It has been 25 years since I formed my first impressions of the Internet. I thought that it would shift the balance of power away from large organizations. I thought that individuals and smaller entities would gain more autonomy. What we see today is not what I hoped for back then.
In 1993, I did not picture people having their online experience being "fed" to them by large corporations using mysterious algorithms. Instead, I envisioned individuals in control, creating and exploring on their own.
In hindsight, I think that four developments took place that changed the direction of the Internet.
The masses came to the Internet. Many of the new arrivals were less technically savvy, were more interested in passively consuming entertainment than in contributing creatively, and were less able to handle uncensored content in a mature way. They have been willing to give up autonomy in exchange for convenience.
At the same time, the capability of artificial intelligence grew rapidly. Better artificial intelligence made corporate control over the user experience more cost-effective than had been the case earlier.
The winner-take-all mentality took over. Entrepreneurs and consultants were convinced that only one firm in each market segment would dominate. In recent years, this has become almost a self-fulfilling prophecy, as stock market investors poured money into leading firms, giving those firms the freedom to experiment with new business ventures, under-price competitors, and buy out rivals.
The peer-to-peer structure of the Internet and the services provided over it did not scale gracefully. The idea of a "dumb network" of fully distributed computing gave way to caching servers and server farms. The personal blog or web site gave way to Facebook and YouTube.
Blogs vs. Facebook
To me, blogs symbolize the "old vision" of the Internet, and Facebook epitomizes the new trend.
When you read blogs, you make your own deliberate choices about which writers to follow. With Facebook, you rely on the "feed" provided by the artificial intelligence algorithm.
Blog writers put effort into their work. They develop a distinctive style. In general, there are two types of blog posts. One type is a collection of links that the blogger believes will be interesting. The other type is a single reference, for which the blogger will provide a quote and additional commentary. On Facebook, many posts are just mindless "shares" where the person doing the sharing adds nothing to what he or she is sharing.
Bloggers create "metadata." They put their posts into categories, and they add keyword tags. This allows readers to filter what they read. It has the potential to allow for sophisticated searching of blog posts by topic. On Facebook, the artificial intelligence tries to infer our interests from our behavior. We do not select topics ourselves.
The most popular environment for reading and writing blogs is the personal computer, which allows a reader time to think and gives a writer a tool for composing and editing several paragraphs. The most popular environment for reading and posting to Facebook is the smart phone, which favors rapid scrolling and photos with just a few words included.
Catering to the mass market
Before August of 1995, ordinary households were kept off the World Wide Web by significant technical barriers. Until Microsoft released Windows 95, people with Windows computers could not access the Internet without installing additional software. And until America Online provided Web access, the users of the most popular networking service were limited to email and other more primitive Internet protocols.
The fall of 1995 began the period of mass-market adoption of the Internet. Another important leap occurred early in 2007, when Apple's iPhone spurred the use of Internet-enabled smart phones.
As the masses immigrated to the Internet, the average character of the users changed. Early settlers were very focused on preserving anonymity and privacy. Recent arrivals seem more concerned with getting noticed. Although early settlers were intrigued by entertainment on the Internet, for the most part they valued its practical uses more highly. Recent arrivals demand much more entertainment. Early settlers wanted to be active participants in building the World Wide Web and to explore its various strands. Recent arrivals are more passive users of sites like Google and Wikipedia.