I remember when I first used a computer to connect to another computer with a modem. It was a 286 PC with a CGA monitor, I think I was about 11 (it was right before my Hogwarts letter arrived), and it was awesome. I assumed WarGames was a realistic image of what an enthusiastic kid could do with a computer, so I was eager to explore the world’s top-secret databases.
In actual fact, the computer we were connected to was running IDEAnet, the Indiana Department of Education Anteater network (I may not be completely accurate on the acronym). It wasn’t ARPAnet, but thanks to Ferris Bueller, it was still a Matthew Broderick-equivalent level of access. I couldn’t change my grades–they weren’t actually tracked on computer yet–but my mother could get whatever teacher-related stuff she needed from it, and I soon discovered I could look at salary figures for any public school employee. This was deeply humanizing information in my eyes, and I think I defended my teachers to my friends as real people a little more vehemently because of it. It wasn’t blackmail-worthy, because the underpaid teacher is a stock punchline. But it drove home the point that soon, EVERYTHING would be connected via modems and there would be no limit to what you could learn if you were willing to scan enough phone numbers.
This was not the Internet. That came a few years later. We were active members of Prodigy, an online community which at the time was the sexy GUI alternative to CompuServe. What it did not offer was user-selectable IDs. For years, I gave people my email address (firstname.lastname@example.org, or possibly .com; well that’s going to keep me awake) and was indignant when they acted like it was hard to remember. AOL made this particularly bothersome, with their handles that you selected yourself and contained actual words. The fact that Prodigy introduced several of the core features that AOL used to become popular was outweighed by the fact that Prodigy never figured out how to turn innovation into actual success. On Prodigy, there was some click-to-turn-page graphic novel content, a sci-fi turn-based play-by-email game called Rebel Space, and bulletin boards where I first learned to communicate with people who only existed through text. Prodigy’s censorship and content control were remarkably ahead of their time; even Comcast has yet to suggest plans to ban users from referring to each other by their real names.
This was still not the Internet. When the Internet did arrive, it pretty much killed Prodigy. They experimented briefly with changing their membership plans from flat-rate to hourly usage, and never really stopped hemorrhaging memberships even when they switched back. When the Internet did appear, Prodigy provided WWW access through its own software, which sucked, but you couldn’t use another browser or communicate with a non-Internet Prodigy member. We left around this time, joining our first true ISP and embracing Netscape Navigator.
Truly Internet-enabled, I began to explore the world online and discovered that although it contained many people, most of the best-looking content came from commercial sources seeking to profit by their websites. This scenario is what started me writing this essay. From the beginning we users envisioned an Internet on which profit-based entities would be also-rans, unable to shift gears and adapt fast enough to stay current with what the cool kids were doing. Emoticons and BBS lingo (sorry kids, you didn’t invent LOL for texting; we came up with that on CompuServe and Prodigy) were cool precisely because you COULDN’T get them on a Tshirt–no business was savvy enough to recognize them as a cultural trend. Sure, the companies who paid geeks like us to make good websites for them produced really fancy content that individual users couldn’t compete with, but since the developers were straitjacketed in their activity by what some last-generation hack in the marketing department thought was good strategy, they weren’t infringing too much on the little guys’ creative territory. An animated GIF logo was impressive, yes, but it was the joke email (or ASCII art) that got circulated around the office and immortalized by distribution.
This didn’t last. Eventually businesses saw the point of really focusing their attention on the Internet, and began not only investing in it, they started hiring Internet users to come up with the IDEAS instead of just porting the ads from other media to a website. Some discovered that the Internet was a feasible medium for direct commerce; Gateway stands out in my mind as an early example of what e-business would become. As soon as that concept was accepted, the Internet changed. There was a huge commercialization wave; soon it became tricky to sift through my Dogpile webcrawler results to find content that wasn’t just there to sell me something.
Then an extraordinary thing happened: It folded in on itself. The very commercialization that was beginning to taint the content…started to change the way it interacted with user-generated content. Ebay provided an e-commerce platform to anyone, not just businesses. YouTube offered a clearinghouse for videos that previously found themselves shackled to bandwidth-limited personal homepages. Flickr allowed photos that previously only moved outward from the source to become searchable content that flowed inward toward the user. Napster, KaZaA, and others changed music back into something that was shared, a notion that was in danger as tape decks were replaced by CD players but CD burning was not yet convenient and easy. Yes, there was piracy, but it was, then as now, mostly a result of enthusiasm for content that was not being made available in the smartest way possible by the companies who wanted to control it. The Internet really looked like it was going to turn into a massive cultural exchange, free from greed-based restrictions.
This didn’t last. As new ways of accessing content became available, businesses who wanted to profit from it tried to regain control. Often the first response was to sue everybody they could identify who was involved in popularizing their stuff among audiences they themselves didn’t know how to reach. After a while, this became less popular (except among the MPAA, who remain, as ever, doggedly ten years behind the rest of the world) and was replaced by the practice of hiring younger geeks to help them use these channels for profit. Steam, iTunes, and Netflix took the place of the pirate websites as the most reliable way to get high-quality content. As usual, the convenience of allowing a business to collect things for you to buy has been spoiled somewhat by the huge limitations that a profit motive places on these services. Each of them is easily the most convenient way to get software, music, or movies…as long as they think the item you want is worth selling. Cost-benefit analysis is the silent censorship that ensures piracy will stay alive; people want what they want regardless of whether the business who owns that content wants to sell it.
I’m excited by the possibility that this is an ongoing pendulum effect. I can’t wait to see what the new big thing to get for free will be before companies jump on it and try to own it. My best guesses are video games and television. Television is already in crisis mode; options for viewing programs online are far superior to options available on TV but Hulu, the best online portal for television, is perpetually struggling to keep its participant content providers from yanking everything back into the vaults in a panic. The irony here is that Hulu itself is the hideous mutant offspring of GE, Newscorp, and Disney, and it still can’t seem to hold their confidence. They understand that people want the content to be free, and they even worked out a format in which commercials aren’t too obnoxious. But they panicked, and now it’s all but impossible to find any show on Hulu that has more than five episodes available.
Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog and The Guild are two of the best “pro-quality” indie TV projects I’ve seen, and they stand far above almost everything on “real” TV as far as quality. Comedy, certainly, is going independent. College Humor, Funny Or Die, Loading Ready Run, The Escapist, Onion News Network…these are a thousand times funnier than Saturday Night Live has been for decades. In fact, the only thing worth watching on Saturday Night Live now is the stuff from The Lonely Island, another independent group which got adopted as sort of an official relevance engine for the show. I look forward to seeing how commercialized TV programs continue to decay in favor of much better independent work, enabled by improvements and price drops in computer and video equipment.
Steam is the best software I hate right now. It makes so much sense as a video game marketplace concept, and yet I find myself much more impressed with the ten dollar games from unknown developers than with A-list $60 titles like COD:MW2. Straining, I can only think of three big-label games this year that really impressed me: Batman Arkham Asylum, Little Big Planet, and Brutal Legend. Oops, Wikipedia informs me that LBP actually came out last year. I’m pretty aware of what games are on the market, even if I don’t make an effort to play many of them when brand new, but in that same timeframe, I can name at least ten independent games which I enjoy just as much, many of which are free, and most of which are more creative concepts, made possible by not having to sell the idea to a slimy corporate pimp. I don’t see why this trend should change any time soon.
So there it is. My prediction is that we are about to undergo another big swing toward independent content on the Internet, and I can’t wait to see where it takes us.
Have you notice the same things? Was this post just way too long? Comment and tell me.