After years of optimistic predictions about Internet changing the world, it has become fashionable to talk about the threats to Internet over the last year. The Economist ran a story about the Internet breaking down into various national networks, each with different rules. Then, Tim Barnes Lee and other founders of the World Wide Web spoke against the various Walled Gardens, such as Facebook (and Google), which are sort of private gardens in the cyberspace, each again with its own rules. In a way, these seem to be the 'old' society gnawing back into the cyberspace, and shackling its free for all flow with the the usual borders and fences that we are used to.
How much of this is really a threat? I must admit that I spend a lot of time on Facebook these days and keep playing The Kingdom of Camelot on one window as I do other things (as I am doing now). Indeed, my friends and family are on Facebook, and my self, as constructed on Facebook (and on Google sites, including Blogger), is quite as valuable as my own, real, self. Last year, when my ex-employer usurped my mobile number, I would have lost my connections altogether had it not been for sites like Facebook or Linkedin. In a way, I spend more time on these sites than I do at either home or office (because I surf from both places, as well as from trains and airport lounges). If there was a such a thing available, I should have given up my British passport and opted for a Facebook one.
This says Facebook draws me to the Internet, rather than driving me away. But, here is the other side: Facebook is closed. You have to be on Facebook to be seen, or connected to. You can't be on Facebook while your friend is on Orkut. And, hence, a multitude of problems: Multiple identities, as one has to maintain Facebook and Linkedin and Orkut perhaps (particularly if one is from India or Brazil) and may be even hi5; and, of course the fact that the gate pass to these private gardens is your identity itself. They let you in if you let them have yourself, all the details, photos, relationships, flirtations, movements, conversations everything. Kingdom of Camelot is exciting, but the opportunity cost is the loss of sight of the entire Internet.
I am indeed not blaming Facebook alone. This debate educated me to think about how my Internet usage changed so significantly. I was an early user, going on to Bulletin Boards and participating on the chatter, moving from link to link when the Web came in. Most of my time, then, which was much shorter durations during the day of dial-up access, was spent in jumping from one place to another; these days, even counting the mistaken clicks, I do not visit more than 10 sites. The address bar history reveals a short list: My blog and two tracking sites, my company website and email, Gmail and Yahoo Mail, BBC, Amazon and Abebooks, Facebook and Linkedin and occasional visits to magazines and journal sites (which are mostly done through my mobile now). The problem is that there is no difference between the short and the long list. The variety on the Internet may be dying.
One can indeed counter this and say that the dynamism of the Internet keeps this a fair game. I spent an inordinate amount of time on eBay buying various photographic equipments and books about 4 years back; it has all but stopped now. I have not logged onto MSN Messenger or Yahoo Chat (except when I am in South East Asia) for a while, and started using Gtalk or Facebook chat instead. My ICQ account may have been deactivated, but increasingly, my family is on Skype. As I moved out of India, my custom shifted from Indiaplaza to Amazon and my news reading from Rediff News to BBC. So, unlike the nation-based fragmentation that The Economist is worried about, the commercial private gardens are far more transient and dynamic.
But, think of this company which has $53 billion in valuation (but a private company, so its business practices may not be scrutinized closely and 500 million users: It is too powerful an entity to give away your data too. In fact, all you give becomes their property, and you can hardly come out of it. The dynamic nature of the business is actually a problem: My personal data suddenly become like Pakistani nuclear weapons, I need to know who has access to them and what guarantees do I have that they will remain safe if and when Facebook implodes.
This is no way a pledge that we should go back to pre-Facebook phase. We can't. But what can happen is that the consumers can express a preference and move towards an Open network. The problem is that till the time Facebook remains this powerful and everyone worth their salt believe that closed networks are actually the way to go, no one can or will move towards an Open model. Imagine this problem in the context of Telecom and you will get it: Let's say, one player, gets 80% of all market and decide not to connect to anyone else (which would have happened, without public regulations). This may not just kill off the competition. This may eventually undermine the telecom systems (as everyone then needs to find another system of communication for the 20% who got left out) or create a social divide. This may not happen in Telecom, for regulations exist. This will not even happen on the Web, as this is an open and ubiquitous standard, and regulations indeed exist. But this can very well happen in Facebook-land (or Google-land) one day, because this is unregulated and only left to be governed by the profit motive.
On another scale, this transformation of Internet into private communities, is in line with the McDonaldization, to follow George Ritzer's formulation. The dimensions of the system, efficiency (Facebook is indeed self-service), calculability (everything is measured and boxed), predictability (the API standards, the politically correct environment under the watch of the big brother) and control (it owns us) are present. If Internet was our great hope to escape such straight-jacketing, the Facebook et al are eating away that hope and turning the cyberspace exactly like the old media space. This is indeed what we should be watching out for.