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How the Internet has changed in the past 10 years

posted by Jason Kottke   May 16, 2017

Alexis Madrigal is back at The Atlantic, where he’ll be writing about technology, science, and business. His first piece is a reflection on how the Internet has changed in the 10 years he’s been writing about it. In 2007, the Web was triumphant. But then came apps and Facebook and other semi-walled gardens:

O’Reilly’s lengthy description of the principles of Web 2.0 has become more fascinating through time. It seems to be describing a slightly parallel universe. “Hyperlinking is the foundation of the web,” O’Reilly wrote. “As users add new content, and new sites, it is bound into the structure of the web by other users discovering the content and linking to it. Much as synapses form in the brain, with associations becoming stronger through repetition or intensity, the web of connections grows organically as an output of the collective activity of all web users.”

Nowadays, (hyper)linking is an afterthought because most of the action occurs within platforms like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, and messaging apps, which all have carved space out of the open web.

That strategy has made the top tech companies insanely valuable:

In mid-May of 2007, these five companies were worth $577 billion. Now, they represent $2.9 trillion worth of market value! Not so far off from the combined market cap ($2.85T) of the top 10 largest companies in the second quarter of 2007: Exxon Mobil, GE, Microsoft, Royal Dutch Shell, AT&T, Citigroup, Gazprom, BP, Toyota, and Bank of America.

In 2007, I wrote a piece (and a follow-up) about how Facebook was the new AOL and how their walled garden strategy was doomed to fail in the face of the open Web. The final paragraph of that initial post is a good example of the Web triumphalism described by Madrigal but hasn’t aged well:

As it happens, we already have a platform on which anyone can communicate and collaborate with anyone else, individuals and companies can develop applications which can interoperate with one another through open and freely available tools, protocols, and interfaces. It’s called the internet and it’s more compelling than AOL was in 1994 and Facebook in 2007. Eventually, someone will come along and turn Facebook inside-out, so that instead of custom applications running on a platform in a walled garden, applications run on the internet, out in the open, and people can tie their social network into it if they want, with privacy controls, access levels, and alter-egos galore.

The thing is, Facebook did open up…they turned themselves inside-out and crushed the small pieces loosely joined contingent. They let the Web flood in but caught the Web’s users and content creators before they could wash back out again. The final paragraph of the follow-up piece fared much better in hindsight:

At some point in the future, Facebook may well open up, rendering much of this criticism irrelevant. Their privacy controls are legendarily flexible and precise…it should be easy for them to let people expose parts of the information to anyone if they wanted to. And as Matt Webb pointed out to me in an email, there’s the possibility that Facebook turn itself inside out and be the social network bit for everyone else’s web apps. In the meantime, maybe we shouldn’t be so excited about the web’s future moving onto an intranet.

What no one saw back then, about a week after the release of the original iPhone, was how apps on smartphones would change everything. In a non-mobile world, these companies and services would still be formidable but if we were all still using laptops and desktops to access information instead of phones and tablets, I bet the open Web would have stood a better chance.

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