This Christmas season, I present “an internet carol,” a cautionary tale loosely based on Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol.”
Tom was dead: to begin with. He was dead as a doornail and while the digital record of his death was hard to find, there was ample evidence in printed books and newspapers that he died and Mark, the chief inheritor of his fortune, knew very well that he was dead.
Mark had built his own fortune on things that Tom had left behind, things that were taken for granted such as open internet protocols and no requirements to license technology as no patents had been assigned to most of the things that made the internet work.
Mark had never bothered to whitewash the existence of Tom, nor had he really said much about the greatness of the public sphere that he could leverage for his own business. The site he had built was said to be part of the internet and whether people called it Facebook or MySpace didn’t matter to Mark as long as people stayed on his own site.
Oh but was he ensuring that his closed garden stayed closed. Was he making sure that content stayed on there and users consumed it primarily through the interfaces through which he could monetize them best. Oh yes. Controlling of privacy and of people’s content, he made sure that the open internet stayed locked far away, a place he couldn’t monetize and thus one that did not interest him.
Nobody ever stopped him to say “thanks for keeping the internet wide open, such a wonderful move.” No free speech advocate called on him asking for support. No internet forefather asked him for his help.
And Mark didn’t care. The internet didn’t matter to him.
A good friend stopped by and said “isn’t it wonderful we have this open network to play on.”
“Bah!” said Mark, “no matter”.
“The internet doesn’t matter? You surely don’t mean that,” said his friend.
“I do. What point is there to openness when it means greater privacy? How could one order it when it is so unruly?” said Mark. “Bah, no matter” he repeated.
“Don’t be ridiculous” said his friend.
“My dear” returned Mark, sternly, “believe in the internet in your own way, and let me believe in mine.”
A nearby bystander tweeted his disapproval.
“Let me see another negative status update from you and you’ll lose your account” said Mark before turning to his friend and telling him that he mind find better things to do with his high Klout score than disagree with the way one company ran its affairs.
An unexpected visitor
That night, Mark was floating around in his new pool. The warm California night was perfect for a late night float. He heard a noise and stepped out of the pool. Could there be an intruder in his yard? After going around the property to check, he went back to the pool and settled in the warm water again. Suddenly the water started to bubble up, and up from a whirlpool, a ghostly figure appeared.
“Bah! No Matter,” Mark said but the bubbling sound grew more violent and blood drained from his face when he realized that a ghost was looking down upon him. “My goodness, I know him. It’s Tom from MySpace.”
“What do you want with me?” he said.
“Much” said the figure.
“Who are you” asked Mark.
“Ask me who I was” answered the stranger.
“Who were you, then?” said Mark, raising his voice.
“I was the first friend of anyone who joined on MySpace.”
“Have a seat then and tell me why you’re here.”
“I come to tell you that life after running a successful social network is not all the same; I come to tell you that I made some mistakes and show you that you may be doing the same. Tonight, you shall receive three visitors: listen to them and learn from them. Pay close attention and remember what happened to me. Pay close attention and you will see.”
And then, just like that, he disappeared, leaving Mark floating around, with much to think about.
The ghost of internet past
That night Mark settled for bed, unsettled by the visit. Wondering what lay in the cryptic message Tom had left. Who would those visitors be? Could they be from the FTC or worse, the European Union, forcing protection standards for users that no users cared about?
A few loud steps up the hallway. Someone was stepping down the hallway. And then through the door, the figure of a slender man with a long white beard and a stack of RFCs in his hands showed up.
“Are you one of the visitors I’ve been warned about?” said Mark.
The voice was soft and gentle. Singularly low, as if instead of being so close beside him, it were at a distance.
“Who, and what are you?” Mark demanded.
“I am the ghost of internet past.”
“The internet IS part,” declared Mark. “It didn’t work for most. Too unruly, too unorganized, and mostly not commercial enough.”
“Come with me,” ordered the figure. “I’ll show you what you missed. You may be young and successful but you still have much to learn.”
Just as he spoke, a million web pages popped up. Some nice, some ugly but all created by individual hands.
“Do you remember these days?” said the visitor.
“Remember them? Why yes, that’s my childhood” said Mark. “Anyone could register a domain name and set up their own site. People would share links and add each others to web rings.”
They looked at several pages and surfed for a while, with Mark able to remember those old pages. Mark wondered why he was so happy to see all those things from the past.
“Let me show you something different,” said the ghost of internet past as he typed a URL in the navigation bar.
In front of them was Mark’s old web page, with no outgoing or incoming links, a desert island surrounded by an ocean of cross-linking activity.
Mark sobbed quietly.
The visitor took him to a different. “Why, look it’s Yahoo! Back when it was a directory of links. It had awesome content and linked to everything” said Mark. “I wish I had submitted my site.”
The visitor typed another address. Here was a page filled with activity, with a comment section where, while discussions was not necessarily highbrow, fun was being had by many people. The space was happy and all participants willing to share, to cross-link and exchange ideas and concepts from each other’s efforts, building a common internet together, for the better of all. And while some tried to make a buck at it, the main thing that tied all of them was a belief that a rising tide lifts all boats and that working together would make not only the internet greater but also ensure their own fortune would improve.
“I must go now,” said the visitor, ” but I hope you will think long and hard about this and consider your own impact.”
And just like that, he was gone.
The ghost of internet present
Mark was left in his room, wondering what had happened. But with little time for reflection, a thin man in jeans and a black turtleneck appeared. He had an iphone in one hand and an ipad in the other. “Those are truly magical devices,” he said.
“Who are you?” asked Mark.
“You don’t remember me,” asked the stranger. “You’ve sought me out but it’s true I was hard to reach. Come and try my products and you will see, for I am the ghost of internet present.”
Mark picked up the iPad and saw many icons, each signifying a different app, what once used to be a site. Tucked in a folder of largely unused items was Safari, a browser that opened onto the open web but few actually used it.
Here was Instagram, which Mark had bought earlier in his career. People still shared pictures, though they had fought some changes. The filters looked great and every picture blurred into every other user’s picture.
Here was Facebook’s own app, where discussions were held among small groups of friends about the most inconsequential of issues as well as the most important ones to people at the time.
Here was Foursquare where people traded tips about great places to hang out in or eat at.
And so on and so forth. A million apps replacing the million sites that had existed before, each with its own micro-community, separate from the other micro-community. It was an orderly approach to how the internet should be organized.
“Everyone seems happy with the current arrangement” said Mark, looking up from the tablet.
“Yes, everyone is,” said the figure “well, except for those Android users but they’re never happy about anything; And those Windows users but they are now getting a taste of their own medicine; And those computer users but they need to evolve.”
“What’s that happening there behind the Safari icon” asked Mark as he tapped it.
“Oh, that. That’s still the web. It’s mostly a Google thing now but we keep the app on there to humor the internet advocates and make them believe that access has been democratized” said the figure.
“And what’s wrong with that site?” asked Mark, pointing to a URL that looked abandoned.
“Oh that, well your site considered it inappropriate so people can’t link to it from Facebook without raising some warning,” answered the stranger.
“Can’t they do anything to get around that blocking?” asked Mark. “They could type the URL by hand.”
The figure looked at Mark with a blank stare and slowly faded away, leaving without providing an answer.
The ghost of internet yet to come
Just as he was pondering the question, a new visitor showed up.
He looked powerful. He looked as the kind of person who had, over the year, accumulated a fair amount of control over the things he wanted to control.
“Am I in the presence of the ghost of internet yet to come?” asked Mark.
“If you want to call me that” said the figure, “as long as you don’t try to do so over cables I now control.”
“You’re about to show me what will come to pass for the internet if we continue on the same path, aren’t you?” asked Mark, now made uneasy by the new guest.
The stranger did not reply but sent projections in the air.
“What is that?” asked Mark. “It looks like Facebook but it’s missing a lot of the discussions. What happened?”
“It’s approved programming” said the visitor. “User generated content created too many issues so we scaled back on them.”
“But where did the users go? Why does it seem as if the site has almost no activity apart from all those blaring ads?” asked Mark.
“Facebook really didn’t lend itself to providing the kind of content that was best for the users. And when we started charging for it, some of them started to drop off. Most of them went back to watching TV so that’s OK.”
“But what about the social aspects of the network” asked Mark.
“Those were increasingly troublesome,” said the visitor. “Users didn’t want to say nice things about the content we were putting up. Oftentimes, they were even critical of it so we had to find ways to deal with that.”
“Didn’t they set up their own sites to get around your restrictions.”
“No, we made setting up sites illegal. Once we had control of the pipes and could find a willing partner in terms of control of the apps, it wasn’t too hard.”
“But what about the free and open internet” said Mark. “How can I use it to drive more traffic to my own site.”
“Oh, we have advertising and bundling packages you could use to drive traffic back to your application,” said the stranger before adding “They start at a relatively decent fee.”
And then, the visitor disappeared in a flash, just as if a TV screen had been turned off.
A new day
The next morning, Mark awoke with a bit of a fright. He opened his computer and type “facebook.com” and the site popped up. People were still sharing pictures; people were still commenting. He looked at the company’s traffic stats and user and page views were still healthy.
“My goodness, it’s still here” he said.
As he walked out of his house, he saw a runner wearing an EFF T-shirt. “What’s today” Mark asked him.
“Today?” replied the runner. “Well, if I’m running and not busy building my startup, it must be a day off. Why, yes, it’s Christmas.”
“Christmas!” Mark said. “What a perfect time to recommit to an open internet. He pulled out his smartphone and called up his friend. “You know you’re right, the open internet does matter. Can you get some people together and help us figure out how to balance it out.”
“Of course,” said his friend. “It’s the way of the internet. We work together and we figure it out together. I’m glad to hear you’re back on the right side. Merry Christmas.”
And Mark worked hard to help the internet stay open, fighting with those who would try to close off access. And from that day on, the internet continued to flourish as a common good, one where anyone could set up a new business and potentially become the next big thing.