I've been on the internet for a long, long time.
Via local Bulletin Board Systems, I started reading USENET newsgroups — mostly Star Trek and comic book and computer game stuff — during college in the late 1980s. I got sucked into the world of MUDs. Soon after graduating, I heard about this new thing called the World Wide Web, so I installed Mosaic on my Macintosh SE.
I was drawn to the web (and the internet) in part because it seemed so egalitarian. Anyone could start a website about anything, and as long as they produced great stuff and shared it, people would read. I also liked the fact that almost everything was free. It didn't cost anything (besides your $19.95 monthly dial-up service) to access any of this information. The early web was a de facto sharing economy.
Best of all? The web was a wide open space, a blank slate, a platform free from dominance by mainstream media. Little people like me could have a voice.
None of this lasted long.
The Monetization of the Web
Soon, banner ads came along. I hated banner ads when they first appeared. “My site will never have banner ads,” I told my friends. (This was my first real lesson that you should never say never. My friends have been giving me grief about this for more than fifteen years!)
In 1998, Google arrived and changed everything. Until that point, web search was a miserable experience. It wasn't very good and it was overly monetized. Google was the opposite. It was amazing and had no monetization at all.
Hahahahahahahaha. How things have changed. Today, Google is all about ads. And using it is more and more a miserable experience. Look at this mess:
How long until Google has transformed itself into AltaVista?
In time, the mainstream media realized that the web wasn't going anywhere. By the early 2000s, they were treating it as an important part of their operations. By the early 2010s, the web had become the most important part of most media companies' platforms. And if it hadn't, those companies would soon be dead.
Meanwhile, two parallel (but related) trends developed.
- First, there was the rise of “software as a service” (Saas). In the olden days — 1995, say — when you wanted a computer program, you went down to Circuit City and bought it. You paid for it once and you owned it forever. As “web apps” became a thing, companies shifted from one-time payments to a subscription model. Today, even big companies like Microsoft and Adobe have adopted the practice of continually charging for their products. (And if they don't use a subscription model, they often “sunset” their software, which is essentially the same damn thing.)
- Second, forward-thinking sites and companies learned there was money to be made by disrupting existing business models. Netflix is a great example. Founded in 1997, this company has single-handedly destroyed multiple industries, most notably retail video. And, eventually, Netflix began to disrupt the monolithic television industry itself! Initially, this was beneficial to consumers. Now, in 2019, it's become apparent that oops, nope it's not. (See also.)
Twenty-five years ago, when the web was young, it was all about free. Anyone who could afford a computer and a $19.95/month dial-up connection was free to create and publish whatever they wanted — and free to consume what other people had created. It was like some sort of digital utopia.
Death by a Thousand Cuts
Today, the web is most decidedly not free. And it's getting less free with every passing month. Let's be honest: More and more, life online is expensive. It's like death by a thousand cuts. [Read more…]