What's the web really good at?

Last week, Nicole Sullivan asked this question of Twitter:

Serious question: what is the web really good at? What does it do better than anything else?

Aside from the sarcastic and jokey responses, the serious responses produced some common themes:


URLs and hyperlinks allow us to address any content anywhere on the web. When Tim Berners-Lee made it as easy as possible to create one-way hyperlinks with the World Wide Web, he knew what he was doing. But addressability is not a given. We can easily neglect it in the wake of competing concerns.


The whole of the web is available to anyone with a device that has a browser and an internet connection. Web technologies are designed to maximise the number of people that can use the web, but of course other things can get in the way, like censoring, the costs of access and network availability.

Distribution and decentralization

The web is decentralized. You can still run your own web server from your own kitchen if you want. Unfortunately, this has only ever been partly true, as the web is dependent on partially centralized backbones, data centres and physical connections.

Low barrier to contribution

Anyone can contribute to the web, and it doesn’t cost much to do so. Over the years, the ease and cost of contribution has improved, but often at the expense of decentralisation. It’s a lot easier to post on Medium than it is to create your own blog and host it on your own server.

Importantly, if (centralised social media content hub) Twitter had existed in the late 90s, and you’d asked the same question, you would have ended up with the exact same core themes.

The core benefits of the web have not changed. But where they are under threat, it is a serious matter.

This week I came across the abbreviation NBU for the first time, which stands for The Next Billion Users. I’m not sure where this originated, but it could well be a Google thing, as their goal remains to be getting the whole human race on to the web.

For me it’s important to think about what the next billion users need from the web. Really, it’s not all that different to what the first billion needed and responded positively to.

But retaining these core features of the web is going to be lot harder for the next billion users, because those people are less well positioned to fight for them. And there are strong forces that have other competing goals.

It’s good for us to remind ourselves of the core benefits of the web when we spend so much of our time in the weeds and thickets of our day-to-day work.

All the best,

– Jim

Receive emails like this in your inbox

I write about front-end engineering leadership every weekday.

Sign up now and get my Front-End Engineering Responsibilities Laundry List PDF for free.

You'll get regular emails about front-end development. Unsubscribe at any time.