Saturday, April 30, 2011

What It Is, What It Isn't, What It Does, What It Doesn't: Interrogating the Internet, Part One

What, really, is the Internet all about?

That's probably not a great question, since, hey, we all use the Internet all the time for all kinds of things.  Part of the point is that it's not really about anything, it's just there.  The digital world is a part of our lives in much the way that eating, or, if it's not quite at that level, making insurance payments is.

Looking at the most visited - according this list to - there are a few focal points of our web-lives.  There are three primary categories that jump out to me:

1) Information
2) Networking
3) Shopping

If human experience is richer than these three things, it's not reflected in our Internet usage.  Almost every top-50 website fits into one or more of these three categories.*  I could go through the entire list, but I think each of those categories has a site or two that capture the essence.  You can probably guess what those sites are, but I'll go ahead and tell you anyway.

* The exceptions are interesting (all rankings at time of writing, by the way).  A part of me thinks that at 11 and at 22 are none-of-the-above, though information kind of works.  Microsoft's presence on the list owes to Windows, of course, and Adobe's to Flash. checks in at 31, despite being a kind of meta-website.  In some sense it fits under networking, in some sense shopping, but really it's just a web-hosting site.  It's place this high - way above any other hosting service, owes to their aggressive Danica Patrick advertising campaign. is kind of reverse shopping, at 34.  Pandora rates 36th, the first website explicitly designed around artistic purposes, even if it also has a financial goal as well.  There are a few others further down, but you get the idea.

The top information site (and top overall site) is, of course, Google.  Quantcast estimates approximately 150 million users per day.  Google, however, as a search engine, is not an information provider so much as, well, a search engine.  The other end of the information spectrum is the 7th most visited site on the Internet, Wikipedia.  At over 70 million daily users, Wikipedia may be outstripped by other search sites like MSN and Yahoo, but is the most visited pure information site on the web.

The top networking sites, of course, are Facebook and Twitter.  Youtube has an argument, as well, but it straddles the line between information and networking a bit too much for it to really count as either, to my mind.  Moreover, Youtube is less a networking or informational destination than a hosting service for videos hosted or linked to from Twitter and Facebook or found on Google.  That it is a part of Google only goes to show.  Anyway, Facebook attracts about 140 million users a day, Twitter nearly 100 million.

Shopping is the least robust of these three categories, with Amazon's 70 million users and eBay's 60 million falling well short of Facebook, even when combined.

Now none of that is likely to be news to you, but I wanted to get the numbers on the table as a kind of primer for the picture I want to paint.  I've been trying to grapple with the questions in the lamentably verbose title of this post, lately.  What, really, is the Internet?  What does it do?  Is there, maybe, a way that we're using - or, more to the point, failing to use - it that might be particularly good.  And I don't mean good, as in useful, I mean good, as in good.  For all the talk about the meritocracy of the web, about the role of Twitter in revolutions, about the educational opportunities afforded by technology, I can't help but wonder whether there's an untapped potential, a chance to do more than make the things we do easier, a chance to actually make the world better?

There's an argument to be made - and a good one, I think - that it has done exactly that, and not just because is it difficult to separate "easier" from "better."  Even so, there's something missing, something essential to real human progress.  You see, despite the presence of the Internet, there's still so much social injustice, so much corruption and greed, so many profound and profoundly dangerous flaws in human society.  It is not, of course, possible for technology to address the bits of human nature that make us cruel, ignorant, or both, but that doesn't mean that we people who believe in trying to create a better world ought not to use whatever tools are at our disposal.

With that in mind, I want to talk about these categories of our digital lives, in my next few posts.  What do each of them represent in us, why are they so important, and what potential is there for something better.  I am leery of this project exactly because it requires me to take a moral stand, to say that certain actions or ways of thinking might be morally superior to others.  That's always a slippery slope, because it can be hard to separate real, fundamental morality from cultural and societal norms.  Nevertheless, without any moral compass, without a vision for a better world in which "better" actually has meaning, what's really the point of anything at all?

In any case, I don't presume to have answers, here, but part of my sense of "good" is that it has more to do with the way in which we do things than what we do.  That is, I may not know what the right thing to do is, but if I act out of compassion, empathy, and a desire both for the joy of myself and others, it doesn't really matter whether I do the "right" thing by some social, cultural, or religious standard.  What matters to me is the intentionality, not the action (really, this is just a repackaging of my preference for process over outcome).

Before we launch into actually looking at the biggest, best, most popular, most successful sites on the Internet, then, as we try to understand what it is that they are and aren't, and what it is that they do and don't do, I want to bring up two points as a wrap to this introduction.  First, I've chosen "networking" over "communication" for a reason that I'll discuss more when I write on those sites.  Suffice to say, I'm not convinced that communication actually does happen on the Internet.  Or, if it does, it does so in spite of, and not because of, the web-based services that currently exist.

Secondly, I want to make a point about intentionality on the part of designers of extremely successful websites.  There is no question that the entrepreneurs that founded Facebook and Google had good intentions.  There is also no question that they were a part of a system where the purpose of any product is not the betterment of mankind, but profit.  Were they motivated by money?  Are they now?  Does it even matter?  Those are questions I won't try to answer now, but I do want to share a true parable, that may not totally make sense now, but hopefully will be helpful in my next few posts.

Back when I was a music assistant at St. John's, we would make the students in the class write a Gregorian chant.  That sounds more complicated than it is, because what it really means is "write a melody."  So students wrote melodies.  The problem is, students wrote melodies that didn't follow the rules of chant.  Rather, their melodies followed the rules of tonal harmony.  They would begin with a tonic, they would move to a subdominant, they would reach a tension point on a dominant, and they would return to the tonic.  Of course, the melodies didn't really do this, because they were melodies, but were you to write a harmony to those students' melodies, it would, almost always, be a I-IV-V-I chord progression.

What is interesting is not that this happens - after all, each and every one of us has heard thousands of I-IV-V-I progressions in our lives - but that it happened most with the people who didn't know the language of tonal harmony.  Completely non-musical (even tone-deaf) students would write perfectly prim and proper tonal harmonic melodies.  It was stunning.

The analogy, then, I'll phrase as a question.  What happens when young entrepreneurial people who don't know the language of business, but are trying to create a service based upon the perceived needs of people (and not their own desire for fame or profit, at least not first and foremost) actually go and build those services?  What, actually, ends up being the purpose of those projects?

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