Blake O'Hare .com

The Twenty-0's: The Internet Becomes Cool

[This is a re-post. I originally posted this on December 31st, 2009 while reflecting on the previous decade.]

It's a nice relief to finally have a decade after the 1940's that we can look back at and say "You know? The hairstyles actually weren't all that bad." But I'm sure that's not how we will directly remember it.

At the end of 1999, the Wachowski brothers showed us Keanu Reeves with basically an ethernet port on the back of his neck. Perhaps this was a warning for the next decade to come. At the time, giant boxy cellphones were for important businessmen and kids of rich parents. In fact, the nerdity test on the original NP which went up in 1999 had an interesting question on it:

Do you own a cell phone?
(those from outside the US will have to excuse me on this, since the cellphone revolution was about 4 years ahead in all other developed countries)

Google didn't exist, 56k modems were pretty fancy, people would call a business and ask for directions if they didn't know how to drive to it, Times New Roman was hip, page hit counters were a viable .com startup business model, and people used Internet Explorer.

How things have changed.

Now we have magical screens we keep in our pockets that can tell us what our old high school friends and distant relatives are doing every second of every day. I suppose we'll remember this decade as the rise of being wired-in. The center of this revolution, aside from the predictably shrinking hardware size and growing speed, are the social networks.

Jocks, Nerds, and the Social Network Bridge

When something new and scary comes out, the fearless nerds are the ones that adopt it. Usually they're the only ones that know about it. Anyone that spent more than 10 minutes on the internet surely must be suffering from a social disorder. The nerds ruled the internet and words were spelled correctly. Once something becomes accessible, a business model out there will make it hip. The social networks converted the internet from something that was a tool and an intellectual playground into the social norm. The rest of the world has come to the internet and they are here to stay. But now that the bulk of society is using social networking, social networking must now obey the laws of trends and styles that plague the social landscape. That means just as styles come and go, so will social networks.

Social networks, past and present

Friendster was "cool" in 2002. Now it is dead. Friendster was created to serve as a simple internet spot where you and your friends could socialize. This was novel, but ultimately people realized that talking in person or over the phone was more efficient than dialing in to the internet. There was no value-add and the initial novelty wore off.

MySpace comes along in 2003 and adds a rich feature set to the equation. MySpaces focuses on YOU. You can express yourself and keep a blog. People learn things about you they probably wouldn't in person unless it was a really awkward conversation. This quickly wiped Friendster off the map which seemed outdated by comparison.

Facebook came along in 2004 and disregarded the featureset (which to most nerds at the time was an annoying aspect of Myspace anyway). The focus was finding out information about other people you already knew. Actual "networking". Because it was closed to colleges only and you could only browse people within your college, it had a much smaller community-like feeling. Later they opened it to everyone and that feeling has gone away. It also requires your real name which makes it ideal to find long lost childhood friends. Meanwhile, MySpace continued to decline and will fall forgotten next to Friendster within a few years.

Social networks and the Future

So what else can be done? It seems like facebook has hit the peak of social networking and there isn't really any other way to "network" further. Sure, there's Twitter which basically raises the fidelity at which we find out what our friends on the opposite coast are doing. But each of the previous social network kings thrived off a new paradigm:

Friendster: opening move, creating a place where you can talk to friends online
MySpace: focuses on you, brag about yourself and create an online nest where you post pictures of yourself drunk
Facebook: network with others, find friends of friends and connect with old friends

The only thing that seems to be lacking is meeting new people. In the 90's and early 20-oh's (is that what we're going to call them?), there was a strong negative association with meeting people on the internet thanks to skeptical parents who watch a bit too much Chris Hansen. In fact, the latter half of the 20th century had a much stronger negative view of strangers than before in general.

As I mentioned earlier, the nerds tend to pave the way of new trends and technology before they become "cool", and the only social aspect of the internet that the normal crowd has not been drawn to is mingling with new people. The nerd crowd still rules IRC and many forums, but the meeting-new-people aspect has not been baked into the paradigms of any major social network yet.

Eventually facebook will fall. They called me crazy in 2006 when I said MySpace would fall. And now it mostly has. No clear contender has presented itself to replace facebook, but I imagine its paradigm will fulfill this social networking gap that currently exists, and as a rippling effect will make society a much more friendly and less disconnected and mistrusting place, which I think is how the next decade may be remembered.

Unless of course there's a nuclear war.