Sometime around 2001, I made a personal technology prediction. It was a time when blogs were the latest thing to change the face of the web. Everyone influential was starting their own weblog, LiveJournal was still a little ways off from reaching critical mass, and Blogger was years away from becoming a Google property. I’d been running my own website about my interests for years, and I’d installed Apache on my family desktop. Microsoft had just dropped its latest, greatest operating system, Windows XP, and Apple was turning nerds' heads for the first time in a while with a stable release of OS X.
Putting all this together, I started to envision a future of the web where just having a computer gave everyone the ability to participate online with their own blog. For Microsoft and Apple’s next operating system, they should ship every copy with Apache bundled in at an OS level. Users could flip a switch and publish their blog right from their desktop, running over their home internet connection. Tossing photos into your user Pictures folder would create an image gallery. Text files in your Documents folder would be shared as blog entries. All you had to do was give someone your IP address or some other DNS that resolved to it and everyone and their mother could have their very own cutting edge weblog.
It sounds like one of those crazy dot-com-fueled ideas that nobody would really want. Apple did, in fact, ship OS X with a built-in version of Apache enabled through a Personal Web Sharing toggle up through 10.8, when the feature was put to rest. However, even stripped down, Apache still required writing HTML files, so it never caught on even as LiveJournal peaked and users migrated to more complicated platforms like MySpace. Why? There was clear user interest there, so why did so few people publish their own websites, but flock to place their content on other people’s sites?
Okay, there are many technical reasons that this didn’t take off. Broadband was still exceedingly rare in the early 2000’s. Most people weren’t comfortable leaving their computer on 24 hours a day. And it would have been a huge undertaking on the part of any operating system maker to educate users about why they might want to share information on their computer and how to do it safely. And let’s put aside that by the time Microsoft’s next operating system released, pretty much anyone who thought they wanted a blog had one. But the idea of self-publishing didn’t go away just because this implementation never developed. What did happen?
The pendulum swung.
The technological archetype up to the early 2000’s was about the web being a growing, diverse place, where everything was in information silos. Every individual, company and university was putting their vision of the web online, with whatever technology or business plan made sense to them. We saw through hundreds of successful and failed business ventures that the web was a place where you could set up your own thing, do that one thing as best you could, and see if people came to shop. The dramatic rise and fall of pets.com was an example of the mentality that all you had to do was set up your own little niche, and people would come. But while Pets.com waited to see if people really wanted to set up an account with them just to buy pet supplies, Amazon.com was branching out from a little site that sold books and CDs, and in their wake, Pets.com was one of dozens of purchases in 1999 in Amazon’s quest to become the one place to get everything online. One by one, silos began to fall. The new paradigm was centralization, one place for all your stuff and everybody else's.
Social networks were built on this paradigm shift, too. LiveJournal and MySpace wanted to make a blogging platform where you just had to sign up and you could connect with all your friends who were already there, but they co-existed with personal blogs for many years. By the time Facebook hit mainstream consciousness, there was a strong sentiment that nobody wants to read your stupid blog anymore. If you can’t say what you want to in 140 characters, it had better be on Wordpress or Tumblr, where I already have an account. Social networks gave users ease of use and unprecedented interactivity online, and nobody gave much of a second thought about giving their content up for someone else to store and distribute. When we give Google and Facebook our videos and pictures to host, we don’t know how much they get out of the data-mining that they’re doing. However, the more content that is kept on our sites rather than their networks, the harder it is for them to track your habits. For me, Twitter is largely a link aggregation service for people to send users back to their content on other sites. But didn’t RSS do this, without the need to put your content on Twitter? If RSS had a champion to make discoverability and cross-promotion easier, would it still be relevant? Instead, Google shut down Reader, seemingly to focus more on getting content added to Google Plus.
I found this disappointing, and not just because I felt like an internet hipster who likes writing stuff on my own blog because it feels like sending handwritten letters in an age of e-mail. I love having videos on-demand through Netflix, and the wealth of content on YouTube. I like browsing all the games I own in one place, and seeing what all my friends are playing. Internet video and content distribution wouldn’t be as good as it is today without the resources of large-scale sites that invest in network infrastructure and software. However, putting all our eggs in one company’s basket just feels wrong. As centralized content aggregators grow, we’re seeing consequences of it, with major bandwidth users like Netflix facing pressure to pay more to keep sending out the content to the subscribers that they’ve amassed. I’m not worried that Netflix won’t be able to survive the impact of a tiered internet, but I am worried that individuals or smaller companies that distribute video on their own will suffer under the conditions that consolidation has created and won’t be able to afford the fees. These seem like symptoms of a problem that would not exist if we had stuck closer to the tenants of decentralization that seemed like the foundation of the internet 15 years ago.
But the pendulum will swing back. I believe that centralization of online services are a phase of the internet’s growth cycle, and we’re already starting to see the counter-culture movement begin. Nerds will always be ahead of the mainstream when it comes to not accepting the default thing. We should notice that during this period of consolidating the mainstream, open source development has created more alternatives. You would think that there would be a dominant Linux distribution by now, but instead we have more choices now than we did 15 years ago. We’re so anti-uniformity that we’ve even created alternative currencies recently, and even as one fails to take hold, two more sprout up.
But before I become too self-congratulatory, I have to say that I don’t think it’ll be us who undo this trend. It’ll be the next generation - or should I say the current generation - of internet users. Kids are going to reject anything that tries to tie them into their network and make them anyone’s userbase. They won’t put up with anyone that tells them what they can do with their content, or where they should keep it. And it’s not because kids overvalue their content, rather the opposite. They’re smart enough to know that if someone won’t let them do what they want with their content, that someone else will, and they have no hesitation about abandoning what’s tied to their account in one place to start over someplace else. Mojang, creator of the hugely successful among the pre-teen demographic building game, Minecraft, when they so much as suggested what Minecraft players had rights to do or not do with the servers they ran and the content that they built on it. If they couldn’t run their own servers in Minecraft under their own rules, they’d find a game where they could, even if it meant rebuilding it from scratch. To kids, their content is disposable, and only relevant for a fleeting moment. If Facebook wants to own their content on Whatsapp, then they’ll move to Snapchat. Buy that and they’ll find something else.
Companies still deal with expanding their focus the way Amazon dealt with Pets.com, but my prediction for the next few years is that that tactic is going to be a way of burning a lot of money for very little long-term growth. Yahoo made a huge mistake when they recently decided to make Yahoo logins the only logins that can use Flickr. In an attempt to secure Flickr members as loyal Yahoo services users, they’ll only drive younger users to sign up elsewhere. The rate at which kids install and abandon apps and services show they have no customer loyalty and will sign up for anything new if it’s even slightly better than the status quo. For the rest of us, it’ll feel like the end of an era when Facebook goes the way of MySpace, just as it was when our favorite Geocities sites finally were put out to pasture. But kids, who’ve never lived in an era of permanent information will just move on. And the internet has always done best when we were able to look past the limits of what others are doing and just make something for our own benefit, whether we thought anyone would care or not.