Rivers of Information

This article appeared as my column for Connect Magazine in November 2005.

As I write this, I'm preparing to speak to a group of BYU faculty about blogging and wikis. I'll have a hard time telling them everything they should know. But whenever I teach a class or give a talk, I ask myself "what's the one thing I'd like the audience to remember when I'm done?" In the case of this talk that's easy: blogging and wikis are reflective of a culture that views the Internet as a stream of information, rather than a collection of places.

The Internet has always been a more egalitarian place for interaction than other spheres where humans meet. I can get email for free. I can start a business with only a little capital. I can build a Web site that attracts thousands of visitors a month with little more than my mind and a few spare dollars.

Still, during the dot-com boom, some of that feeling got lost. It seemed like the only things worth paying attention to were new ideas that attracted, and spent, millions of dollars in VC money. I find it interesting that blogs, wikis, and RSS are post-dot-com phenomena.

Pre-dot-com, the predominant metaphor was of the Internet as a place--cyberspace, we called it. What mattered were eyeballs. Consequently, the way to make a fortune was to stake your claim to a prime Internet location (remember business.com selling for $7.5 million?) and get people to "visit." Nowadays, I'm more inclined to think of the Internet in terms of participation, information flows, and attention.

Take Utah Politics.org as an example. I recently revamped the site to include articles from about a dozen other blogs on the front page. At the top of the page is the most recent article from UtahPolitics.org but the rest of the page is what others have to say about Utah politics. I'm not doing this to make UtahPolitics.org into a "destination" and capture "eyeballs." Rather, I'm trying to spur participation in conversations about Utah politics and be a conduit for information. My reward is the attention of readers.

Mash-ups, the phenomenon I wrote about last month, where data or services from two or more sites are combined into something new and useful are another good example of this way of viewing the Internet. If the ingredient services are places, then they will fight to keep other people from using their data because they need to be "visited" by "eyeballs." But if the guiding metaphor is information flows, then taking the information from several sites to create a new, useful stream of information is perfectly reasonable.

This distinction isn't merely academic. Many of the laws concerning computer security are based on viewing the computer as a place on the Internet. This leads to the misapplication of trespass law to computers. The default on the Internet has always been that you can access information on a computer without asking unless the information is protected by some kind of authorization scheme. Trespass law is at odds with that principle.

What's the harm? Consider the story I read recently on Wired about disaster relief after Katrina. After Katrina hit, tens of thousands were displaced and separated from loved ones. Literally overnight dozens, even hundreds, of Web sites sprung up with the goal of connecting the separated folks. Of course, that meant that you had to search dozens of Web sites looking for someone. Not very convenient.

The traditional solution to this sort of problem is to centralize and regulate. But that would stifle the very innovation that led to the sites in the first place. Net-friendly thinking, however, led to a different solution: someone built a Web site to collect information from all the other sites and aggregate it into a single collection. Names could be entered anywhere, but there was only one site to search.

That kind of solution is threatened by a regime that requires permission first. Finding who owned and was responsible for all those sites would have cost precious time and made the project very complicated. Lawyers might even need to be called to draft agreements. It probably wouldn't have happened at all and that would be a shame.

Big media, big business, and big ISPs like the place metaphor of the dot-com era. They like thinking that they own something and that they've got the eyeballs, visitors, or subscribers. This metaphor leads to business models based on walled gardens to trap customers and keep them from going somewhere else.

I think you'll find that much of the wrangling about what the Internet is and how it works comes down to the question of whether it is a space where you try to "own" as much of the territory as possible, or whether it's a river of information where you try to be part of the most relevant information flows. I think the best future lies in the latter, but I'm fearful that powerful interests may try to damn the river, straighten the banks, and kill the wildlife that makes it beautiful and interesting. If they do, we'll have traded something truly wonderful for something merely commercial.

Phil Windley teaches Computer Science at Brigham Young University. Windley writes a blog on enterprise computing at http://www.windley.com and is the author of Digital Identity published by O'Reilly Media.

Last Modified: Saturday, 17-Sep-2005 18:23:02 MDT