The Internet World is Already a Universe
THE INTERNET WORLD. Major breakthroughs for new media technology in the past involved rapid and fairly cohesive processes. With the Internet and web now making their impact following development that has been at least 20 years in the making, the process is much more complex and drawn out, mostly due to the pervasiveness of the technology shift. The picture as a whole is thus more difficult to take in and understand.
As with all major change processes, a game of opposites develops between control and freedom, order and chaos. The potential controllers aren’t only in government and parliaments throughout the world. Large companies also want to exercise control over the market.
Herbert Hoover, Gustaf Reuterswärd, Tidningarnas Telegrambyrå (The Newspapers’ Telegram Bureau), Radiotjänst, Swedish Radio and Television Act, SR Play, SVT Play, Web 1.0, Web 2.0, Web 3.0, Tim O’Reilly, Blogger, Second Life, America On Line, Organizing for America, Blackfoot Valley Dispatch, kissies.se, console games, X-box, PlayStation, Wii, World of Warcraft, Tetris, Internet Society
For the past 100 years the development of radio, along with media development in general, has shown that the sequence of advances is determined by a complicated interaction between various development factors. At the same time, it should be noted that there is a “homogenizing” force that, in the long run, tends to neutralize differences between various choices that are made more or less consciously.
The choice between commercial radio and pubic service radio was made consciously during the 1920s in both the USA and Europe. What lay behind these decisions was a power play about, not least, the threat the news press experienced from the new medium. One strategy from the newspapers was to dominate the new media; this was the path taken by America. Another strategy was to neutralize the new medium as much as possible, the European path. In so doing, Sweden’s route was clearly defined. Radio was developed within a separate company alongside newspaper companies but was, at the same time, a company that the newspapers were, practically speaking, able to control. The newspapers succeeded in both retaining their monopoly on news and news reporting in the mornings, and gaining control over the new medium.
Swedish Radio wasn’t allowed their own news reporting until 1947 but it took several more years before this was actually achieved. And news broadcasts, even when the newspaper-owned Swedish news agency Tidningarnas Telegrambyrå (TT) provided the content, were not aired during the morning and late morning hours, which left the first part of the day solely to the newspapers.
This doesn’t mean that development was determined exclusively by economic and structural factors. Individuals played very big roles in the decisions that were made. In the USA, then Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover’s fundamentally liberal economic stance had a great influence on American development. In Sweden, the initiative was handled for the most part by Gustaf Reuterswärd, president of TT, the Swedish news agency formed by several of Sweden’s largest newspapers. Reuterswärd was also named director of the newly formed Radiotjänst, (Radio Service).
Over time and with ongoing technological advances, the Swedish political system was unable to withstand the increased commercial pressure. But practically speaking, commercial radio in Sweden wasn’t given the same leeway as other nations in Europe and North America until spring of 2010. It wasn’t until then that Swedish Parliament allowed commercial radio broadcasts nationwide through the revised Radio and Television Act.
In a corresponding manner, we can describe the development of radio in the USA. While from the very beginning there has always been editorial radio in the USA, it wasn’t until the last 20 years that it has begun to play any major role. Most of the funding for public radio in the USA is still private. But a harmonization of the systems in the USA and Europe is underway.
The New Structure—is it Possible to Understand?
We find ourselves once again in the same situation as that of the media society in the mid-1920s. The question is asked, what will the new media structure look like after the new technology’s breakthrough? Back then it was about radio. Now it’s about Internet.
It first needs to be pointed out that the situation is different in one respect. The new radio structure was created very quickly following the decisive technological advance that made radio possible. The structure was in place only a few years after the introduction of the radio tube and it has remained ever since.
It was the same for television. During WWII television development was put on hold but directly afterwards, television broadcasts were sent regularly. Now, despite the passage of 15 years since the breakthrough of Internet, or rather the web, there remains a great deal of uncertainty about what a stable new media structure will look like.
One explanation for this could be that the development today is so much more pervasive than that of radio and television. It’s not simply about a new form of distribution of editorial content; it’s about a new technology that is changing all of society as well as new and sometimes costly devices. Technologically, the changes can be compared with the impact of steam engines or electricity rather than a technological change that affects only media.
Internet competes with radio and television but it also includes radio and television. The change directly affects these media as such. In one blow, the scarcity of broadcast time, which has been the most decisive factor in the regulation of radio and television for the past 100 years, is no longer an issue. At the same time, bondage to a program schedule for radio and television becomes an anachronism.
In principle, broadcast is transformed to individual communication. The listener and viewer can freely choose for themselves when to listen to a radio program on sverigesradio.se or when to see a television program on svtplay.se.
Scheduled programming is breaking up and with it comes the question: is this the demise of program scheduling that the ether media have relied on all these years? Radio, television and newspapers have up until now battled over the public for prime time; now the battle is around the clock.
Due to technological complexity, changes are occurring all the time. There won’t be some magic moment when the development is complete. Constant advances in technological development combined with the nearly limitless possibilities for use means that new services are being offered all the time. Additionally, the thresholds for establishing new services on the net are low. During recent years we’ve seen how new services are quickly established, grow in strength and then are replaced by other services. Now it’s Google, Facebook and Twitter that are the big, dominating services on the Internet. But it’s an open question whether or not these particular services will continue to dominate the Internet for an especially long time.
Every attempt to describe the “way it is” in terms of the changing media structure is made worthless by its state of constant flux. The moment one succeeds in describing the current situation, it’s changed again. It can be of value, however, to discuss the different categories that are changing on the Internet.
A generally accepted description of Internet development has, as its point of departure, the early web function that in principle made large amounts of information accessible and linkable via Internet through the structure – The World Wide Web.
This has since been come to be called Web 1.0—a web that still retains a part of the earlier publishing way of thinking: producers publish content that others can access. Web 2.0 is often associated with the IT consultant Tim O’Reilly, even if the term is not his. Very briefly, it represents the “interactive web”. This is the phase of development that we experience today with Wikipedia, blogs, Facebook, and all the other social media.
Communication isn’t one-way. Users are co-creators, as is the case with this web book. The economic laws defining producer and consumer are being questioned.
Web 3.0 is sometimes called the “semantic web”. Web 3.0 doesn’t exist yet; it’s actually nothing more than a concept and possibly a vision. No one knows more concretely what Web 3.0 will be. The assumption is that it will be a web with the capacity to intelligently connect content from different sources using texts contained in the content itself.
A key component here is “intelligence”. Computers will need to “understand” how the content of different texts might fit together. The assumptions regarding Web 3.0 link it to something reminiscent of artificial intelligence.
In using these terms – Web 1.0, Web 2.0, Web 3.0 – it’s important to realize that in all three cases, the definitions are fairly general. The terms are suggestive of a clearly delineated technological nomenclature, but such is really not the case.
The social media is a large flora of sites and services that in some way, although not at all in a general way, have something to do with the established mass media. (The terms used or discussed here are used as they have been established in common language use and not in any academic sense.) Traditionally, it’s been newspapers, radio and television that have usually been considered mass media. But, of course, journals of various types have also been and still are mass media. It’s more problematic to, in everyday usage, refer to books, phonograph records, CDs, videocassettes and films as mass media.
These “bearers of information” are, of course, media in the usual sense of the word. Social media – everything from Facebook and Twitter to Blogger and Second Life – can certainly fill important functions that up to now have been filled by mass media. What’s obvious is that these media are something totally different from the traditional newspapers or radio and television channels, and that the future will consist of a combination of social and traditional media.
There are no reliable accounting figures available for the biggest international sites. Google is thought to be the biggest service worldwide while Facebook has just eclipsed Google as the largest site in the USA. One could call search engines Internet’s internet. To a large extent, search engines create the structure that makes the combined content accessible to the typical users.
Google isn’t the oldest search engine but nonetheless it created a genre and with that, determined how the net is being used. In an early phase of development, “portals” were envisioned as a means of navigation on the Internet. It’s still the case that most media sites – that is, sites run by traditional media companies – retain the characteristics of portals.
The large remaining original portal is America Online . After its heyday at the end of the 1990s, it’s been plagued by considerable problems. Currently, aol.com is making a new effort and building up local news sites in the USA. It’s said that they’re planning to hire 500 journalists for their American operation – twice as many as are currently employed.
Naturally, it’s not difficult to imagine that portals per se are dying out as an Internet service. Nonetheless there are several innate insecurities in the search engines of today. First, producers of original material routinely attempt to keep their material inaccessible to search engines. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, the theoretically accessible amount of material is ever increasing and nearing astronomical levels. How will search engines, in the long run, be able to manage this ever-increasing body of knowledge? The frequent search engine user can already identify obvious and increasing deficiencies.
The category “blog” is wide. It’s like discussing the category “newspaper” in which is included everything from the New York Times to the Blackfoot Valley Dispatch . But it’s not only the individual blogger and his or her choice of theme that makes a difference. When one uses the net with a journalistic purpose, it becomes obvious that what blogs are and what they can be depends on the size of the society and the size of the language area within which the blogger operates.
The support for qualified bloggers is in many respects more easily found in large societies with very large language areas, in contrast to the small society. In the large language areas, the critical mass of individuals prepared to take the time to engage in quality discussions on the web may be more easily reached.
There are individuals who are willing to financially sponsor quality, non-profit sites on the Internet. Additionally, there are totally obvious cultural differences between different nations regarding willingness to participate in the public debate. Not least, the American academic culture invites societal involvement and open debate. But even in a small language area such as Sweden, it’s possible for niche bloggers to make an impact. Eighteen-year old Alexandra Nilsson’s blog Kissies has more than a million weekly visitors.
Arcade games – the games that were in gaming arcades along with pinball machines, can be described as first generation games. The console game – the games that are played through the television – and the hand-held games such as Nintendo’s Game & Watch – were launched during the 1980s. At about the same time, computer games began to be seen on personal computers. The only games that have, in principle, disappeared are arcade games.
Otherwise, hand-held games are flourishing, not only through Nintendo and Sony PlayStation, but also through Iphone, Android cell phones and Ipad, where sales of games have gone through the roof.
Console games are more popular than ever among the three competitors: X-Box (Microsoft), PlayStation (Sony) and Wii (Nintendo). Console games are played through the television but the consoles can be hooked up through the Internet so that players from the whole world can meet. In addition to this, there are computer games of which World of Warcraft is an important example.
Internet has become a game platform itself. Farmville on Facebook is one of the games available exclusively on Internet. One of the world’s best games, “Tetris” is available on all platforms: as a console game but also on cell phones, Internet and locally on the computer. At the same time, characteristics of the games change on the Internet. Internet games become interactive and take on distinctly social attributes. There are currently 12 million registered users of World of Warcraft. Last year, the global game market had a turnover of 53 billion dollars (over 350 billion Swedish crowns). It’s expected to be the second most expansive segment of the entire media and entertainment market during the coming five years. The question is if there are any limits to the expansion of games.
Can the Internet Be Closed?
It might sound like a cliché to point out that we have only taken the very first, uncertain steps into the new society. But it’s true. Most of us, if not all, are digital strangers—visitors to a world that basically no one knows much about yet.
When first telegraph and then radio and television broke through, the existing politics of the time were significant. This was especially apparent during the 1920s when radio was introduced and immediately made its impact.
The situation today is different. The Internet is complex, impossible to survey and control. Political decisions probably have a greater chance of blocking development than advancing it. There’s risk that the conditions for media development will differ in various parts of the world due to political decisions. At the same time, certain political decisions are necessary – not the least regarding expansion of the infrastructure.
As pointed out, the Internet is an unsurveyable and uncontrollable structure that no one owns or controls. In principle, the direction of its development is entirely predictable whereas the rate of development—and exactly what is going to happen—is totally unpredictable. One of the big uncertainties, but definitely not the only, is that we don’t know how big a setback can occur as a consequence of both repressive nations and monopoly-seeking companies, endeavoring to limit Internet freedoms.
Many limited communities where political and economic interests would rule and exploit the net, would then replace the large, open community of the net to which everyone has free access. Temporarily, such a setback could be significant. It’s important to realize that it’s not only powerful national politicians who decide the conditions for the net’s development. The risk clearly exists that big, individual companies seriously try to narrow the net in their attempts to monopolize or achieve dominance over technology and infrastructure.
The Economist published a summary report a few months ago delineating the existing threats to the openness of the web. One doesn’t need to be Marxist to see how government and capitalists are reaching out to each other. It should also be pointed out, however, that the big companies face the same problem as legislators when they try to win control over the Internet and Internet publications: complexity tends to make every control effort futile.
The comment on The Economist’s site from Cyberwriter , who questions the possibility of actually controlling the net is worth citing:
The more interesting question is will anyone actually manage to build an unbreakable wall, and the answer to that currently, is no. /…/ The profile of the people making the wall-busting products is younger, smarter, and far more determined than the old wall-builders, wearily cementing cyberbrick after cyberbrick, only to find thousands of invaders tunnelling beneath. We can't stop smuggling and illegal immigration and crime in the physical world; we certainly have no chance of stopping these issues in the online world.
Internet Society presents four different scenarios for Internet’s future: Common Pool, Boutique Networks, Moats and Drawbridges, and Porous Gardens, all of which are illustrated on YouTube.
One of the questions pertains to the relationship between the Internet and apps. If normal use of the Internet occurs more and more via smart phones, there is much to indicate that a more distinct “app behavior” is developing. It is, and will remain, difficult to orient yourself on the web via a cell phone, with its small display and inconvenient keyboard. Users can use apps to conveniently access that which they need.
Apps demonstrate that it is possible to manage micropayments for a particular type of content. Paying a few crowns for an app is not as noticeable as paying for an entire newspaper or journal subscription.