Business-like, isn't he?



Columbia Journal

    The Web is dead. Or is it?

    by  Alan Zisman (c) 2010 First published in Columbia Journal September 2010

    The WebI 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. (

    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 pre-selected location.

    Where once the problem was too much choice, now Anderson and Wolff suggest we're increasingly limiting ourselves to a few big-media outlets.

    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 Facebook.

    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. Favicon

Alan Zisman is a Vancouver educator, writer, and computer specialist. He can be reached at E-mail Alan
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