Some of you may remember that not so long ago there was a time, when all things were simpler. In order to play a console game you had to insert a cartridge and press the start button, without having to endure long loading times, installation, connection to some poor online service, endless firmware upgrades. TV guide was a handy brochure, not a laggy and painfully slow screen. Pink Floyd, Nirvana and Guns’n’Roses were considered the “popular music”. TV was not only about terrible talent shows. Vampire novels meant books by Anne Rice, not “Twilight”. Cars were not smarter than the drivers. And yes, movies were still silly. But it was good kind of silly.
Back then, the Internet was one – a global web, similar regardless of whether you were accessing it from Birmingham, Berlin, Bangladesh or Kickapoo. All of this changed.
I don’t want to be that scruffy guy with “The end is nigh” sign and some really bad dental problems, but most industry analysts already noticed that global Internet is coming apart, changing into a cluster of smaller and more closed webs. They have even created a catchy name for this Web 3.0 – the Splinternet. How is it happening?
First reason is the hardware. In the beginning, most users browsed the Internet from similar desktop machines. Even if the operating system was different, standardized web protocols and languages made the final experience similar, whether you were using Windows 3.1 machine or your trusty classic Mac. But now the pool of devices capable of using Internet is growing rapidly. In fact, various proprietary gadgets will soon overtake the desktops as the most common way of accessing the web. Some of them support flash, some of them don’t. Some of them will adopt HTML5, others don’t plan for it. Many access the altered, ‘mobile’ versions of the sites and apps. Some have very limited processing power, which effectively blocks them from certain web activities. And their manufacturers sometimes block certain parts of the Internet entirely, like Apple fighting porn, or AT&T blocking Skype on their smartphones. Today, the Internet on one device might be different from the Internet on the other. Between mobiles, tablets, desktops, netbooks, internet enabled TV’s, and fridges, the hardware gap is widening.
Even bigger change came with the rise of social networks and various web apps. Every day more content is hidden in the walled gardens of the web, like Facebook or Twitter, behind the fence of login and password. Just think about it: how much interesting content have you discovered in your friend’s updates, notes and tweets? This content is invisible to Google and other search engines, it’s not backed up by wayback machine or proxy servers. The number of people seeing only the things recommended by their social circle is growing.
But that’s not everything. There is also an idea of the adaptive web, Internet that changes depending on your preferences or habits. It was started by location-sensitive websites, forcing you to use the localized version if they find out you’re in a certain country. Then, some sites (like Amazon) learned to keep track of user history – and adapt. Right now, many portals try to push it up one more level, the whole site content is supposed to change based on your preferences. What’s the problem with that? A simple example: imagine you’ve seen a great article on a certain site, you tell your friend about it, but when he goes to the same site, he won’t see it. The site remembered that he’s interested in music and film, not in popular science, and is feeding him only the content he is supposed to like. Adaptive web might close people off in small bubbles of content, blind them to the outside world.
Same goes for ISP-side filtering. I wrote about it recently in my series on net neutrality, but to give you a quick recap: major telecoms are lobbying for the right to filter internet traffic coming to their clients. They want to block certain sites, they want to force you to use their own services (e-mail clients, auction houses, shops), instead of the ones you use right now. Should they succeed, the internet will be torn apart by gaps much wider than everything I mentioned in the previous paragraphs.
Like it or not, the Splinternet age has begun. We have a growing hardware chasm, walled gardens rising left and right, websites that become shape-shifting adapters, ISP’s that filter content, and users gather in closed, social recommendation circles. The web is much different than it was years ago, and many analysts agree that the golden age of Internet is finished.
So how does our StormDriver tie in with all that? Are we a knight in a shining armor, on a quest to defend the old ways? Or are we a part of web 3.0? It’s complicated (as usual). On one hand, we want to bring the interaction back to the common web, and break down the walled garden walls. We want you to be able to interact everywhere, not only in places where admins allow you to. On the other hand, we’re also an adaptive and robust social recommendation circle. Stormdriver will allow you to see the web as recommended by other users. It will be much easier to avoid the really bad sites and content, but on the other hand – it is a garden, even if the walls are knee-high, and you can step over them without login or password.
Because in the end, no one can fight the Splinternet. It’s a paradox – users want the web to become more intelligent and adaptive, but at the same time the single homogenous Internet will shatter. Everyone is soon to have an Internet of their own.
Read the follow-up to this post: Splinternetgate: on web 3.0 and buzzword abuse