But those Web 2.0 values of openness, ease of use and sociability that went well beyond the social platforms themselves are now being rethought as online content providers and platform creators feel out new ways to make their properties pay. At the same time, it seems clear that what makes the open web beautiful is working to undermine it. As ever, the internet is changing both for the better and for the worse. Here's a look at five things that could end the awesomeness.
1. The death of net neutrality
The past six months has been a disheartening period for anyone tracking the debate over net neutrality, the idea that internet service providers should treat all content providers equally and not, for example, provide faster transmission speeds for companies who pay for it or block others that have undesirable content.
In April, Comcast won a ruling allowing it to slow its customers' access to a file-sharing service called BitTorrent. It was a major setback to net-neutrality proponents, even if Comcast and its competitors haven't announced plans to apply it on a broader basis. Then this summer, Google, a longtime fan of net neutrality, and Verizon together floated a proposal that wireless internet not be subject to the principle of net neutrality, along with something called "additional, differentiated online services" -- whatever that means. The FCC, meanwhile, has tabled the issue of net-neutrality laws until after the midterm elections. Sure, big telecoms like AT&T and Comcast have been vocal about supporting an open internet, but, with these events and the potential revenue that could come from the death of neutrality, it's not impossible to imagine the emergence of a tiered internet with clear sets of haves and have-nots and, consequently, a great deal of confusion and inconvenience for consumers, content-makers and marketers alike.
2. The Rise of the content agribusiness
By now, the basic workings of Associated Content, Demand Media and a growing list of knock-off companies need little introduction. These content farms are composed of a huge amount of low-cost articles or videos created with the express purpose of turning up at the top of search results. The overall impact of these businesses is to muck up search-result pages with low-quality how-to content.
Last week, I entered "How to tell if you're depressed?" into the Google search box. Depression, obviously, is a serious matter, and a properly functioning internet would, in response to that query, come back with some resources that would push the searcher to a medical-health professionals. You know, someone who knows what's he's talking about. Instead, the first page of results was dominated by About.com pages, which basically pointed to online tests and included directions such as "read the directions," and Suite101.
These sorts of articles usually don't qualify as knowledge, and they barely rise to the definition of information. It's hard to imagine the person who, if they knew what they were about to get before clicking, would actually choose these articles as effective answers to their questions. What's really scary is that there's sure to be more of these farms. Yahoo plopped down $100 million for Associated Content, while Demand is approaching an IPO expected to be in the $1.5 billion range. When it comes to content, quality is becoming a secondary consideration to cost-efficient, advertiser-friendly audience aggregation, and that's making the web a worse place.
3. Wishing the web dead
Last month, Wired Editor Chris Anderson published a very bullish piece on our app-y future titled "The Web Is Dead. Long Live the Internet." His kicker: "As it moved from your desktop to your pocket, the nature of the Net changed. The delirious chaos of the open Web was an adolescent phase subsidized by industrial giants groping their way in a new world. Now they're doing what industrialists do best -- finding choke points. And by the looks of it, we're loving it."
Mr. Anderson expresses a very publisher-centric vision of the future in which we will see premium mobile apps in part replace the open web where consumers don't pay for anything. His headline aside, this probably amounts to something more like a death wish than actually zipping up the body bag. The web, after all, is still growing, to which the incredible growth of something like Facebook attests. Nevertheless, you can see this sort of statement providing plenty of inspiration for awkward attempts to herd consumers into shelling out a bit for tools that that will deliver much the same content in the form of a slightly altered experience. That, to me, is a lot of what iPad apps are, at least in their early days. Of the few dozen apps I've been playing with, few are essential, none have really been worth paying much for, and most pale next to versions that open in a browser and can thus be integrated into the social web through tweets, Facebook shares and so forth.
Don't get me wrong: We're all for publishers making money, and the iPad and other mobile devices may provide a real solution. But overheating at the slightest glimmer of hope will only lead to awkward lunges forward. Remember, post-adolescence can be kinda ugly, too.
4. Attack of the trolls
Trolls, those anonymous dudes who post nasty stuff in online communities, have always been with us and always will be. But what's alarming now is the fact they have something like a professional organization in the form of 4chan's /b/ board. There's a lot to be said for the overall proposition that people should have places online where they can have anonymous, ephemeral communications that don't live on in perpetuity. It's a response to the endless data trail that is Facebook, a privacy-invading nightmare to some. At the same time, there have been some nasty results -- including suicides -- stemming from trolling's excesses, namely its intense, random meanness.
While these make for good "Dateline"-type sensational stories, trolling is only the most extreme instance of another symptom of the internet's ailments: the difficulty of building conversations that don't descend into some sort of madness, whether ideological or otherwise.
An interactive medium at its core, the internet should facilitate conversation. But, as anyone whose ever tried to manage or facilitate or steer that discussion knows, it often doesn't work out that way and even the most robust commenting environments, like Gawker's, are prone to descend into schtick. I think it's noteworthy that Andrew Sullivan, one of the most famous and successful bloggers around, still doesn't allow comments on his Daily Dish blog for The Atlantic. And it's not hard to see other sites going that way, given the difficulty in managing commenters and the little payoff that often comes from big commenter communities. At some point, it might just not be worth the bandwidth it takes to support them, which is kinda sad.
5. Interruptive marketing is here to stay
I wrote a piece back in 2008 arguing that the most effective way of marketing online isn't to bludgeon your consumers with these ad forms that are really just digital updates of TV spots and print spreads. The web, I argued, is about conversation, talking directly to consumers with content that's useful or entertaining enough that it pulls people in.
There's some evidence that that message has been received. Witness the rise of brand-owned Facebook pages and Twitter accounts, not to mention the growth of social-media roles both at agencies and in-house in marketing departments. Serious investments are being made, and some good stuff is getting done. But that innovation hasn't come at the expense of pop-ups and banners. Sure, those old-school forms look better than they used to, but they don't make for a consumer experience that's in any way different at its essence from the plight of a consumer who was bumping into a pop-up in 1999. Today, as ever, they still plaster a brand and some messaging in-between a consumer and what he or she really wants to see.
Looked at in one way, there's nothing wrong with this. Publishers need money, brands need eyeballs looking at messages they control, and advertising agencies need scalable executions. Ads are quick and (relatively) easy to come up with, design and place -- and they're often an important tool in driving traffic to more sophisticated, useful, and forward-looking marketing efforts. And, let's face it, not all brands can easily play the content game.
What's worrying is that paid media still acts as a crutch for marketers and, as they walk lightly into a world where they can own content, they're leaning too hard on it, wasting money and forgetting about how consumers are experiencing your brand in these sorts of ads. Pop-ups and banners still haven't really gone away; browsers have just gotten better at blocking them. And unwieldy pre-rolls before videos are still a big issue. Look at online ad projections. Back in May, eMarketer dropped a bullish five-year forecast that sees spending on banners -- yes, banners -- rise 8% this year and almost 12% in 2012. Of course, paid media spending doesn't have to trend to zero to demonstrate that online marketing is becoming more sophisticated, but the growth of -- for want of a better word -- dumb ad types isn't exactly proof that digital marketing is getting better; nor is that subjective feeling that brands are still mostly talking at me, not with me.