A Hyper-polar Internet

Recently, lots of folks have asked me what I think the future of this Web 2.0 thing will hold. I give my token answers — users expressing themselves, creating their own content, mass customization of web experiences, online conversations, attention economy, multitasking, widgets, bonsai kittens, Muppet porn, State of the Union remixes, and so on. Most people eat that answer up.

But that answer never satisfies me. While most folks are caught up in updating their MySpace profile or watching narcoleptic pets on YouTube, a deeper transformation is happening right in front of us. In this hyper-polar Internet, large sites still draw the most attention and revenue while an ever-growing number of smaller sites increasingly disrupt the Internet landscape and invade our everyday lives.

I take no credit for inventing the term “hyper-polar”. That honor goes to Moises Naim, who I saw on Fareed Zakaria‘s excellent PBS news show on international issues, Foreign Exchange. Rather than mis-translate the concept, I’ll let Naim explain it in his own words from a Financial Times article:

What is coming – and in some important ways is already here – is a hyper-polar world where many large, powerful actors coexist with myriad smaller powers (not all of which are nation-states) that greatly limit the dominance of any single nation or institution.

Naim continues, saying that these micro-powers have great new opportunities in the world, but these opportunities come with a loss of stability — stability that was once enforced by the major powers. This is similar to the concept of a “nonpolar” world; the importance is that we’re not in a unipolar (U.S. dominated) or bipolar (U.S. vs. U.S.S.R.) world as in the past. A hyper-polar world is the world of terrorist groups, religious zealots, criminals and smugglers, and mega-corporations and the power they hold over governments and worldwide political, environmental, economic, and social events.

Not as obvious, this is also the story of every Web 2.0 company ever made, bloggers, podcasters, video bloggers, every other individual and group creating new content online, the Creative Commons, Second Life, micro news operations, content aggregators, web site remixes, and so on. Even though the Internet is becoming a part of our daily lives, it still has the power to disrupt and change other events in our lives.

Let me offer some examples of this from the hyper-polar Internet. The first national news story that I can remember where a blog was involved was the incident with the forged GWB National Guard papers, as reported by Dan Rather on 60 Minutes where GWB supposedly skipped out on his duties. A day after that story aired, Power Line Blog posted the story on their site. Within a few hours, they received enough evidence to conclusively prove that the document was a forgery — news which slowly percolated back up the news chain until the major news networks got a hold of it and forced Dan Rather off high and mighty CBS and on to fledgling cable channel HDNet.

Here are some more examples of smaller actors disrupting bigger powers. Facebook received backlash from over 100,000 of its users when they added a privacy-breaching feature. 100,000 individual users probably wouldn’t make a difference, but their united effort was enough to make national headlines in several periodicals. A left-wing site ambushed Google News and took the top spot with amusing results. Online video has accelerated the spread of stories like the Saddam execution video, the tasering of a student at UCLA, and lonelygirl15. Howard Dean made an unprescedented presidental run driven largely from communications and donations made via the Internet. And the best examples of this are yet to come.

To be clear, the bigger powers (whoever they are) in this hyper-polar era aren’t about to implode or go away. Instead they will have to face greater uncertainty about their and their competitors’ futures. For example, Fox is not going away (sadly). 24 is ridiculously popular, and Fox will keep making that show until Keifer is rolling around in a wheelchair, holding the gun in his mouth, pulling the trigger with his tongue, and sleeping while drooling for 18 of the 24 hours. But it takes a Fox to produce 24 because of the time, money, and other resources required to create shows like that. If you don’t like Fox or 24, just replace it with the TV show and channel of your choice. (Don’t watch TV? Then how do you live?)

Fox will be affected though. There are hundreds of other network and cable channels competing against Fox for your TV attention. The good news is that there’s enough eyes watching TVs to keep those hundreds of stations on the air, even if some of them are seen by only a handful of peopole. The bad news is that every channel now has hundreds of channels of “competition” (because The Souffle Network is hardly competition for Fox). And you never know which of those channels will launch the next big addictive television program, especially since there’s hundreds of places where that new program can come from (like The Souffle Network’s new hit “Souffle On You”). Yes this is related to the long tail of television, and I’ll write more about that in the future.

For its great explanatory power, hyper-polar is not predictive about how what new forces will form or how they will disrupt. This is a metaphor for understanding the phenomenon, not a crystal ball for showing us how things will pan out. But just to satisfy your craving (and I’ll admit it — to stroke my ego), here’s a prediction about what’s coming next as seen through a hyper-polar lens.

The Internet, for better or worse, is built on advertising. (For proof, look at the beating Yahoo! took when they announced a delay of their new advertising platform, or check where Google’s profits came from the last quarter.) And advertising is built on attention — flashing banners, fifteen second commercials before videos, full page ads you have to watch before getting a link to click through, etc. You need a huge site like Google or MySpace to draw an audience big enough to make significant profits from advertising.

At the same time, Internet audiences are fickle. MySpace and other sites surrounding it are soaking up more and more of peoples’ Internet time, where years (or months?) ago they might have been browsing eBay for hours on end. One site is absorbing attention, so another site is losing viewer time. What can those losing sites do to fix it?

There’s no way eBay can compete with MySpace for a viewer’s time. Instead, eBay needs to find a footing in the MySpace world. How do they do that? Widgets. Let users put an eBay list in their profile featuring their favorite items, auctions they’re watching, or items they’re selling. This way eBay is getting viewer time even though the viewer is really on MySpace. And the best part about widgets is that they can go from site to site, outlasting MySpace and wherever the fickle audiences migrate to after that.

This also shows you how sites like PhotoBucket and Slide have nudged their way up the Internet hierarchy into prominence. You don’t need to compete with MySpace; instead fashion yourself into a compliment of the site. Widgets aren’t the only solution to this problem, but they’re the solution du jour and will be until the next big thing comes along. And before I forget — MySpace disrupted the old guard of the Internet and made itself a staple of today’s Internet. Slide and PhotoBucket came from out of nowhere and are now staple sites because of MySpace.

Unfortunately, this spells doom for some fledgling social network sites (SNS). Since advertising is the business model most have chosen, SNS sites that can’t get the numbers will fall out of existence. MySpace is on the short list of sites that will stick around. Bebo and Hi5 are probably around for the long run too. Niche sites like Tagged or TeamSugar may have a place in this ecosystem as well. But volatility is a trademark of a hyper-polar world, and nobody can predict when these sites will pass into memory or which sites will succeed.

This should be enough to show you that the Internet is really a hyper-polar playground for new sites, ideas, and interactions. I find it a useful metaphor for framing my other observations and opinions about the state of the Internet, and I’ll happily expand on those in ramblings to come.

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