The internet was heralded as the great equaliser. Futurologist predicted it would be a leveller, breaking down barriers in the physical society so that everyone in the world is connected through one big happy clappy network. Indeed it looked like this prediction was going to come to fruition, but unfortunately cracks have begun to appear along national, socio-demographic and loyalty fault lines.
Well a little sensationalism doesn't hurt, does it?
There has been a bit of coverage lately on how the internet is fragmenting into pockets of closely connected networks that are joined to other pockets by bridges, a term I've borrowed from network theory. The fault lines along which it is slowly but surely diverging are national, socio-demographic and loyalty based.
National fault lines
This visualisation by University of California’s Co-operative Association for Internet Data Analysis shows the nationality of Internet traffic. Unsurprisingly the pink that dominates the visualisation represents American traffic, British in dark blue, Italian in pale blue, Swedish in green and unknown countries in white.
The visualisation illustrates the pockets of networks far more eloquently than I can describe. If you look carefully at the pockets you will see they are made up of closely interconnected networks of the same colour which implies that the majority of traffic stays within national boundaries.
As the internet grows its traffic will consolidate around these pockets because the additional growth will come disproportionately from and stay within the nation bound networks thus fragmenting the internet even more. Governments have also started to put up firewalls thus amplifying the effect. For example, Australia wants to ban websites its government consider pedophilic whilst the Chinese authorities want to ban anything they deem unsuitable.
Data from Nielson shows that the time we spend on social networking is growing. In December 2009, when Vincos first analysed which was the most popular social networking platform by country their visualisation implied that outside of Facebook, preferences also fragments along national lines. But they re-ran the analysis just six months later, and it is now clear that Facebook is winning that particular race. However Ethan Zukerman, a senior researcher at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University, proves that even online birds of a feather stick together. In fact we don't tend to just confine ourselves to fellow nationals, our online social circle is as tightly defined as our real life one. This leads me nicely to the second type of fault line.
Socio-demographic fault lines
In his talk at TED 2010 Zukerman shows how certain Twitter hash tags are followed nearly exclusively by African Americans whilst others solely by White Americans. Analysis of Facebook membership in Brazil versus Orkut illustrates that Facebook tends to be used by the better off. Vincos suspects this may be true of India as well. As far back as 2007, MySpace became known as 'The Ghetto' amongst American teenagers which leads you to the conclusion that social networks simply mirroring the real world's structure of class and race divides. With various companies closed platforms it's hard to see how these divides will not continue to widen. And again a nice link to my next fault line, the loyalty one.
Loyalty fault lines
With rose tinted glasses on, I'm going to call this a 'loyalty' fault line rather than a 'commercial' one. Once people choose and use the companies they want to interact through I believe they become rather attached or loyal to them. For example the first place I went to was Google to set up this blog as I use it to interact with old and new places on the world wide web everyday. This also means I contact my friends on Facebook through its internal e-mail system, use Opera to keep track of my RSS feeds and use my iPhone app to read Vanity Fair. This sounds reasonable enough behaviour, but it's loyalty like this that means we become wrapped up in company siloed networks which again fragment the internet in a different way.
The visualisation from Experian Hitwise shows how traffic flows between the top 30 websites in the UK. The size of the planet represents the website’s share of internet visits whilst the clickstream between them is represented by the arrows. An arrow's width indicates the amount of traffic moving between the sites. If you look at the traffic flows you'll see how much traffic companies like Microsoft and Yahoo! send between their different properties. Again cornering traffic and fragmenting the internet.
The three fragmentation forces I talk about are fierce ones and they worry intellectuals who fight for net-neutrality. For me, if this is the way people wish to use the internet we may have to accept that our happy clappy one world, one web may not exist in the strength we had predicted. I do however hope and believe it will exist in one form or another with people willing to share and bridge in the open way we currently do.
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