Kevin McCann, partner in our Atlantic offices, loves the Internet. He was once a full-time developer during the dot com boom and bust and will generally talk about the web and society all day if you let him.
You started innocently enough. A single screen, white background, text, a few links. You didn’t even have any meta data. You had the kinetic energy of an atom bomb but most of us went about our business, unaware of what just happened.
Truly you underachieved in the beginning; just another way to display words and pictures. Enhanced MS Word (or WordPerfect) documents, benignly hinting at greater things with the amazing hyper-link, and phrases like “structured data”. That was the key, for those who were really paying attention. But the foreshadowing was lost.
When the wars started, we began to really miss the point. Browsers, your paleo-container, surged in an arms race. Netscape, Altavista, AOL, Internet Explorer. An industry exploded overnight, mimicking what we’ve done with other new technologies: Betamax vs. VHS, 8-Tracks vs. albums. Mosaic, Opera, Navigator, Mozilla. Who would be your tamer? For a dark age, this was what mattered most.
Then epiphany landed: we were thinking too small. Just like documents could be connected, people could be connected too. You were pure information, a thousand times better than a Nielsen rating, so much bigger than a browser. Because you (at your best) followed standards and patterns (thank you W3C), you could be searched, matched, mined. You could be parsed and crawled. You could collect data just as much as you could present it. You started to resemble your potential, an undiscovered Michael Jordan making his first layup.
More of us got the point: there was no barrier to publishing. Blogging was our printing press. Markets became conversations, and old hierarchies that had existed for centuries were tipped on their side. Everyone was media.
Social media. The power of documents linking together became the power of people linking together. Friends, connections, pokes, likes, followers, interactions, shares. Every digital twitch a data point collected, sold, analyzed, clustered, remixed, look-a-liked, mined. A marketer’s dream, a researcher’s nirvana, adrenaline for democratic movements, a revolution for capitalism. E-commerce, micro-loans, crowd-funding, micro-targeting, drip automation. Every one an influencer in their own network. Virality is aspirational. Celebrity totally achievable.
And social is now old hat in 2016, your 25th year, just a toddler in hypertext years. You made it easy for anyone to create content, so everyone did (even unintentionally), each of us our own NYTimes every single day. Your known world is over 5 billion pages strong and counting. Necessity the mother of invention, we need artificial intelligence just to understand you. Algorithms creating algorithms, fractals of ones and zeroes. We see the rise of profound pattern recognition, our own behavioural data a mirror back on our true selves. We see the Internet of Things. We see a million posts a second. We see a luxury that’s become a necessity, oxygen of the economy, innate and habitual now, changing how we think, act, talk, love, live.
I can’t wait until you turn 50.