As Richard Rogers points out in his book, Digital Methods, the Internet is both an object and source of research. He posits that the research of online user behavior and culture by way of digital methods, covers the entire cosmos of the Internet which lies between and beyond “the tiny particles (hyperlinks) and large masses (social media)”. The Internet thrives on the organic assemblage of those two vital digital paradigms. A revolutionary Tsunami of the digital domain has heralded sweeping waves of transformation across all significant social norms and constructs—from the commonplace product design to complex human relationships. Amidst such transcendental transformations, from the cyberspace to the outer space, oftentimes the thought crosses my mind—how did the Internet transform our lives so drastically? More importantly, what factors attribute to its success?
The answer to the first question might not be so straightforward, and well, more time-intensive and convoluted than one might expect. Moreover, Roger argued the transformative aspect of the Internet, per the Virtual Society? program (1997 – 2002), is essentially a dubious claim. The transformative potential and prowess of the cyberspace isn’t ubiquitous because of the existence of a digital divide as a result of its use (access-based and skills-based), relationships (virtual relationships don’t substitute but supplement real relationships), and identity (based on both offline and online cultures).
So, coming to the more manageable question, what made the Internet so successful?
Internet shrunk our world
Our world today is a highly connected world. Google (among other search engines) globalized our world in a way that, in turn, googlized our lives. With the advent of the Internet, the cyberspace, the World Wide Web, our planet shrunk, not in size, but in access and reach. Now, instead of asking, what would god do, we ask, what would Google do. Now, when in doubt, we don’t ask the next person or reach for a bulky, hardbound dictionary or encyclopedia, we Google. Now, we don’t wait for mails from friends or relatives from across the globe for weeks or months, we receive their instant messages every day.
Another successful feature of the Internet is its MASS (malleable, adaptive, self-organizing, self-sustaining) appeal. First, its malleability is in its formlessness that allows it an organic, unhindered growth. Countless, distinct stakeholders and faceless entities attribute to the formless identity of the Internet, and therein lies its appeal and success. Second, the Internet is a versatile platform as an enabler of the coexistence of different types of media and content, thus catering and adapting to the needs of different stakeholders. Next, users engage in one-to-many and many-to-many communication forums through email, IMs, chatrooms, and various social media platforms, forming self-organizing online communities devoid of a definite or designated centralized authority. Lastly, the combination of malleability, adaptiveness and self-organizing makes the Internet ever-evolving and self-sustaining. And it will continue to expand and subsequently sustain itself as long as the innumerable socio-economic, socio-political, socio-cultural, and social media phenomena it has given rise to.
Of the people, by the people, for the people
Web 2.0 democratized the Internet in unimaginable ways. User-generated content in the form of opinions, reviews, comments, pictures, podcasts, and videos found an outlet on social media platforms such as MySpace, Blogger, Flickr, YouTube, Facebook, Instagram, WordPress, and a host of other such websites enabled users to create and publish their own content. From online user to consumer to “produser” (a term coined by Axel Bruns, 2008), the Internet, and with it, its netizens (coined by Michael Hauben) have come a long way.
In the purview of the above delineated musings, some questions that surface are:
- With the shrinking of our world, has the Internet also shrunk human relationships?
- Despite its MASS appeal, is the Internet restricted to the classes?
- Does the Internet have what it takes to engender a true, working global democracy?