Are You Neglecting The Freedom Of The Internet?
The internet is such a powerful tool for freedom. It allows the individual to have a public domain. Literally. Any person with $15 can go on the computer and buy a virtual webspace. Then you buy a code (URL) that gives people access to you typing it in (like the process of dialing a phone number). Then boom. You now have your own space to share or sell almost anything you can think of to an audience in the billions.
When the internet first became popular, my early adopter father bought a few domains for fun. He actually began blogging in 1998 before the word “blog” was a coined term. I remember him always encouraging to buy my own domain names and email addresses.
It was sort of like he was teaching me how to have digital class. He would say “Why do you use ‘@aol.com’ at the end of your email Alex? You're only advertising for them.” Little did he realize that I wanted my email to end in “@aol.com” because that’s what all my friends had. I would be weirdo if mine was different. This brings me to my point.
I joined the internet at a different time than my dad. I wasn’t aware of the ownership factor possible. I mean, I kind of did, because he kept bugging me about it, but as you can see, I was uninterested. All I knew was AOL and I was happy. I could chat with my friends from school and use funny internet slang. Done and done. I later began to use Myspace and that was my new vehicle to communicate.
My dad would be in my ear again. “Why don’t you just make your own domain name? You can just post stuff on there.” Again, I was annoyed. Dad just didn’t get it. It wasn’t cool to do that. None of my friends had their own web pages. We all just went to Myspace.
Now being an adult that has built a real relationship with both the internet and social media, I’ve noticed a few alarming patterns. The perspective my dad applied to the internet was one of an early settler. It’s like he saw the internet the way a pilgrim saw the empty plains of the north east. You don’t need a third party. You just grab you materials and build.
Because I came in after that and because I was exposed to AOL right away, I didn’t have that mindset. The only way I saw my friends communicate were through these third party platforms. That was fine by me.
Now, before I go any further, I want to acknowledge that this is an observatory piece. I am not bashing social media whatsoever. I would be an absolute fool if I did. Social media platforms are responsible for most of the meaningful relationships in my life. My education, my entertainment and importantly, my business.
Social media is by far the most powerful tool to connect and explore people globally. But, I do have to ask, “How is the average person thinking about the internet?” Do we see it as my dad does? A free virtual space to set up shop and build? Zuckerberg did.
Do we realize that the same box you type “Facebook.com” in is the same box where you can make up your own “.com”?. Zuckerburg, Bezos, Eric Schmit and Larry Page had to buy a domain name at some point. They all had to start with a fresh blotting page of the web before they built it out into the empires they now own.
They saw the internet as a space to set up shop, to dig from the ground up. They had the same perspective as my dad. They leveraged the access of this populous, virtuous space and creating something there. Only, they became billionaires because of it (thanks a lot dad!). :-P
This access has tremendously disrupted the biggest media and information outlets in the world. Once upon a time only 4–6 media companies had the microphone. Now, everybody does.
Ah, finally. A place where the people can share their ideas and express themselves. Free from the bureaucracy often built into large media and information companies. But wait, this idea brings me to my next point. The early adopters knew how the internet would impact free speech and the free market. The people who came after that, I’m not so sure about.
Even though in most of the western world the internet is still much a free space to share, sell and build, most people don’t know it. I’m not sure if people who have joined the internet in the past ten years bring that mindset to the table. I'm confident to say that they don't.
The new people come with a mindset resembling the first television watchers. “I’m here to get my information/entertainment from the same 3–4 third-party outlets and that's it.” Big internet media companies feed this perspective by dominating on all the social channels.
Most of the internet spends time on a combination of only 6-7 sites. We binge on Facebook, watch our shows on Netflix, search things on Google and buy stuff on Amazon. Only a few sites are needed to do pretty much anything you can imagine. But there's a consequence to this.
As with most media companies, the business model goes like this:
- They create crowds of interested people to sell to.
- They record these gathered interest based on the content they provide (and with the internet, the shared information that is given to them).
- This equips them to offer juicy ad packages to agencies/marketers who desire the access to these crowds.
When being subjected to the content that the big media /information/sharing companies provide, you are not the customer. You are the product.
Why is this a concern? Because it shifts the dynamic and point of the content. It doesn’t position us as consumers to trust that we will get the “best” content. Since we aren’t the customers, our concerns and standards are not the priority. So who are the real customers?
We can’t be the customers because we don’t pay anything to use social media. We will only pay the companies if we advertise with them. Exactly. That's where you switch sides from product to customer. When you pay these companies, you are now the customer. It is the best interest to make sure they have the best product (aka you). This is what they use for the marketers interested in buying ads or valuable data.
So what makes the you the best product? Well it’s not about your happiness. These companies don’t make money by making you happy. They make money from you oversharing and being addicted to their platforms. Whether you are sharing if you are giddy, angry, disgusted or in love is besides the point. What’s most important is that you share and that you're on it, always. Which ever company can fine-tooth comb this data, package it and sell it, wins.
These business model are risky to it's "users" because they can be very deceptive. Besides it's evils, it’s one of the most profitable and smartest business models history has ever known and it can only exists because of the power of the internet.
Offer a service for free. Make it spread. When enough people are using it the collected data compounds into economic value. Unfortunately, many people are unaware that this is the business model. It's our responsibility to know this when using the platforms.
It was a problem that 4–6 media companies controlled our media and information. Why are we letting it happen again? Especially being that we have 100x’s the access to other resources? If we have access to millions of websites, why do we choose to spend our time on just a few? Is that helping us or hurting us? Would it help to be more autonomous and critical about how we get and give our information?
Opting in to only use a small pool of third-party outlets to is an injustice to the potential of the internet. The internet is not just a place for cat videos (but for the love of God, we can't get rid of the cat videos).
The internet is a wireless, free network where we can connect with pretty much anyone in the world. We can share powerful ideas, content and build tribes. It’s like having the whole world be at the same place at the same time but except your at home. It’s a phenomenon. It’s what the inventors, artists and creators of the past would’ve died to have. Imagine Picasso’s website or Plato’s blog.
I bring back my original question. “How are we thinking about the internet?”. Although it’s great that it’s enhancing free speech and free market opportunities so that companies like Amazon, Twitter and Google can exist. How is the lack of understanding these set freedoms negatively impact the newcomers? How does it stop us from leveraging it like Zuckerberg did? Do people realize there is a virtual world outside of the 3–4 websites they take part in?
How can the ideology my father applied to the internet resonate with the new era of web users? It’s remarkable how it’s not that the access to the internet that has changed. It’s the perspective towards the access of the internet.
I want to thank my dad for encouraging me to buy my own domain names and email addresses. I still plan to use third-party services as much as possible to provide and share my information. But I will be applying the perspective my dad taught me at the same time.
The internet is a tool for freedom. Let’s not forget that.