Nadia Eghbal

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Sometimes Things Change

This week, Chris Dixon voiced a concern many of us feel for the future of technology: that in the battle of proprietary services (like AOL or Facebook) vs. open protocols (like HTTP or SMTP), we’re currently on the wrong side of history. This topic is timely for those watching the story unfold between Meerkat and Periscope (which was recently acquired by Twitter).

Ev Williams’ response was that “sometimes things stay stuck”, pointing to radio, television, music and movies as examples of industries that were catalyzed by openness and innovation before eventually settling into a closed and centralized system. What, he asks, could push things in the other direction?

Here are some reasons to believe that the internet isn’t yet a lost cause:

  • Empowered content creators: There is a constant tension between creators’ personal brands and the platforms (ex. YouTube, Spotify) that enable them. In the end, with enough critical mass, mini moguls can always take their audience elsewhere.
  • Everyone is building the internet: It’s dead simple to build MVP-level products these days. The easier it is for anybody to shape the internet, the more agency people will want over their ideas.
  • Patronage: More and more people are interested in patronage as a viable form of monetization, from Patreon to YouTube stars to Google. If successful, patronage could wean more creators off of centralized platforms.
  • Blockchain: Blockchain technology, which enables Bitcoin, supports inherently decentralized systems. We’re still a long way from consumer-facing applications of blockchain, but it’s already begun to spark questions about what real community ownership could look like.

Beyond these trends, however, it’s important to recognize that unlike radio or television, the internet is more than just media. The internet is how we work, think, and communicate. Radio or television ARE distribution channels; the internet is an amalgamation of many of those channels - many radios or televisions - and new ones are being created all the time. (In recent memory, with varying degrees of success: Product Hunt, Meerkat, YikYak, Snapchat, Medium, Vine, Secret.)

Maybe Chris and Ev are both right. Maybe each channel is doomed to go through the cycle of innovation -> centralization, but those cycles repeat themselves rapidly on the internet. Empires are built and broken overnight, and the pendulum will continue to swing back and forth.