Bibliotheek en het online leven in Augustus 2010

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There is an analogy to the current Web in the first era of the Internet. In the 1990s, as it became clear that digital networks were the future, there were two warring camps. One was the traditional telcos, on whose wires these feral bits of the young Internet were being sent. The telcos argued that the messy protocols of TCP/IP — all this unpredictable routing and those lost packets requiring resending — were a cry for help. What consumers wanted were “intelligent” networks that could (for a price) find the right path and provision the right bandwidth so that transmissions would flow uninterrupted. Only the owners of the networks could put the intelligence in place at the right spots, and thus the Internet would become a value-added service provided by the AT&Ts of the world, much like ISDN before it. The rallying cry was “quality of service” (QoS). Only telcos could offer it, and as soon as consumers demanded it, the telcos would win.

The opposing camp argued for “dumb” networks. Rather than cede control to the telcos to manage the path that bits took, argued its proponents, just treat the networks as dumb pipes and let TCP/IP figure out the routing. So what if you have to resend a few times, or the latency is all over the place. Just keep building more capacity — “overprovision bandwidth” — and it will be Good Enough.

On the underlying Internet itself, Good Enough has won. We stare at the spinning buffering disks on our YouTube videos rather than accept the Faustian bargain of some Comcast/Google QoS bandwidth deal that we would invariably end up paying more for. Aside from some corporate networks, dumb pipes are what the world wants from telcos. The innovation advantages of an open marketplace outweigh the limited performance advantages of a closed system.

But the Web is a different matter. The marketplace has spoken: When it comes to the applications that run on top of the Net, people are starting to choose quality of service. We want TweetDeck to organize our Twitter feeds because it’s more convenient than the Twitter Web page. The Google Maps mobile app on our phone works better in the car than the Google Maps Web site on our laptop. And we’d rather lean back to read books with our Kindle or iPad app than lean forward to peer at our desktop browser.

At the application layer, the open Internet has always been a fiction. It was only because we confused the Web with the Net that we didn’t see it. The rise of machine-to-machine communications — iPhone apps talking to Twitter APIs — is all about control. Every API comes with terms of service, and Twitter,, Google, or any other company can control the use as they will. We are choosing a new form of QoS: custom applications that just work, thanks to cached content and local code. Every time you pick an iPhone app instead of a Web site, you are voting with your finger: A better experience is worth paying for, either in cash or in implicit acceptance of a non-Web standard.

One result of the relative lack of influence of professional salespeople and hucksters — the democratization of marketing, if you will — is that advertising on the Web has not developed in the subtle and crafty and controlling ways it did in other mediums. The ineffectual banner ad, created (indeed by the founders of this magazine) in 1994 — and never much liked by anyone in the marketing world — still remains the foundation of display advertising on the Web.

And then there’s the audience.

At some never-quite-admitted level, the Web audience, however measurable, is nevertheless a fraud. Nearly 60 percent of people find Web sites from search engines, much of which may be driven by SEO, or “search engine optimization” — a new-economy acronym that refers to gaming Google’s algorithm to land top results for hot search terms. In other words, many of these people have been essentially corralled into clicking a random link and may have no idea why they are visiting a particular site — or, indeed, what site they are visiting. They are the exact opposite of a loyal audience, the kind that you might expect, over time, to inculcate with your message.

Web audiences have grown ever larger even as the quality of those audiences has shriveled, leading advertisers to pay less and less to reach them. That, in turn, has meant the rise of junk-shop content providers — like Demand Media — which have determined that the only way to make money online is to spend even less on content than advertisers are willing to pay to advertise against it. This further cheapens online content, makes visitors even less valuable, and continues to diminish the credibility of the medium.

Even in the face of this downward spiral, the despairing have hoped. But then came the recession, and the panic button got pushed. Finally, after years of experimentation, content companies came to a disturbing conclusion: The Web did not work. It would never bring in the bucks. And so they began looking for a new model, one that leveraged the power of the Internet without the value-destroying side effects of the Web. And they found Steve Jobs, who — rumor had it — was working on a new tablet device.

Now, on the technology side, what the Web has lacked in its determination to turn itself into a full-fledged media format is anybody who knew anything about media. Likewise, on the media side, there wasn’t anybody who knew anything about technology.


This has been a fundamental and aching disconnect: There was no sublime integration of content and systems, of experience and functionality — no clever, subtle, Machiavellian overarching design able to create that codependent relationship between audience, producer, and marketer.

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