The more I think about it, the more the internet reminds me of the development of American west.
First, we have the pioneers, the Lewis And Clark’s who venture out into the frontier and take detailed notes of what they see. These are the Lawrence Roberts, Bob Kahns, Vinton Cerfs, and Leonard Kleinrocks. The only real difference is that these people were actively developing the technology, while the frontier explorers were mostly just observers.
Soon, though, people saw value in the unclaimed territories, and started to shape the world. These were the Usenets and BBSs. People started making social structures instead of just physical ones as seen in this hilarious video.
The developing frontier gained quite a population, and slowly the east coast saw value in the new lands. These were the unfettered days of “homepages” where everyone was trying to carve themselves a niche, and doing it in whatever way they pleased. Most of them failed, but it was certainly a time of excitement and change as people explored their surroundings more thoroughly. This period was also characterized by creative energy and diversity, which makes it my favorite time in the internet’s history. I’m sure the equivalent period in the old west wasn’t quite as pleasant.
Then, of course, you have a boom. In the mid 1800s, it was the California Gold Rush. On the internet, it was the combination of the dot-com boom and the AOL avalanche. As there was some actual gold in California, there was also some real value on the internet, and companies “moved faster and with less caution than usual“. Sure, there were a lot of cities that gathered a large portion of the population, and some even lasted to this day, but most fell apart quickly. It was a sobering reality.
With the massive immigration of thousands of people from all over the world, there were bound to be some undesirable characters. Unfortunately, the anonymity of the internet made it useful for predators, in the same way the California Gold Rush brought disease, racism, and starvation to the frontier. Thankfully, these were only edge cases.
Seeing wisdom in skipping most of the boring bits of American history (especially the wars), the internet quickly matured, with large companies as well as hobbyists and everyone in between making themselves a home. Large scale organization took place and blogs propagated. I like to compare these to the Levittowns of the 1950s, where mass homogenization took over. And just like in the 1950s, it’s a nice time to live, but it’s a bit unfulfilling. At any rate, one would be somewhat hard-pressed to find any undeveloped parts of the frontier these days.
Finally, we come to the modern day, where things haven’t changed all that much. We’ve got some kickass new technology, and we’re really globalized, but not much more. I hope we’ve skipped over all the unpleasantness of the 1960s, and especially the wars. Unfortunately, we’re seeing history repeat itself in some ways.
And this is where the parallels end. We’ve hit realtime in both the internet and history itself, and we’re now seeing some interesting cross-breeding between the two. From here on out, we don’t know what will happen, but we’ll find our way like we always do.