Have we forgotten how to build ethical things for the web?

I've worked on a few projects where values and ethics were a key part of the clients' mission. They weren't putting profits over everything, they were trying to deliver something that would ultimately help people. They were innovators in their respective spaces, and knew how to connect to their audiences. It was for these reasons that I wanted to work with them in the first place.

But in the end, it always came down to us, the project team, to prevent the implementation of deceptive patterns that would erode users' trust. It was small things, like offering a free service in exchange for email addresses that clients would blast newsletters to without explicitly collecting consent, or a client who works with marginalized people wanting to place a behavior tracker that logs personal user information.

Many of these things are commonplace, even the norm on other websites. A good number of users are ok with these patterns (or at least, an amount of users large enough to make a difference on the bottom line). When discussing these issues with clients, I could sense confusion as to why I was fighting for the hypothetical users who would care about these things, when most users either don't know or don't care. For a web practitioner who cares about the craft, using a website these days can feel like a death by a thousand cuts. The most horrifying of all to me, is that the average user, even those with a strong sense of ethics and justice, doesn't even know what a good, ethical website is anymore. Being coerced into handing over your money/data and having your personal information tracked and sold is now par for the course.

So how did we end up here? To a casual observer, it may seem that somewhere along the way on the grand journey of building the web, the knowledge of how to build good, ethical things has been lost, buried with our Myspace and Geocities sites.

But is that really the case? Every day, I get to work with people who do good work, who care about things like privacy, ethics and accessibility. We exist. We just are drowning, drowning in algorithmically-guarded walled gardens that are nothing more than quagmires of enshittification, of AI-generated content, of snake-oil solutions. It's like a walking into a jet spray of bullshit, so much so that even those with good intentions get easily overwhelmed.

Though I try, my efforts rarely bear fruit, even with the most well-meaning of clients. And look, I get it, no on wants to be the tall poppy. It's hard enough to squeeze money from the internet-stone these days. Why take a stance on a tiny issue when your users don't even care? Your competitors certainly don't. I usually end up quietly acquiescing to whatever demands are made, praying no future discerning user will notice and think badly of me.

It's pretty clear to me that we can't rely on individual people to make a difference here. Unfortunately, large-scale, societal measures don't seem to work either. Remember GDPR? It was supposed to save (some of) us from invasive tracking by giving users the power to choose how their data was collected. Now, everyone just hates the clutter of cookie popups and there is an entire industry built around helping companies to comply with GDPR in a way that makes it as hard as possible for users to express their newfound rights. When big corporations like Apple spend a huge amount of time and resources actively fighting the idea of a better Internet, there doesn't feel like a lot a single Person-Who-Gives-a-Shit can do.

I don't really know what the answer to any of this is. I just know that I (belatedly) enter 2024 with a whole lot of burnout and an increased resolve to be more precious with the limited time and resources I have. If you need someone to build you a website, or gripe about the state of the web, I'll be over here in my corner.

anchorRelated Reading

This was a short piece on a huge topic. Here are some recent posts I enjoyed that touched on similar issues.

Thank you to my friend Becky for her thoughts on an initial draft of this piece.