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.