Web scale

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Posted by: stak
Tags: mozilla
Posted on: 2012-05-14 14:15:07

I've heard the phrase "web scale" come up a few times recently, and it's kind of been simmering in my mind, so here are some random thoughts to help exorcise it.

Web scale is huge. When you scale things up to the web, you're often scaling things up by a factor of millions or more. There's a huge difference when you're dealing with things at that scale. Events that have a one-in-a-million chance of happening actually do start happening when you're at web scale. This is both bad and good.

Companies like Google and Facebook like operating at web scale, because it gives them a lot of power. They are able to take little itty-bitty pieces of information about their users that individually are almost worthless, but in aggregate is worth billions of dollars. Their users pay a cost in terms of privacy; many do this by choice. However, there's also a different cost that is paid by a few, the cost of a one-in-a-million catastrophic event. If Google accidentally loses the data of .0001% of their users, they might not care very much or try very hard to fix it. At web scale, though, that .0001% is a lot of users, and those users basically get shafted. That's why web scale is scary.

But the same one-in-a-million events also work in our favour. There are lots of stories out there of somebody needing some help, reaching out on the web, and finding it. People separated by continents coming together to work towards a common goal. That, too, is a function of web scale. It may not be easy to find someone on your street or in your town who shares your particular goal, but on the web, you can find those people and make things happen. That's why web scale is good.

The web reminds me of the famous quote by Archimedes: "Give me a place to stand and with a lever I will move the whole world." The web is like that lever; it provides the potential to move the world, but only to those who can wield it. Personally I don't believe that such power should be concentrated into the hands of a few. The web should remain accessible to everyone, regardless of who they are, where they're from, the language they speak, or anything else. It's the only way to prevent an imbalance of power and keep the playing field even.

Easier said than done, though. At web scale the only way to accomplish that is to empower the users themselves. If you put out a product for five individual users, it's easy enough to customize it to suit their individual needs. If you put out a product for five million users, it's impossible. Even a well-understood thing like language localization becomes hard at web scale, because you might find that one of your five million users only speaks languages you don't do localization in. The only way to do it is to give your users the power to do it themselves.

That's why maintaining open standards and decentralizing systems is important. They shift the balance of power back to the users where it's sorely needed. If you're building a product, they let you avoid forcing your users into becoming victims of your scale. It's just one of the many reasons I'm glad I work at a place like Mozilla, where ideas like user sovereignty are built right into our mission and manifesto. But Mozilla operates at web scale too, and we have to be careful that we don't end up victims of our own success, by growing too big too fast and forgetting that scale changes everything.

Posted by Eddie Maddox at 2012-05-15 09:59:12
So, example, those (few?) patients who basically get shafted by
medical practitioners inducing amnesia against their will
can discover each other via the Web, then get this wrong Stopped
against the will of those wrongful practitioners?

Thank you,
Eddie Maddox
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