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.

 

Read more posts on TNL.net »

NOW WATCH: Tech Insider videos

Want to read a more in-depth view on the trends influencing Australian business and the global economy? BI / Research is designed to help executives and industry leaders understand the major challenges and opportunities for industry, technology, strategy and the economy in the future. Sign up for free at research.businessinsider.com.au.