web. There are some things parasitizing these protocols and parasitizing the Web.

This things are clearly something else than the Web. It is software, using other things than the metalanguage. The question whether it is Free Software or proprietary software doesn’t change the fact that it’s not the Web.

When you have a Flash video embedded in a website, it is something clearly different. It’s just a proprietary applications delivering content to you through the same Internet protocols that the Web uses. And you can only read it if you decide to install a proprietary program – or a plug-in in addition to your Web browser.

The difference between proprietary and Free Software here, is that while proprietary software doesn’t have any good impact on the Web, Free Software can improve the Web because it is also something you can read, study, share and improve. However, this should not be recognized as part of the Web until it becomes a web standard.

So what’s important is to make sure that this language is good enough to prevent anyone from having to use other programs in order to communicate on the Internet.

Distinctions to make

For the reasons above, I think we should avoid some words such as “open.” To me, there’s no such thing as an “open” Web. Because there is no such thing as a “closed” Web. The Web is this hypermedia system that uses a common language. A language is neither closed nor open! There isn’t such distinction as a “binary” language and a “source” language. There is just language.

However, there is an important distinction to make. If you take into account my definition, facebook is a part of the Web just like my blog is a part of the Web. Some people however would refer to facebook as a closed Web. Here, the distinction is about public and private, not about open and closed.

That’s why I think we are mistaken when we think of the “open” Web or “the Web as a public resource.”

The Web as a metalanguage is a common good, but the World Wide Web, all these hypermedia publications are not a public resource.