A blog tag to an article I did not read set me to thinking today. Read on if you think that the Net today is fraught with societal risk.
I have been using the WWW, Internet, since a couple of years after its start as ARPANET and MilNet for email and data transmission. Following it through the years I saw the slow exploration then the exuberant exploitation through the 80’s and 90’s even the 0ughts.
One of the things I had a hard time understanding was the effervescent froth about how this was freedom and that governments could never control it. When governments where the entity that installed it and ran it in many places. There are arguments in support of a weakish case for net freedom but for the masses it is not and will never be a truly open commons.
A big part of this is because of the way most people interface with the Net. They use it like they use a car, get in and drive, many times not knowing a thing about internal combustion engines, transmissions, etc. They are not technically savvy people, but then even people like me, an engineer, thirty plus year user of the Net, do not understand the ‘stacks’ on ‘stacks’ that are the interwoven hardware, firmware, protocols and software that makes the Net hum.
In the early days the Net was about Protocols, eMail and Hyperlink were two critical protocols that enabled communication and the creation of documents (Still, though they are called, Blogs, or Sites) that could be read out of sequence and include incredible depths of information that were simply impossible with a book or the like.
This early Net was dynamic and boisterous but largely a land of technical folks, academics, geeks and nerds. It was a natural environment for them in a way only the still evolving desktop computer had been until then.
After a while businesses started to move in and the media started to look at this as a way of distributing their content without the cost and logistic drag of newsprint, TV stations or even radio. Of course what most did not see coming was that the net would make their old advertiser supported business model very difficult to support over the long term while giving new Platforms (AOL and their ilk, now TWITTER, FACEBOOK etc) a leg up as essentially the new middle man between the consumer and ‘the content.’
But even at the start with AOL et al, some philosopher technical types pointed out that these Platforms ,while they gave Joe User an easy path to the internet, put a barrier between the user and the broader Net. Some like me never went down the platform path because we wanted the depth of the Net in the raw as it were but we pay the penalty of having to work harder to get things that Platform users get for free.
Twenty years on Facebook and Twitter have paved over the Net to a very significant degree. They started as just social networks with different focuses. But they have become the principle distributor of news and opinion. They have sucked up adjacent Net onramps in their fight to gain share and suppress competition. Now they lust after your data so they can sell it to the highest bidder, while using it, somewhat unintentionally to wrap the users in ever thicker cocoons of confirmation bias. They have also strangled the legacy media in its bed by stripping away the advertiser revenue.
I see 3 main reasons, ease of use, addictive content and the network affect. Ease of Use: You might argue that some of them are not that easy today but in the beginning essentially each of them was drop dead simple, so simple a tweener cheerleader could use it in ten seconds or less. Addictive Content: Most of these tools make something you want to do easy and provide reinforcing feedback, if your tweet goes viral to a 1000 people, woohooo! If your facebook post gets a like from a dozen friends, charge UP! This is addiction. Network affect: Simply stated, a network of 10 people has 100 interconnects, 100 people have 10,000 interconnects, the more people on a platform the more valuable it is to the user as well as the owner. Since you have limited time in your life, you cannot copy identical on multiple platforms going along. Then the platforms will make it hard for you to migrate from them with your list of friends, follows, photos, blogs, whatever.
The title of the article I mentioned at the start said something about Protocols vs Platforms and this was one of those epiphany things you hear about. AHA!
Platforms are largely just Net hubs and they hate open protocols because it will reduce them to pipes and strip away their ability to siphon off value from the users, both consumer and creator.
Facebook or Twitter are just Protocols of Protocols with a software wrapper. Their core are proprietary protocols & software, not open protocols so that competition is impossible. The network affect and the users addiction to the particular flavor of Platform makes changing essentially impossible.
But if the Platforms are required to open their protocols and enable users to migrate their core identity the monopoly would be broken without destroying the user side value. One could even see an anti monopoly order that required some kind of Baby Twitter / Baby Facebook disaggregation that requires the ‘Babies’ interlink and compete.
This seems relatively clear cut process . It would provide the users with competition for their core value that is simply not there today. And while it will hurt the stockholders (who are earning monopolist profits today) it does not strip their assets while providing the opportunity to earn significant returns going forward.
The NonCommons of today, the Platforms, are a tragedy for the users in that their value is stripped without much recompense beyond ease of use. If we go back to the roots of the Net, open protocols, and user value, we have a chance to build back better….and make the Net great again.