I Killed The Internet By Using Social Media Sites And Apps That Create Silos

I killed the internet.

It wasn’t some­thing I had planned but it was the net result of my actions. And I’m going to explain how it happened.

The Inter­net
There used to be a time when there were a lot of pri­vate net­works. That time, in the days prior to the rise of the Inter­net, meant that if you wanted to talk to users of a par­tic­u­lar online ser­vice, you had to have an account on that ser­vice. The dif­fer­ent ser­vices were oper­at­ing in their respec­tive silos and had devel­oped their own cul­ture: some were more busi­ness focused (eg. Com­puServe), oth­ers were more con­sumer focused (eg. AOL); Some were backed by large cor­po­ra­tions (eg. Prodigy), oth­ers by new upstarts in the com­puter world (eg.eWorld). But none of them were really talk­ing to each other.

Mean­while, a dif­fer­ent type of tech­nol­ogy and approach was slowly build­ing up. Born out of the cold-war fear that cen­tral­ized com­mu­ni­ca­tion could be destroyed if a nuclear bomb destroyed the servers that hosted the com­mu­ni­ca­tion, Inter­net tech­nol­ogy was built to cre­ate con­nec­tion between dif­fer­ent net­works, allow­ing to travel from one net­work to the other with­out hit­ting a wall (hence the term inter net, which means between the net­works). Along the way, though, it brought a dif­fer­ent ethos: in order to par­tic­i­pate in the net­work and have other net­works carry traf­fic to and from you, you had to agree to do the same for all the other net­works, with no dis­crim­i­na­tion as to where, when, and what the traf­fic that was run­ning on the net­work was.

The inter­net first grew as a mil­i­tary project but the research was done by pri­vate com­pa­nies in con­junc­tion with edu­ca­tional insti­tu­tions. As such, those groups started inter­con­nect­ing in the late 1960s and engi­neers brought more and more tech­nol­ogy on top of the net­work that made it more and more use­ful, mov­ing from exchang­ing files to sup­port­ing email, dis­cus­sion groups and even­tu­ally, the web.

When Tim Berners-Lee invented the web, he didn’t think of get­ting a patent for it but instead decided to share his inven­tion of http, the web browser, the web server, and HTML (pretty incred­i­ble that he invented and pre­sented all those parts in one pack­age) with the rest of the inter­net com­mu­nity. Over the years, the com­mu­nity made improve­ments on it, improve­ments that they, in turn, would share with the rest of the inter­net. Those that decided to build pro­pri­etary mod­els for their offer­ings were gen­er­ally shunned and those ideas failed to gain traction.

The golden years
With a graphic layer on top of it known as the world wide web, the Inter­net started grow­ing at an accel­er­at­ing speed, forc­ing all the pre­vi­ous walled gar­dens to open up or die. Com­puserve was among the first to do so, fol­lowed by AOL and Prodigy. AOL’s ease of use made it pos­si­ble for mil­lions of peo­ple to now access inter­net resources while the more tech­ni­cally dif­fi­cult to use Com­puserve inter­face left it behind (to even­tu­ally be acquired by AOL) and the late entry of Prodigy in the inter­net world left it open to get acquired by Yahoo, which even­tu­ally shut­tered them.

The next two decades would turn the inter­net from a place only geeks hung out to the cen­tral com­mu­ni­ca­tion frame­work we know today. In 1995, AT&T intro­duced a flat-rate online ser­vice called World­net, forc­ing every sin­gle inter­net ser­vice providers to con­vert to a model of unlim­ited access to the inter­net for a flat fee. The move was intended both as a dif­fer­en­tia­tor and an attempt by AT&T to choke off its com­peti­tors because it already had a sub­stan­tial infra­struc­ture it could lever­age and thus ensure it had lower costs when it came to car­ry­ing inter­net traf­fic than any other ISP.

Mean­while, dif­fer­ent ser­vices pro­vided inex­pen­sive infra­struc­ture to host a web­site, allow­ing any­one with basic skills to cre­ate a domain name and offer their wares online. In this level play­ing field, money was never the object to get started and a site like TNL.net was given the same rights on the inter­net as large cor­po­ra­tions like IBM, Gen­eral Electrics, Exxon, or Microsoft.

So from 1995 on, the assump­tion of the inter­net has been that all inter­net resources were avail­able to every­one for a sin­gle flat fee and that any­one who was will­ing to work hard could become a hit on the inter­net and build a suc­cess­ful busi­ness from there.

Dark clouds
But such care­free ide­al­is­tic days are sel­dom too far from being exploited by peo­ple who pre­fer the bal­ance of power to shift in their direc­tion. Inno­cently at first but with increas­ing fre­quency, some new silos started appearing.

At first, those silos seemed unthreat­en­ing because they were small and the rest of the inter­net was sub­stan­tially larger than they were. But just as a small hole in a dam seems rel­a­tively irrel­e­vant at first, the pres­sure started build­ing up and even­tu­ally led to an increas­ing num­ber of areas around the inter­net where traf­fic would flow one way only, com­ing in from the com­mu­nity but never leav­ing back. For exam­ple, on Face­book, the fol­low­ing became more com­mon when try­ing to get to the web:

… or in other cases, Face­book has decided that it is bet­ter to interupt a link to a news story with an attempt to get you to install an app that would keep you within their walled gar­den as is the case with a lot of “social reader” type apps:

Every time some­one installs such an app, they now move any shar­ing they do of sto­ries from that site to the pri­vate silo of Face­book. Here, you are given two options when you click on a link: you can either install the app and there­fore become a party to slowly dis­man­tling the web, or you can decide that you don’t want to read that story. Face­book has suc­cess­fully made the idea of shar­ing link out­side of Face­book a large enough incon­ve­nience that it will ensure that traf­fic will grow for Face­book only.

But let’s not assume that this just a Face­book issue. For exam­ple, when I receive a LinkedIn mes­sage, I’m asked to click a link to “View/Reply to this mes­sage”. Why is that? The mes­sage is in my inbox, I can view its con­tent fully there, and I can reply to it by hit­ting Reply in my mail client:

The value of that link is to LinkedIn, not to me as a user, as all the func­tion­al­ity I need is right there in my email client.

Or take Path, the new dar­ling of the social media set. Path is a social net­work for mobile devices (think Face­book for your smart­phone) and its site offer a login but­ton (for more on why there’s no link to Path in this entry, see “Will you revive it?” below). But when you login, the Path uni­verse is very lim­ited. This is, I kid you not, the page I land in if I log in on their web interface:

No con­tent there, beyond my set­ting. I can’t access con­tent I cre­ated on my mobile device, or con­tent other peo­ple cre­ated on theirs. I also can­not share the con­tent I cre­ated on my mobile device from the web… and most peo­ple seem to be OK with this.

How I killed the Internet
When I first saw this a few months ago, I didn’t think about it much. I fig­ured it was a fea­ture of a beta that it didn’t have any of the con­tent yet avail­able online. And so I kept on using the ser­vice. But even­tu­ally, the inabil­ity to share over the web started grat­ing at me as I real­ize that I was trapped in Path’s trunk. I stopped using the service.

But what I didn’t do is stop using a num­ber of other apps run­ning on my Android phone (the same would be true if I used an iPhone). Instead, I felt OK con­tin­u­ing with the use of an app for the Ama­zon Kin­dle, or one for the Ama­zon MP3 player, or one for Google Cur­rents, or Drop­box, Ever­note, Face­book, Flickr, Foursquare, etc… I felt OK with get­ting only lit­tle bits of the web pack­aged in small digestable expe­ri­ences on my mobile. I didn’t ask those same sites to develop an open web ver­sion that would just run on a browser so I could choose which device I would use to access the con­tent and not have to worry whether an app was avail­able for the device.

I didn’t flinch when I had to rein­stall those apps on another device when I switched device. And when I saw a device that didn’t sup­port the app, I didn’t blame the app maker but I blamed the plat­form for fail­ing to sup­port the app maker. I opted for more frag­men­ta­tion in what was avail­able to every­one because I had to have the lat­est shiny toy instead of demand­ing that every­one do the hard thing and work together.

When­ever the web missed a fea­ture, I didn’t look at a way to fix it to pro­vide sim­i­lar capa­bil­i­ties to what devices offered but I looked away and said let’s aban­don the web and move to apps instead. I didn’t push for some more dia­logue to fig­ure out issues around latency, camera/accelerometer/microphone/WiFi/GPS/Bluetooth access. Instead, I did the easy thing and focused on devel­op­ing for only one plat­form (or a lim­ited set of platform) .

When­ever I bumped into a silo like Face­book, I may have grum­bled but I didn’t leave. In fact, I pushed more con­tent into it, not ask­ing that it push con­tent back out. I did that because that’s where the read­ers were, where I could get more users, etc…

When my smart phone provider decided to put a cap on how much band­width I could use on my unlim­ited plan, I didn’t leave because I had to be on a net­work where I could con­tinue using my iPhone/iPad/Kindle/Whateverdevice. I grum­bled on Twit­ter and may have done a tum­blr post but I didn’t walk away.

When the politi­cians started talk­ing about things like Net Neu­tral­ity or other weird acronyms like PIPA/SOPA/ACTA/etc I may have pushed back for that law but I didn’t make it clear that any­thing that attacks the Inter­net attacks the peo­ple and thus under­mines democracy.

I think you may real­ize that I’m not alone in these behav­iors and the truth is: I may have killed the inter­net… but so did you.

Will you revive it?
So how do we bring it back? How do we, sit­ting on the brink, help the inter­net con­tinue grow­ing as a place where any­one, no mat­ter whether they are a large cor­po­ra­tion or an indi­vid­ual, has equal chance to develop and build the next big thing on the internet?

Well, the way I look at it is that we fight back with the tools we have and the best tool we have is the Inter­net itself… and our wallets.

You want our money? Well, you will have to be open for it. You want to adver­tise to me? Great? Make your whole site a part of the inter­net and I will stop my adblocker from block­ing your ads. I will even click on the ads if they point to open inter­net site but will block the ones going inside silos. You want to offer me a sub­scrip­tion to some­thing? That’s fine but you can’t be indexed by search engines.

You want me to install an app? OK only if the func­tion­al­ity of the same app is avail­able on the open Inter­net? And if it is a lim­i­ta­tion of Inter­net tech­nol­ogy, then make it clear to me and show me who I can com­plain to so it stops being a limitation.

You want me to share a link to your app or site? OK, but how can I share links from other sites or apps INTO your app? How do I make the traf­fic flow both ways (and can search engines or peo­ple not reg­is­tered see at least some of the con­tent I share?)

You’re a device maker? Jump in. But you must work with other device mak­ers on ensur­ing that there is a stan­dard­ized way for the web to access some of the new hard­ware you’re introducing.

You’re a telco and have a hard time cov­er­ing the cost of band­width? Maybe we can help. Share ALL the data (anonymized, of course) about the traf­fic pat­terns of your users and some net­work geeks will be happy to work with you on find­ing ways to opti­mize things.

You run a search engine? Great. If you find out that some pages are siloed, just refuse to index the whole site. Work with your com­peti­tors to ensure that a black­list is cre­ated, sim­i­lar to the spam­mers’ black­list. If a com­pany doesn’t want to play on the inter­net, it doesn’t have to but it shouldn’t reap the ben­e­fit of being near the internet.

You want to write a law relat­ing to some nefar­i­ous behav­ior on the Inter­net? OK but you must put it up on a pub­lic inter­net site and pub­li­cize it the minute   the con­cept is dis­cussed. Maybe you can have it as a Wiki so pub­lic par­tic­i­pa­tion can ensure the best dialogue.

You run a site on the open Inter­net? Well, first of all thanks. But remem­ber that the tools we have is the Inter­net: Just don’t link to the public-facing pages of siloed sites. In fact, it might be best not to men­tion them but if you have to, make it hard to find them.

You’re just a user? Awe­some. Just start demand­ing the inter­net remain open. You came out (or at least thought of doing so) when SOPA threat­ened the Inter­net. When your Telco decides to close things up, walk away from it and to a provider that promises to remain open. When politi­cians try to abuse the Inter­net, call them on it. And when a provider tries to lock you up, walk away. You can do it again and again. The fight is going to be a long one but it’s well worth it.

Don’t do it for me. Don’t even do it just for free­dom. Don’t do it because the pre­vi­ous gen­er­a­tion of Inter­net users fought hard to make this work.

Do it because the Inter­net is awe­some.
Do it for the next gen­er­a­tion.
Do it for your friends.
Do it for your­self.
Do it for the kittens.

Tristan Louis is the founder and CEO of Keepskor and writes the influential tnl.net weblog, where this was initially posted under the title I killed the Internet. You can follow him on twitter here or receive his weekly newsletter by subscribing here.


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