A few months ago I saw Jonathan Zittrain give a talk about his now-released new book, The Future of the Internet — and How to Stop It. One of the premises of his talk was that the Internet is becoming exceptionally balkanized, with little corporate fiefdoms springing up to intermediate the Internet user’s experience. He drew analogies to the heady days of the mid-1990s, when personal computer networking was just starting to become mainstream. In those days, people would subscribe to services like CompuServe or AOL (now the same entity, but separate back then) and their entire online existences would take place within those company-defined worlds.
I remember a joke I heard back then (which unfortunately I don’t know whom to attribute it to) that went, “The people who think America Online is the Internet are the same people who think Taco Bell is fine Mexican cuisine.” The point of the joke was that there were all these people who interacted online within the narrow spaces provided by their services, thinking they were accessing the entire world, when in reality they were experiencing just a tiny sliver of the online universe.
Eventually the AOLs and such succumbed to the pressure to pull back the curtain and let their users interact with the wider online world, but Zittrain’s observation is that there’s currently a tendency for online participation to devolve back into corporate-provided secure zones. While on the one hand out there on the Internet anything and everything is possible, on the other hand, that unfettered possibility makes it a scary place, and people respond to that scariness by running back into the perceived protective arms of corporate network intermediaries.
I don’t necessarily think corporate intermediaries are a problem. I’ve heard others cite the examples of people turning to anti-virus software companies to protect them from viruses and spam filtering companies to relieve them of spam, and I don’t think there’s anything inherently problematic about them, as long as their products are employed at the user’s whim and discretion. Like a busy executive who employs an assistant to read his mail, if someone wants to outsource some of their online life to another company to manage that should be their choice.
Where it is a problem, however, is when users are not able to make knowing and informed decisions about such things. Even the executive risks missing out on a piece of mail he’d like to see when he relies on his assistant’s judgment to filter it, but at least he’s in a position to vet that judgment. Such was not the case, for instance, when I discovered my email provider was filtering my email, not only without my consent but also without my knowledge (and, moreover, it was filtering it badly). Any force, legal or corporate, that strips me of my autonomous choices with regard to my online life is inherently suspect. Because we aren’t just talking about my online life: my online life is an extension and enabler of my offline life. To restrict the former is to restrict the latter, and that’s not ok.
That said, the trickier question is whether it might still be a problem when people choose to use these corporate intermediaries to define their online lives. I am all about choice and autonomy; I cannot get behind a paternalistic policy that tells people what they should or should not do with their online lives. But at the same time, I worry about network effects that force others to use certain proprietary technologies they weren’t otherwise inclined to (e.g., the only reason I joined Facebook was because an organization I wanted to be involved with insisted it was the only way they’d communicate with me), and I worry that people, like the early AOL users, are mistaking what these companies are offering as any sort of reasonable substitute for the unlimited potential the Internet as a whole can offer them.
In the end I think it’s ok to use these intermediaries as long as they are treated as discrete tools. Like a virus or a spam filter, a corporately-provided zone, like a social networking site, is a tool. Some of these tools are more useful than others. For example, I like LinkedIn, although I haven’t used it much thus far, but Facebook drives me crazy, being completely unusable as a tool for anything I might be inclined to use it for. And MySpace just makes my internal information architect want to cry.
But I can see an upside to even something like MySpace, just like I can see why some people use Blogspot and Typepad as blogging providers. While the sky is the limit in terms of what everyone can host on their own personally-controlled web domain, it may take more time, money, or energy to be able to wrangle what one would want on their own site from scratch. Whereas MySpace can offer some free and easy tools for at least getting some sort of presence on the web. But while financially free it still come at a price: some other company, in this case News Corp., gets to profit from and in many ways control your online presence. You can only do what it lets you do.
It’s the amazing level of comfort so many seem to have about that which makes me wonder if we’re not seeing the mid-1990s repeated. Because even back then users were often a bit like contented sheep, happy to remain penned into these proprietary worlds, unaware that the gate had been opened to allow them access to the wider world. If these sites really and truly fully meet one’s own recognized and defined online needs, then fine, but when people confuse these mini-worlds for the entire Internet world, then they are not employing them at their whim and discretion, and when that happens I think that’s a problem for everyone, including those who would remain outside their grasp.