As many of us were reminded when GeoCities closed last year, the Internet has changed. As much as we would like to think of the Internet as forever being an untamed free-for-all where any nutjob can stake out a domain and reach a million people, the truth is we're getting more tamed by the day.
The safe word is "hotmail."
Still, it's hard to imagine a future Internet that lacks all of this mind-blowing variety (that is, millions of pages created by crazy people). After all, you can't stop people from being insane. And ultimately, information wants to be free! Right?
What we're seeing now is a variation of the strip-mall effect as seen in countless small towns in the U.S.
If you don't remember learning about the strip-mall effect in high school economics, basically big-box retailers run small Mom and Pop stores out of town by offering lower prices than the independent outlets can possibly match. Instead of the "Main Street, U.S.A." full of independent Mom and Pop niche stores, we have a ton of strip-malls filled with Wal-Mart stores and other chains.
This ultimately changed the way people shop. No one was going to walk from Laura's Bakery to Smith and Sons Light Bulbs to Barney's Pantstravaganza when they could get all of their shopping done with one trip to Wal-Mart. So not only were the old stores run out of business, but it became pointless to ever open a new one. The flow of shopper traffic had forever been diverted.
The same thing is happening on the Internet, with sites like Facebook taking up the role of big-box retailers. For instance, in order to make themselves more attractive to advertisers, Facebook put together an initiative called Facebook Connect. It allows users to sign into Hulu, Digg and more with the same ID they use to log into Facebook.
By linking their user accounts together, all of these websites have managed to create a "closed" environment, a one-stop Internet mall that provides them with an endless feedback loop of traffic. Sort of like a circle of snakes, all eating each other's poop. This works out great for the giant, well-funded websites already in on the party, but not-so-great for the "lone guy in his bedroom with a vision" sites that made the Web great in the first place.
Facebook now has 300 million users. For a lot of those people, Facebook is the Internet, and they're happy to do all of their information shopping there. A great and terrifying illustration came when this blog mentioned Facebook logins in an update. When (presumably old) people Googled "Facebook Login," the blog showed up in their results, bombarding them with thousands of people saying "IS THIS FACEBOOK WHY DOES IT LOOK DIFFERENT HELP I JUST WANT TO LOG IN."
And it's not just about traffic. All of the detailed information Facebook can provide to advertisers about your life (and they know everything at this point) means they can make advertisers an offer they can't refuse. The fear is that soon all those indie sites trying to make enough money to stay alive outside of the Facebook Mall will find the going harder than it already is.
This isn't Facebook's fault, it's not like they're using sweatshop labor or sticking a gun to competitors' heads. They're offering a comfortable path for people who find the Internet scary and confusing. If they hadn't done it, somebody else would have.
So What Can We Do?
It's the same answer as to the question we've been asking since the 80s about Wal-Mart: We will bitch about it loudly, and five minutes later enjoy the convenience the new, clean, corporate web offers us.
There are two sides to every story, and while everybody wants to paint the Net Neutrality debate as being a Braveheart-style battle of freedom-lovers versus corporate monarchs, there is more to it than that.
If you're not familiar with the subject, basically right now we have net neutrality. ISPs are essentially dumb pipes and they don't know or care if that data you just downloaded was in the form of historical documents from local university libraries, or an encyclopedic collection of Brazilian fecal fetish pornography. The Internet today is the wonderful, endlessly fascinating place it is in large part due to the fact that it's been free and open its entire life.
ISP's want to change that, mainly because different applications use massively different resources. There's no comparing the stress that downloading HD movies puts on their network versus, say, reading a Cracked article's worth of text. So they want to change their infrastructure and how they bill you for it.
Cracked subscription cost: A "fat wad o' cash."
The problem is this also would let them slap on all sorts of controls they never could before, such as blocking competing websites, or signing exclusive deals for content. After all, Comcast both provides Internet access to millions and owns NBC, so taking away net neutrality could let them block competing networks and that could turn ugly fast. It's thus no surprise that a variety of semi-respected sources, including the chief of the FCC, are standing up for net neutrality.
Phew! The Chairman of the FCC! We're safe, right?
The carriers continue to push against net neutrality. Its future is hardly secure, as mobile carriers AND ISPs have ample motivation. Google, patron saint of the "free information" movement, has even dipped its toes in anti-neutrality waters. They approached "major cable and phone companies" with a proposal to give Google content a "fast lane" of its own.
Cause, you know. Google needs the exposure.
Major corporations and political entities getting bandwidth preference over small, independent sites and individuals is exactly what net neutrality advocates fear the most.
So What Can We Do?
Well, this is where it gets complicated.
The ISPs aren't just being greedy here. Bandwidth costs a lot of fucking money and usage is growing at a retarded rate. For instance, most of the video game consoles now offer HD movie and TV show streaming, and soon they may give up physical media completely to stream all of the games you buy directly to the system (because it would kill off the used games market that they claim is eating all of their profits). Everybody is quickly replacing their faucets with fire hoses.
Just look at that bandwidth.
If net neutrality stays and the ISP's can't offer multiple tiers of service, then they say they will have to use an even more annoying solution: putting an end to unlimited plans completely and making you pay for every gigabyte of that Bittorrent download of every single episode of The Simpsons. And you won't be able to simply switch ISPs unless you find one run by some eccentric billionaire who feels like giving away his money for the good of the people.
Don't be a dick, Branson.
The problem is that what we want out of this situation--cheap, infinitely scalable bandwidth--is the one outcome we can't have. And while the other threats on this list can maybe be avoided, this is one that will end in the Internet being less free, you paying a lot more or a combination of both.
So enjoy what you have while you can, for these are The Good Old Days.
Do you have something funny to say about a random topic? You could be on the front page of Cracked.com tomorrow. Go here and find out how to create a Topic Page.
For more ways technology and science will doom us all, check out 5 Scientific Reasons a Zombie Apocalypse Could Actually Happen and The 5 Scientific Experiments Most Likely to End the World.
And stop by our Top Picks (Updated 3.12.2010) because you might as well get your boob quota in before the whole operation is shut down.