Web is dead. Or is it?
Alan Zisman (c)
2010 First published in Columbia
think I'm safe in assuming that most of you all reading this column are
reasonably comfortable with the World Wide Web. Since its sudden rise
to mass media fame around 1995 or so, we've had a good fifteen years to
get used to it, and have moved from attitudes that started out “The
Louvre way off in Paris has art that I can look at on my computer? Wow”
to taking for granted that we can find anything from a recipe to the
City of Vancouver lawn watering days on line.
So it's with a bit of surprise that I discovered recently that in
August, Wired Magazine pundit Chris Anderson (and co-author Michael
Wolff) declared that the Web was dead. (http://www.wired.com/magazine/2010/08/ff_webrip/all/1
Chris Anderson is, in my opinion, a pretty smart guy. I've appreciated
what he's written about the impact of technology on society in books
like 'The Long Tail' and 'Free'. This time around, he's suggesting that
the Web is now in decline – not because people aren't accessing the
Internet, but because they're doing it using special-function apps and
through specialty sites like Facebook.
Both of these, the article suggests, represent a paradigm shift away
from 'surfing' using a web browser, and represent “the inevitable
course of capitalism”. Among his statistics: in 2001, the top ten
websites accounted for 31% of US page views. This rose to 40% in 2006,
while in 2010, it's expected to top 75%. A few control the media use of
the many. The result, Anderson and Wolff suggest, is that mega-sites
like Facebook, with over 500 million registered user, are no longer
like all the rest.
Where a few years ago, a typical user might start with a search site,
check out some things of interest, maybe go to a news site or two, end
up somewhere new and perhaps unexpected, today they may spend all their
time on Facebook. Or use an app on an iPhone to check the news on one
pre-selected location, then use another app to go to a second, again
Where once the problem was too much choice, now Anderson and Wolff
suggest we're increasingly limiting ourselves to a few big-media
Way back, I remember watching a TV documentary trying to explain the
then new World Wide Web. It looked at two new websites – one created by
a student at Vancouver's Eric Hamber secondary, the other created by
Time Magazine. The documentary suggested that the new medium of the
Internet made both these websites somehow equally accessible to anyone
wanting to find information.
It wasn't true then, of course. Time Life Corp. had resource to spend
developing and publicizing its website that weren't available to the
Eric Hamber student. Inevitably, Time's site was going to get more page
views. Despite that, for a long time, the Internet has provided a rough
and ready democracy, letting individuals, non-profits, small
businesses, and more get online and present their points of view.
Is it all over?
It wouldn't be the first time. At one time, there were multiple
telephone and electric utilities competing for customers at a local
level. (The Wired article says the US had 6000 phone companies in
1894). Media – movie theatres at the dawn of the 20th century, radio
stations a few decades later, and more were initially filled with
thousands of independents, but were eventually dominated by a
relatively small number of chains or networks.
Anderson suggests that this is the inevitable evolution of capitalism.
With every new technology, initially 'a thousand flowers bloom'... then
'someone finds a way to own it, locking out others'. We move from
searching for free copies of songs to just buying them from Apple's
iTunes Music Store, and move from surfing the Web to spending all our
online time in Facebook's 'closed garden'.
But is it true? Certainly any mainstream media article that's going to
talk about 'capitalism' is worth a look. The Wired article starts off
with a chart claiming to show how the Web makes up a dramatically
shrinking percentage of Internet traffic. Website Boing Boing
reinterpreted the data, noting that Wired's chart makes it look as if
Internet traffic had been more or less static over time. If instead,
they re-chart the data to show the exponential growth of Internet
traffic, the part devoted to Web use also rises.
Not only is Web traffic continuing to rise, but Boing Boing points out
that the very things that Anderson suggest are cutting into the Web:
apps and specialized sites like Facebook, are in fact, just another way
to access information on the Web.
Nevertheless, Anderson and Wolff's argument does bear investigation –
and some critical examination, both of trends towards centralization of
the new online media by large corporations, and of our own complicity
in choosing to spend all our online time with a few mega-resources like
Columbia Journal will probably continue to maintain its online
presence, but (like the Eric Hamber student in 1995) will be forced to
admit that having a website is not, in itself, a guarantee of the same
level of impact as, say Time Magazine (or even the Vancouver Sun).
Sad but true.