Oh, Internet. You had such potential when you were born — darling of the research community, supported by the wealthiest military the world has ever known. And you married well, into a powerful merchant family. Why are you so lost? Is it a midlife crisis?
You were born, some say, 40 years ago this week in a lab at UCLA — one of ARPA's many children. It wasn't until nearly two months later that you first spoke, transmitting the letters "L" and "O" before crashing — but soon you were growing, expanding into research facilities all over the continent, and eventually (with some delays) the world.
In 1972 you moved from computing theory into the world of human communication when Ray Tomlinson gave you electronic mail. Ray said that "the first message of any substance was a message announcing the availability of network email." From those first few, feeble test messages and system announcements to today's daily billions — it's hard to imagine, now, that there was ever a time when you didn't carry email!
In the 1980s you were made up of mere hundreds of computers across a few dozen individual networks, each distinct — yet each inter-networked. It was in those intersections that you truly grew up. You were given the Domain Name System (DNS) to ease finding your various parts, and nicknamed "cyberspace" after science fiction author William Gibson coined the term to describe something you still might some day become.
Your first disease, the Morris worm, infected 6,000 of the email servers among your nearly 60,000 computers in 1988. Shortly afterwards the first commercial services providing access to you, yet still was focused entirely on research and interpersonal communication. Occasional attempts to use you for intrusive advertising in the eighties and early nineties were met, like the first such attempt in 1978, with swift, negative response by nearly all of your users.
Al Gore, who never actually claimed to have invented you, was nevertheless instrumental in funding you in the early nineties through the National Research and Education Network. Yet you completed your transition from that blissful early academic life in September, 1993. It was known to many who were your friends at the time as the September that never ended, for this was when AOL — which had developed a different culture — became a part of you. Others — nearly all lost, now, in the mists of mergers — followed soon after.
In 1995, when the non-commercial National Science Foundation network was finally dismantled, you were already pregnant with e-commerce sites and heading down the aisle to a shotgun wedding with Advertising. There was no turning back, Internet; you burst into the public consciousness with Advertising — child of Commerce, cousin to Deception — right there by your side.
It was a rocky marriage from the start. With Advertising you grew more quickly than anyone had previously imagined, spawning new industries and (some said) a new economy. Yet Advertising also began filling you with spam, ignoring the protests of your users. Polygamous Advertising assumed that the techniques it had used in other marriages — Print, Radio, Television — would work equally well on you. It didn't realize that your email was more like the Telephone, which always attempted to resist Advertising's advances, than like Television — Advertising's truest and dearest love.
Fifteen years into the relationship, Internet, you know you can never divorce Advertising. There's too much money at stake, and too many children to take care of. You've been finding ways to get along, but it's strained.
Is that why you've been trying to be more social, Internet? At their hearts Facebook and Twitter are shiny new interfaces atop old ideas, new services to use you in ways you've been used for decades — the biggest differences are that Advertising is everywhere on Facebook, and Twitter is struggling to keep spam from drowning out the human conversation.
Is it why you've been fooling around with News? Without you, poor misunderstood Journalism would barely exist anymore, relegated to the far corners of local community radio, replaced in the public eye by a pale shadow of News which only remains to support — who else? — Advertising.
Or is the emergence of cloud computing your way of drawing attention back to yourself, of making yourself even more indispensable? Advertising's domineering parent, Commerce, is truly in control there.
Dear, sweet Internet, I come to you as a long-time friend. I know you're hurting. I know you feel like you've lost control over your life. I've benefited from your relationship with Advertising, too — all of your users have — but I can also remember what you were like before. Those days will never come again. But don't give up.
Perhaps you're more in control than you think, Internet. You have spread so far, so fast, that Advertising relies on you at least as much as you rely on Advertising. Where would Advertising go, if not for you? Radio? You're taking that over, remaking it as a reflection of yourself. Television? That too. Without you, Internet, Advertising would be left with little more than billboards and blimps.
It's up to you to help Advertising — and all those who support it — to understand that the relationship has to change. It will take a lot of work; Advertising is inherently narcissistic and emotionally fragile, and always has been. A direct, aggressive approach won't be effective. Instead you have to help Advertising see that you're important as yourself, as a unique and beautiful medium of communication — not merely as an adjunct to Advertising's will.
I know you can do it, Internet. I have faith in you. We all do. And we'll help.
Happy 40th birthday.
(P.S.: I didn't get you a gift yet, but I saw an ad for something that'd be perfect...)
This article was originally posted at returnpath.net.
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