Ten years ago individuals seeking a form of online self-expression typically ended up at Geocities (or a similar site) and built a “home page”. It was typically gaudy, unreadable, and used some combination of the flash and marquee tag. Many of them linked to a Turkish(?) guy named Mahir. The Home Page fad went on through the 90s, then went fairly underground. Traffic remained high, but universally it seemed clear that home pages were (1) ugly, (2) boring, and (3) a frivolity at best.
But just as the Wii revived a dormant Nintendo, the 2000s rolled around and blogging “appeared” (and I know there are folks such as Dave Winer who’ve been blogging longer than that, but the main trend emerged a few years ago). WordPress (my blogging technology of choice – open source, extensible, free – what’s not to like?) has dropped the barrier to entry so low that I can start a blog in minutes and yet not have to sacrifice any form or function. Blogging got so big and exciting that Engadget got acquired by AOL, blogging networks such as b5media emerged, and blog tracking from startups like Technorati spread to the giant Google.
At the same time as “us older folks” got really into and excited about blogging, another world was experiencing unbelievable growth: social networks. Popularized by Friendster, then capitalized upon by MySpace and now Facebook (and even good ol bebo), there are hundreds of millions of users of social networks today. In a Geocitiesesque fashion, people again are flocking to the opportunity to create a distinct slice of themselves on the Internet, only this time not only are they creating ugly annoying pages, they are also finding new ways of embarrassing themselves long into the future.
But neither blogging nor social networking was really “enough” to last. 2007 saw massive changes in behaviors in both arenas. As blogging got bigger, our focus drifted. Where we used to read individual blogs to read individuals’ opinions, a massive shift to all-encompassing feed readers occurred. It’s become less about the ‘whose opinion do I want’ and more about ‘what’s an interesting headline?’. Blog aggregators such as TechMeme have also improved our ability to find trends (memes) in blog-to-blog “conversations” but yet have de-emphasized the importance of writing quality articles instead of just linkbaiting headlines.
Also, microblogs like Twitter gained popularity, giving writers the benefit of a limited structure (140 character entries), and again, distributed focus away from the individual and into the crowd. Social networking sites, led by Facebook, implemented platforms for building applications, most of which seem to involve being bitten by zombies and/or having a sheep (or worse, poop) thrown at one’s eye.
Next up are the layers on top of all these building blocks, and 2008 will be a big year for them. FriendFeed launched (as did SocialThing and Plaxo Pulse and others) as an aggregator of all of your online activities (other than social networking sites, which already do this independently). Louis Gray did a phenomenal job recruiting/inviting/involving the “a-list” bloggers (which I most certainly don’t belong in, but others like Scoble and Dave Winer do), though Mark Evans and Brian Solis have a lot more to say on that topic. I’m still not sure why/if I need FriendFeed (nor is Duncan Riley), nor if I plan to use it in the future (although I did sign up here), but at least I’m not judging from afar this time (as opposed to Twitter, which I still refuse to use).
By now I hope it’s clear why I regard this as both evolution and de-evolution. We have more flexibility, more control, more features, more zombies, but we also have less focus, less clarity, more clutter, and much much more confusion. Each new addition brings not just the functionality, but requires basic comprehension of the building block. Adam Ostrow yesterday blogged that FriendFeed “crossed the chasm” (a term implying moving from early adopters to the masses) but I couldn’t disagree more. My parents, as an example of “mass Internet users” are still barely comfortable taking pictures from Flickr and printing them at Shutterly or in a local store. The masses don’t know from Twitter, and are still just finding out that there are a lot of cats who have appetites for cheeseburgers and ride invisible bicycles.
One thing that these technologies seem to expose is humanity’s obsessions with other people. Never before has it been so easy to virtually stalk someone online (and by the way, it’s only a matter of time before some uber-lifestreamer experiences a home robbery by making their personal travel plans so easy to access). Never before has our work/life balance been so ridiculously far out of whack (and I’m not the only one who feels this way). Never before have we seen the individual have the opportunity to have microcircles of fame (or should that be microfame?), nor the obsessive-like compulsions to follow.
I think the part that concerns me the most is the extreme levels of digital divide that are emerging. It’s not just the technology barriers, it’s the inevitable social barriers that come along with it. The divide is growing, even amongst those who have access to the technology. And it’s going to get a lot worse for a lot of people, especially inside families (“mom, I so totally twittered that I was gonna be streaming live from the mall today, u r so lame!”).
There are times when I feel technology evolution is outpacing humanity’s ability to absorb, react, and evolve as a society. We are probably closer to being “one world” than ever before, yet we are also probably closer to being “six billion individuals” than ever before.