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Facebook Thinking

People with long enough memories may recall how a year ago Groupon was all the internet rage until legal problems dragged it down. Or Pinterest? The 1990s browser wars or the dot com boom? Or anything that was the latest, hottest must-have.

The fact that certain things become ‘hot’ leaving many people to take leave of their senses has been going on since at least 1720, with the ‘South Sea Bubble’. The South Sea Company was a British joint-stock company given a monopoly to trade in Spain’s South American colonies in return for taking on England’s national debt incurred by fighting the War of Spanish Succession.

Seen as a get-rich-quick scheme, people invested into an effectively worthless company with no assets. When it crashed like a burst bubble it ruined hundreds. It is a lesson from history that has not been fully learned.

Facebook Thinking

Some fear that the forthcoming flotation of the mighty Facebook could turn out to be a ‘bubble’ in the making. And then, more than a few eyebrows were raised when it was revealed that they were paying a billion dollars (£630m) for Instagram, an app that changes photo colours before being shared, from a company with just thirteen employees but a market valuation of $500 million.

At once the pundits and analysts started wondering what was behind it all, just as it was revealed that the purchase was not widely known even by Facebook insiders until the deal was signed. Why would Facebook want an apparently insignificant company? Wipe out the opposition? Get ahead of Apple and Amazon? Yes, of course.

But John Harlow speculated in The Sunday Times (15th April) that there is additionally something ‘insidious and significant going on’. He said the Facebook acquisition of Instagram heralds ‘nothing less than the demise of the world wide web’.

He qualified it only to a small degree, by adding: ‘demise, or at least its increasing irrelevance’.

The Thesis

Harlow explained that the internet is the global network of networks, while the www is a collection of documents and services accessed by a web browser. ‘It is effectively an application that runs on the internet’.

Tim Berners Lee, the web’s inventor described in 1996 as: ‘the Web is simply defined as the universe of global network-accessible information. It is an abstract space with which people can interact, and is currently chiefly populated by interlinked pages of text, images and animations, with occasional sounds, three dimensional worlds, and videos’.

If that is so, then Harlow believes that the ever-increasing numbers of users of the internet on the move and the apps they employ mean that the web is becoming obsolete. Apps need no HTTP. They are ‘light and nimble’ doing just one task cutting across the internet, they are far faster than web searches ‘which like emails have been slowing down as firewalls multiply and demands exceed capacity’.

He might have added that the web is being choked with adverts that are intrusive, relentless, personalised and aggressive, often compulsory viewing before anything meaningful is discovered from a web search.

Instead Harlow quoted Wired magazine, who said: ‘when you have apps, who needs the web?’

Walled Gardens

The writer thought that the open-access web is being ‘traded up’ for what he called ‘walled gardens’, an apparently safe area controlled by a handful of familiar, comfort-zone names. Not starting by tackling businesses, the new monopolies are following consumer trends.

iPhone and iPad apps, a web-based Facebook of the non-web-based future and any other companies surviving, all seek ‘to become your digital front room with all the social media you can swallow and only one door – theirs’.

He asked if the joys of accidental searches (porn ‘exiled to a red light domain .xxx), unexpected discoveries of the strange and wonderful was a price worth paying? For businesses and families, he thought so. But not for the majority of people.

What John Harlow wrote is not new, in fact. The ideas have been around for some time. Chris Anderson and Michael Wolf published in Wired magazine in 2010 the prognosis that ‘the web is dead, long live the internet’.

Old Idea Recycled

They described a daily scenario: ‘You wake up and check your email on your bedside iPad — that’s one app. During breakfast you browse Facebook, Twitter, and The New York Times — three more apps. On the way to the office, you listen to a podcast on your smartphone. Another app. At work, you scroll through RSS feeds in a reader and have Skype and IM conversations. More apps. At the end of the day, you come home, make dinner while listening to Pandora, play some games on Xbox Live, and watch a movie on Netflix’s streaming service. You’ve spent the day on the Internet — but not on the Web. And you are not alone’.

They said that for the past few years, the shift has been from the wide open web to semiclosed platforms that use internet for transport but not the browser for display. This world is one that ‘Google can’t crawl, where HTML doesn’t rule’. It’s what consumers are choosing because dedicated platforms work better and fit today’s living better.

Anderson and Wolf said the fact that it’s easier for companies to make money on these platforms only cements the trend. ‘Producers and consumers agree: The web is not the culmination of the digital revolution’.

History may well show it was but the beginning.

On the other hand, some believe that Web 4.0 or later, or www17 may herald the best as yet to come. Any thoughts?

Further Reading:

Tim Berners Lee,

Wired Magazine, Chris Anderson and Michael Wolf, August/September 2010.

Image: Jason McElweenie