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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.