In the 1990s, most of us saw the World Wide Web as a liberating technology. Built atop the “network of networks,” there is no limit to how much information the Web can hold. And it’s incredibly fast: You can jump from one end of the globe to another in a split second just by clicking on a hyperlink. The Web gives consumers access to information on virtually any topic. And anyone can publish on the Web—usually for a fraction of what print media costs.
The Web promised to change everything—and in many ways it has.
Our expectations only seemed to grow as the number of users and websites increased. Many of us believed the Web would perfect the free-market system: all markets would be global in scale; buyers and sellers would always be well informed; and all transactions would occur at the speed of light.
The Web would give everyone yearning for freedom a platform from which to speak, and it would undermine and ultimately defeat anyone engaging in censorship. No government would be able to stem the free exchange of information and ideas.
It was hard to see any downside. The barriers to entry were remarkably low. Anyone with a personal computer and a dial-up modem could get on the Web. High speed access over cable TV networks was rolling out, and telephone companies promised a competing high speed service using phone lines.
We celebrated the fact that the Internet was a self-organized, unregulated, “dumb network.” The days when we had to play according to the Phone Company’s rules were finally over. No single entity could control the Internet. Most of the intelligence resided at the edges of the network—in the hands of end users and a multitude of small websites.
What could possibly go wrong? The technology was evolving so rapidly that it seemed the moment a threat to competition or choice appeared it was already on the road to obsolescence.
If there was a first mover advantage, we theorized, there was also a second and a third mover advantage. No one worried about the network effect—a large company’s ability to extend its market lead by acquiring customers at a faster rate—because online markets were in constant flux. New companies with new solutions emerged daily. Competition was always just one click away.
What we didn’t see—what we refused to see—was the Internet’s winner-take-all dynamic. Scott Cleland calls it the Internet Choice Paradox: The Web offers consumers what looks like infinite variety, but most users eventually select favorite search engines, social networks, and news sites. Information producers trying to reach a large audience soon find that they have very few choices. A relatively small number of sites become the Web’s information gatekeepers and e-commerce toll collectors.
That could only mean one thing: the Internet would enter a period of concentration (of information) and consolidation (of companies). The technology might continue to evolve, but only a few business models would thrive. A small group of winners would seize control.