Silicon Bay Update: The Next Big Thing

September 23, 2011

Vacation is over, and now I live and work in San Francisco. That turned out better than expected.

Anyway, to celebrate this new job in the tech capital of the world, I feel like philosophizing on the future of the Internet. Specifically, I’m really baffled that debates about the “Next Facebook” or “Google Killer” still flare up whenever a new candidate starts buying PR. Google was supposed to be replacing Facebook with Buzz, and Groupon was supposed to be replacing Google with… Groupon (I guess?), only a year ago. Hasn’t anyone noticed that Facebook and Google aren’t actually going anywhere? I’ll be less surprised if AT&T splinters by the end of the year.

The idea of a Facebook or Google “killer” might just be a harmless cliche, but I would guess that it is driven by more than simple memetics. It requires a certain perspective on the Internet, one that strikes me as rather primitive. What I’m talking about is the implied assumption that one virtual community is going to “kill” the others and then gradually start sucking up all Internet traffic like a giant virtual singularity. Just today, a new wave of stories appeared suggesting that Facebook could “become” the Web.

This assumption does make a sort of sense when what happened to the telephone networks is considered, but it completely fails in the context of a packet-switching network like the Internet. AT&T (and a few others) still own all the wires, but they have no control over what I do online. Google can influence what I see, and Facebook can influence who I stay in contact with, but neither can ever prevent me from looking up desk repair tips on a woodworking forum, or even from starting a new desk-repair-based community! That is not how Internet works.

Internet has a long tail, as they say, but that idea is often misunderstood to explain obscure products on Amazon. In fact, The Long Tail includes all the other websites that do what Amazon won’t do! Internet is prepared for the new and unexpected, because it has unprecedented diversity. That is the real power of the online economy – and what scares established media companies so very much.

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