Weird Bobby Tables

11 Feb 2019

Jarred Sumner asks why isn’t the internet more fun and weird? He laments the creativity lost when modern social platforms cut off the Wild West your-code-here flexibility of earlier platforms such as MySpace.

We — the programmers, designers, product people — collectively decided that users don’t deserve the right to code in everyday products. Users are too stupid. They’d break stuff. Coding is too complicated for ordinary people. Besides, we can just do the coding…so why does it matter?

He then goes on to cite this well-known XKCD:

XKCD — Exploits of a Mom

While I agree with the general premise of the post, namely that users are more than capable of creating with code and that there’s value in a platform that lets them do so, I think the reasoning is backwards. The problem with Bobby Tables isn’t that users are too stupid. The problem is that they are too smart.

In the early decades of computing, and even the early years of the web, everyone was on the same side. Nobody was going to go out of their way to break or abuse the systems you put online, and any chaos that happened to be caused was purely by accident. Needless to say, times have changed. Even if the majority of people in your corner of the internet are community-minded saints, there are enough bad actors that it’s only a matter of time (perhaps milliseconds) before one finds you.

We can’t turn the clock back to those halcyon days, and give the benefits of the modern web few would want to. However, all is not lost. A recurring theme in recent years is isolation — technologies such as virtualisation, containers and sandboxing. These allow untrusted code to be run while mitigating the risks if that code is in fact malicious.

Modern, mature (although still evolving) isolation technologies have enabled a flourishing of platforms such as Glitch, Binder and Sumner’s CodeBlog. Following an over-correction in the direction of safety, this is a welcome move back towards flexible, creative platforms, made with eyes open to the technological risks. These platforms allow users to code the web both easily and safely, without the whole thing crashing down when it meets little Bobby Tables.

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