jump to navigation

Social Media Killed The Internet February 11, 2009

Posted by Chuck Musciano in Technology.
Tags: , , , ,

In the beginning, the internet was about sharing and collaboration.  Before the web existed (imagine that!) people used the internet to share and refine ideas, collect information, and make it easy to learn about new things.  The interfaces were primitive by modern standards, but the information flowed and great ideas were born.

The early internet was organized by topic.  That is, there tended to be one place you could go to find out everything about that one topic.  If you were interested in a particular subject, you could find a mailing list or a Usenet newsgroup devoted to just that topic.  Everyone that shared your interest came to the same place; anything important regarding that topic generally found its way to that spot.

The Usenet newsgroup hierarchy was the pinnacle of this structure.  Endlessly tweaked and debated, wrapped in a community-designed change protocol, the newsgroup structure neatly found a home for everything, like a Dewey decimal system for the internet.  Interested in movies? Go to the rec.arts.movies group.  Some obscure operating system? You’ll find it in the comp.os tree.  On and on, every conceivable topic was parked somewhere.

If multiple sources arose (a competing mailing list, or a similar newsgroup) they were quickly merged and consolidated.  Gateways existed to route messages between groups and lists; the Usenet social order realigned errant groups with great fervor.  The focus was on accurate, consolidated information.  Who provided that data, while interesting, was of secondary importance.

As the web evolved, this topic-centric model evolved with it.  People developed pages that became reference points for specific topics, and everyone linked to those pages.  I developed a page on creating transparent GIF images that still circulates today, although rehosted on other sites.  The Internet Movie Database (which I also had a role in creating) supplanted the rec.arts.movies group.

With the advent of social networking on the web, the internet is being reorganized by person, instead of by topic.  Now, people develop a central repository about themselves and what they know (or don’t, which is the real problem).  It is easy to learn everything about a person, and much more difficult to learn about a single topic.  For example, my recent cell phone acquisition caused me to search the web for everything I could find about a Samsung Epix phone.  Long ago, there would have been a newsgroup called comp.phones.samsung.epix that provided everything I needed to know.  Now, there are dozens of blogs that contain conflicting or incomplete information.  Collating these sites and finding what I need is much more difficult, if not impossible.

This person-centric view eliminates the most important part of the old model: peer review.  Before, a single errant posting would be immediately corrected by the collective audience, and the data that remained was usually detailed and accurate.  With the experts now isolated on their own islands of information, this review and collaboration has diappeared.  Except for concerted efforts like Wikipedia, we’ve lost the essence of the original internet: a collectively managed shared information resource.  The new individually managed information resources are far less useful.

The ego-centric internet is just a reflection of the ego-centric, celebrity-driven world that we live in.  We’ve lost something as a result, I think.  But somewhere, Andy Warhol is smiling.


1. Bill Petro - February 11, 2009


I do recall the old days of Usenet, and miss them. The nostalgia of taxonomy! How I remember rec.arts.movies and your evolution of that with your scoring system in the “Movie Ratings Report.”

I suspect the Internet will continue along the line of “personal branding” at least for the immediate future, until the next inflection point.

Some of this I suspect is “Web 2.0” where there is more interest in connecting “people” than information. Indeed, I suspect it will accelerate in light of the current economy, where people will encapsulate their “brand” as the information meme to promote.

What will the next wave be after “social”?

2. Joan of Argghh! - February 12, 2009

Saw you linked me on twitter. thanks!

3. Chris @jonesc_nc - February 13, 2009

I agree with your premise Chuck and with Bill’s comments too, but I think the problems are point in time, like a couple of frames on a fast-moving filmstrip. Call it growing pains, but the space is growing up fast. Watching people network (f2f, twitter, Linked-in, blogs), it seems to have the pace of a brush fire.

If that’s true, the next inflection point Bill refers to may get here faster than we think –

Try out this scenario –

The negative “person-as-ego” and more refined “person-as-brand” paradigms will evolve into a network of tagged and searchable experts. The desired metaphor? Maybe it’s “person-as-SME” (subject matter expert). I really think Linked-In has most of the pieces in place. Add an ability to create and aggregate user-assigned tags – both user-defined (bottom-up) and centrally-defined (top-down) to create context, then quantify the relative value or weighting by simple tag counts, and poof, you have the basis for – the next wave after social – the collaborative Knowledge Network.

I’m sure I’m over simplifying, but I don’t see that much work to get to the next level –

Just my POV of course. Challenge my thought process.

But I always try to fill half-empty glasses, especially in the collaboration space. Thanks for teeing this up – it’s a great topic.

4. Bill Petro - February 13, 2009


Chris has a point that might be related to something that you did years ago… “score” people.

Question: how to assign social currency to a person on the web?

Are they an SME? How do they rate themselves? How would they be rated by others? Peer reviews? Volume=Influence?

So… how about “Movie Ratings Report” for people?

One could self-tag themselves, but others could vote or score them as well. Some sites are trying to do this (naymz.com), but what about a portable “reputation score” that is not confined to a single “walled garden” but is transportable based on context?

Go for it Chuck!

5. Chuck Musciano - February 13, 2009

The tagging and rating mechanisms seem like a good fit, but there is certainly a long way to go to make them work. Self-rating seems contrary to the process; you want outside consensus to find the experts. Technorati tries to do this by building “authority” based on cross-linking; Google does it in secret as it tries to find “authoritative” sources of information. I think Google does a terrible job at it, and the advent of paid-placement on Google results strips any credibility from their system.

The problem with content tagging is that people are terrible at it. I can’t even consistently tag my own blog posts! Hashtags on Twitter are another good example of this problem: people create multiple, similar tags and use them inconsistently, if at all.

People-rating schemes often collapse like the voting process for homecoming queen. The recent drama around the Shorty Awards is a good example of this. People crave credibility and attention and will spend more time gaming the system than earning their reputation on merit alone. I used to detect and eliminate voting scams for the Movie Ratings Report all the time, and that was just for movies!

LinkedIn is an interesting example. The “recommendation” process on LinkedIn seems so self-serving and cyclical. I’d love for LinkedIn to eliminate (or at least flag) any recommendations that occur between two people within a week of each other; the circular back-scratching on LinkedIn is amusing, to say the least.

The ability for individuals to create islands of content is a good thing (he said, self-servingly, from the comments section of his personal blog). What’s missing is a real index and search capability that unites these islands at a meta level. I agree that tagging and ranking will help, but don’t readily see how to make that work. The content creation happens exponentially, the indexing is linear, and the tagging has barely begun.

In the end, maybe the tried-and-true model of “ask someone” still works pretty well. We all have massive stores of data in our head, waiting to be cued by the right question. I was at a CIO forum earlier this week and got more good ideas for follow-up in a few hours than I would have gotten in days of googling. Darn that need for human interaction! Will we ever get rid of it? Maybe Twitter will help by making it easy to ask a million people at once, in real time.

Great thoughts and comments! Thanks for reading and writing!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: