TALES FROM THE CRYPT
A long time ago, in a computer lab far, far away...
I sat down one evening in 1993 in the campus computer lab to have more fun with Unix chatting, exchanging files via telnet, UUENCODE, and TAR decompression, and sending ASCII "pictures" to friends.
But that night was different.
My friend Anthony would show me "Mosaic", which was a tool to navigate something called the "World Wide Web." I remember thinking that the Internet was already a "world wide web" and that the name was pretty silly and arrogant. What was so different?
When I opened that "browser", after nearly 3 years of thinking sending email via Unix was cool, or waiting 20 minutes to decode and download a 65kb file and then view it on my own computer was convenient, that shit literally blew my mind. And I instantly got why this was cool.
I could truly, casually "browse" the Internet, and what had been mere lists of files on a server before, was now a laid-out "page" of text, images, and "links" to other similar pages. There were no search engines yet, but just webs of links to other places, with the occasional more obsessive-compulsive person doing the service of making indexes of the pages s/he liked. I would just sit and surf all day, partially wigged out that I didn't have to spend countless minutes entering obscure Unix commands into a terminal just to see a single image, but rather it just came up intuitively and within a context – but also wigged out that I could travel to other people's "pages" and look at these windows into their world.
I was tripping out that major works of literature – including the Bible – were on "the Web" and I surfed a lot in the computer lab, something really only made practical because of their Ethernet connections. I had a 28.8k modem, only having had moved up to a smoking 56K modem recently. Whoa. Call the police, speed laws were being broken, right?
Email was pretty much ubuquitous among most college students in larger universities, I used Usenet groups on campus and off to do everything from find an apartment for the summer to selling most of my precious belongings before graduation. I was much more Internet-savvy than the general population, because the general population, by definition, wasn't even on the real Internet.
This was the time that Compuserve, America Online, and Prodigy were the services that – if you were part of the geeky minority of people who were even trying to use computers and modems in the early 1990's – were the dominant services. I had, through my dad, both a Compuserve and Prodigy account, but the latter service was lame.
Compuserve was king of online communications. If you had an email address, chances are that it looked something like "[email protected]" (I love you, first private email address!) and you didn't have the option to change that to real English until some years later. You couldn't even get ON the real Unic Internet, since you basically had a university affiliation and local dialup number, or you didn't.
In the summer of 1994, I graduated and took my Compuserve with me on my first Fulbright stint to Korea, and shared a single email address that all 27 of us had to use as a group at orientation, and which the Fulbright office had had to wrest from the computer science literati at Kangwon National University. They still only let us "weird" Americans who "didn't need such high-level access" use the email account on a terminal in the main server room and during office hours. And since there was no air conditioning on college campuses back then, no one was complaining about being stuck in the freon-cooled server room, even with the computer science guys wondering how us "laypeople" knew how to use Unix.
When I was placed at my assignment on Cheju Island, I promptly went to the Cheju National University campus – unannounced and unintroduced, a "no no" in Korea even now – to try to ask for a Unix account and dialup number.
They laughed in my face.
I'm not kidding. The head of the computer science department, whom I tracked down through a combination of sheer willpower despite my primitive Korean skills, basically told me that "Internet is for computer science professors only, and even the graduate students share a single account." Sorry, strange-looking strangerman. It was as if I was asking for free computer at the mall, and could they through in a wireless LAN card to boot?
Anyway, I discovered that Compuserve not only had a dialup number, but several local numbers in Chejudo. Local numbers! On Cheju Island?! Compuserve, in its original and glorious form, has long since passed, so I want to give kudos and communicate for virtual posterity just how cool and unbelievable that was. To this day, I don't know how and – for the life of me – how an American company in the pre-real Internet days had like five local dialup number on an obscure island off the southern coast of South Korea, but they did, and I loved them for it.
In an age when overseas calls – before cheap phone cards, international plans, and SKYPE – were like $1.30 a minute if you were lucky, we Korea Fulbrighters routinely spent 1/3 to 1/2 of our salaries maintaining (or, as few liked to admit, slowly ending) the relationship with a significant other back home, who was generally finishing the last year of school or starting their first year of work. So to be able to send and receive email to the real Internet (they had added that feature by 1994) from my bed in my host stay on Chejudo – man, that was amazing.
(This is not my picture, but it does duplicate the spirit of my homestay at that time.)
I had my Korea experience, loved my $2500 grayscale Powerbook, and deeply appreciated my Compuserve.
And then I returned to the Land of the Free Internet in 1996, on a United Airlines flight that said it was "proud to serve starbucks." I literally looked around, trying to figure out what the hell a "starbuck" was, besides that blonde guy from Battlestar Galactica.
Who knew? Coffee was expensive, and served in a cup with a green mermaid on it.
Before, coffee was cheap and cost way less than a dollar. I used to watch my dad drink coffee all the time in diners when he still worked in the car industry, while we waited around for him to finish talking to some guy about a thing with the stuff. I never drank coffee, but I always thought of it as cheap, black, and watery.
Starbucks was as new to me as "the Web" was. Now, I was already familiar with the Web, but had already forgotten about it while I was galavanting around that South Korean island; remember, it had been nothing other than a really cool thing that I had known from my time in computer labs and my Mac guru friend Anthony, who seemed to know everything about whatever "computey" that would come out. But I didn't know the Web was now "a thing."
"Double-u double-u double-u dot com" was everywhere. I was in shock. That web thing I had so enjoyed when I was but a curious undergrad was now part of mass culture.
I spent a couple days at Anthony's place – he had now moved to San Francisco to start med school, and I had come to California for the first time to start graduate school – then I spent the night at my former Fulbright ETA friend's place near campus the night before I moved into my dorm. She had her laptop hooked up to a direct Ethernet connection in her room. After she went to bed, I surfed.
Oh, lawdy, did I see some stuff. When I had left the US, the web was fun and family-friendly. Now, with newer, better search engines, you could find whatever you wanted. Of course, to the Web 1.0-virgin – not the kids raised on MySpace and chat and email and the web since birth – the first night spent with the web was – ahem – wild. I saw things that I never knew existed, I indulged every curiousity and fantasy, and got seriously grossed out in the process. It was wonderful, and I knew that things had shifted. This was a whole new paradigm.
Everything was about web pages, web pages, web pages – gotta make a site, gotta get a home page, gotta get "web savvy." So I started making home pages, went through Adobe Pagemill 1.0, then GoLive Cyberstudio, the first "professional" design application, hurled derision on Dreamweaver, and moved into the Web 1.0 age.
GoLive, I loved you!
I had a "killer" home page, with multimedia that I had cut and mixed and even had some Korean text (now all broken), and even made some money making sites for other people, one of which is still, to my great surprise, still up. I even started an online company (of which there is, sadly, due to a hard drive mishap, no longer any trace – The Ivory Tower Group), as well as a half-hearted attempt at getting Korean Studies organized behind a single site. I even wrote online about my experiences in Korea, in what we would now call a "blog." I was blogging before there were blogs, man. I was gettin' it in HTML and frames, baby.
Which is essentially what "Web 1.0" – as some cheekily call it – was: HTML using frames to layout static web pages that were supposed to allow people to do stuff they couldn't before. Whether it was simply putting the news online, letting people find stuff, selling doodads online, buying cheap plane tickets, or ordering books. It was basically extending the functions and capabilities of the real world through the Internet.
It was top-down, it was passive, it was companies trying to flash banners in your face and monetize the web as fast as possible, like wringing blood from a paper cut. There was money to be made, but it just didn't seem...natural.
What's the best way to describe "Web 1.0?" The best answer is found in the distinction from Web 2.0, which is a relatively new idea, and the only context in which either term has any real meaning. For example, from this site, a chart:
- Web 1.0 was about reading, Web 2.0 is about writing
- Web 1.0 was about companies, Web 2.0 is about communities
- Web 1.0 was about client-server, Web 2.0 is about peer to peer
- Web 1.0 was about HTML, Web 2.0 is about XML
- Web 1.0 was about home pages, Web 2.0 is about blogs
- Web 1.0 was about portals, Web 2.0 is about RSS
- Web 1.0 was about taxonomy, Web 2.0 is about tags
- Web 1.0 was about wires, Web 2.0 is about wireless
- Web 1.0 was about owning, Web 2.0 is about sharing
- Web 1.0 was about IPOs, Web 2.0 is about trade sales
- Web 1.0 was about Netscape, Web 2.0 is about Google
- Web 1.0 was about web forms, Web 2.0 is about web applications
- Web 1.0 was about screen scraping, Web 2.0 is about APIs
- Web 1.0 was about dialup, Web 2.0 is about broadband
- Web 1.0 was about hardware costs, Web 2.0 is about bandwidth costs
Here's a site worth going to and reading not only the post, but the many comments that come under it, lampooning what many rightfully consider to be an artificially-hyped perceived division between two ages of Internet.
For true reference, however, you must read the Tim O'Reilly article that started it all, with the original comparison chart that many make fun of. Here's the money chart:
If you really want to get down and learn what this is all about, Programmableweb has a nice site with links to all the major Web 2.0 theory. Read up, if you haven't caught the vapors yet, but otherwise, you should be able to just sense the difference between then and now. Can't yet? Well, let me take a crack at describing it.
THE SPIRIT OF WEB 2.0
So, as many people say, the feel of the new Internet isn't found in the technologies, but in the ways that they define a new user experience. The new 'Net doesn't just extend the reach of services and information with which we are already familiar, but it allows us to do completely new things; it enables new kinds of interaction in a way that places people and communities at the center.
Think about it. Now, who has just a static web site with descriptions of the company and the "Mission Statement"? Who cares? Even if one were to write a book online, without comments and other additional features, you're just speaking to the ether. Similarly, who cares that you have a "home page," unless it's linked and dynamically changing in relation to other similar pages? And it's the same spirit that says "Screw the Encyclopedia Britannica on CD-ROM. I'm gonna add to the Wiki entry." In the end, as several people showed, the rate of errors between the two compendiums of knowledge is only about 1-2% different.
Things have already shifted, things have already become about creating ways and means – through innovative technologies, largely, but also through just plain old good ideas – for people to do things and network in ways they haven't before. That's why the things that are getting big these days – from Cyworld to YouTube to "podcasting" to OhMyNews to Digg.com to Wikipedia – these are resources/networks that are both eminently useful and, to those who help produce content for others, participatorily addictive (I just made a word today!)
You/we're doing it right now. Thanks for coming to the blog. Why do I write long posts like this? To receive feedback. I have that kind of personality. But why do people read and return to blogs? Because of participation – even if it's not you writing the comments, it's a crucial part of the fun to see what other people's reactions are.
I think there's a definite difference between the Webs of then and now. Back then, it was about a relatively few people and groups shouting into the ether and waiting to see what happened. Now, it's about having a conversation and watching the communities form. In the end, it allows many, many more people to get in on the fun.
THE "YOU" MODEL
The three best examples of this new age of communication can be found in the examples of Apple's iPod, the "youness" of YouTube, and the power of Wordpress.
The iPod is a good example because you have this little piece of truly wonderful hardware that fundamentally altered the way people relate to music. As I heard Steve Wozniak point out in a recent interview I heard of him on NPR, the genius of Steve Jobs that has resulted in the recent success of Apple's products lay in his ability to not make a cool new music player that happens to be white, the Apple version of just about every other new-fangled kind of music device that simply allows you to take music with you, but he solved a problem – he gave people a new way to solve a problem. You could take all your music – via your computer and the iTunes software – and organize it, then stick it in a portable device.
The way I see it, the genius of the iPod isn't in the cool little player itself – it's in the software. In fact, the player is just the thing that duplicates what's in your computer on iTunes, allowing you to take it with you. Important, yes, but the power of organizing the music that you already own, in addition to being able to buy all sorts of new content you don't yet – that's obviously making Apple rich these days. Then you have the addition of the "podcasting" function, which, in the flash of an incremental upgrade to iTunes, suddenly gave its users a whole new, FREE world of content.
In the blink of an eye, the iPod suddenly became all the more valuable, because it allowed you – via the software – to subscribe to all kinds of free "podcasts" that featured people talking about stuff that was right up my alley. In one fell swoop, the near-monopolistic hold of the MP3 player market had transformed into a level-playing field form of "broadcasting" that the world had never known. Yeah, you could watch streaming video, but the iPod offered that key combination of "organization + convenience + portability" that made little moving videos into a whole new broadcast medium.
The key here is that anyone can make a podcast, whether it be CNN or my next-door neighbor talking about her cats. And based solely on the quality of the show, anyone can rise to #1. In theory. But the funny thing is that the reality is actually a close match to the the way it's been theorized to be because more than half of my podcasts are indeed privately produced, are literally the two guys sitting on the couch of Diggnation, the martial antics of Ask a Ninja, or the intrepid anthropology of Black Man in China. And that level playing field has made everyone's game the better for it.
Apple gets oodles of free content and adds value to their player; the amateur glitterati have a suddenly huge venue for getting their voices out there; the traditional content producers have a new way to deliver their traditional content. Win, win, win!
THE "YOUNESS" OF YOUTUBE
I must say that I warmed slowly to YouTube at first, seeing it as a place to deliver some random videos of people acting silly or being able to watch that old "Where's the Beef?" commercial on demand. As it grew, I began to see it as a growing "search engine for video" as its catalog could be relied upon to have just about anything. But the one thing growing along with YouTube as blogging, and YouTube made sure to present itself as a tool to make the blogging experience easier. Enter the "embed code."
The "embed code" is something displayed ready-to-copy, right next to almost any video that you are watching. You copy that into your blog and – VOILA! – instant moving video in your blog. And who doens't love that? Suddenly, people can blog and talk about the scenes of what they are watching on moving screens, and simply including the video to go along with it.
BRILLIANT. You know why? Because it allowed people to talk about the things they saw while presenting the actual video in question. Effectively, because people were gathering in blogs, around the virtual "water cooler" of narrowly-defined topics that started to define entire online communities, people talking about what Jon Stewart last night could actually see it and not feel like you missed something. In fact, you were able to enjoy the best parts of stuff going on screens. The stuffed suits were having a cow over this, but they realized what a lot of record-store industry suits did – that allowing people to pass around their content for free actually helped get their product/show/actor more publicity. CBS's recent move to start uploading quirky clips from all its best shows is a definite sign that people are figuring out a way to turn "bootlegging" into profit.
Apple had figured out how to do this with MP3's – which were to be the death of the record industry – turning them into a huge source of profit. The stuffed suits of CBS were not quite as blockheaded, obviously.
Youtube's works along these lines. Anyone can upload to YouTube, anyone has equal access to the rest of the network. The recent case of Lonelygirl15 is a good example of this. They have "channels" that can hold all kinds of content from specific "directors" and are steady building structure that can hold all the talent their system encourages come out.
Here's hoping that they (and the suits) don't get too hardcore about copyright "infringement."
Yes, passing around complete copies of work in an uncontrolled fashion (early Napster) may pose a problem (although I still maintain that all my crazed downloading at the time was mostly 80's pop I had already purchased in some legal form once before and wasn't going to buy again, was a Britney Spears song I couldn't get out of my head but would never pay for, or were from other genres that actually encouraged listening – and purchasing – I would never have done, as in my recent "discovery" of George Jones as an old school hip fan), but encouraging the watching of excerpts or low-quality version of say music videos that are all available in streaming-only format just gets more people interested in the product.
What the suits should realize is that us bloggers and people emailing YouTube links are doing all kinds of free advertising they could never even dream of paying for. That one "classic" scene from that new comedy getting replay on YouTube doesn't make me think "OK, now I don't have to watch the movie", people; if I were one of the downloading hardcore, I'd just download the movie in its entirety, anyway, as people tend to do in Korea. No, that clip in my inbox or on the blog I like is what tips me in the direction of seeing the movie, especially when presented in the context of "Man, this movie was so fucking funny, I upchucked," I go see the movie. Period.
A similar leveling has taken place with the open-source blogging platform Wordpress. Without devolving into a comparison review of all the major blogging services, let me just simply say that the precocious new player in the game is Wordpress, which arguably has a better featureset than even commercial services such as Typepad (I know, I know – I said it was "arguable") but is free. To run it, you do have to install it on your own server, which generally costs at least a few bucks a month, but the major tipping point advantage is the customizability, which is what has led to more and more pro blogging sites having a Wordpress base with all kinds of customized plugins and designs built on top.
The basic Wordpress theme.
You've got ease of use and central maintenance with Typepad, but you get entire cottage industries of plugin and theme designers built around the Wordpress community, even as the core software itself gets better and better with the inherent nature of numbers and the open source community.
This is also a Wordpress blog, albeit with professional design.
If you still don't get what I mean, think of it this way. Creating a proprietary product such as Typepad involves a team of talented people working very hard on producing as high a quality product as they can muster, much like the eggheads over at Encyclopedia Britannica. But with the benefit of the mass mind of the Internet, many many more people who are mostly not as erudite as Britannica brainacs end up producing a far more rich document with Wikipedia, and with barely a difference in the overall error rate to boot. Such is the case with Wordpress, which just gets better as the community grows.
KOREA – LAND OF THE MORNING AFTER ALL NIGHT GAMING SESSIONS
Open-source, free, and conveniently delivered across a level playing field seems like the way to go, right? Well, Korea, which is a place to watch in terms of Internet culture, finds itself in a pretty interesting position these days.
Korea's Internet prominence is mostly enabled by the government's decision to broadband the nation in a sweeping plan to build the structure for an "information economy." If the American government is good at talking a good game but not delivering (see "No Child Left Behind"), the Korean government, which has barely decentralized and democratized in the last decade since living under dictatorship, is good at 5-year plans and laying down infrastructure.
They got a computer and big-screen TV in every classroom within the timeline the Ministry of Education laid out (but can't solve pedagogical problems, whereas the US has hamstrung itself in exactly the opposite way), and it laid down a broadband infrastructure that has individual apartment complexes cruising the net at 50 mbps as a rule. It's totally unnecessary, just like the huge electrical transformer stations on top of every apartment complex, or conversations about the megahertz of the new Pentium Whizzah Whatever Chip™ that most moms used to web surf and send emails with, but people are always thinking about those numbers.
But what is most important for the Korean case isn't the speed of download, but rather the speed of going UP that has made Korea into a powerhouse, an accidental decision, or so I hear, made when laying down this infrastructure. My friends in the States, many of them far more tech-savvy than me, are stuck with 2 or 5 mbps connections (not so bad for web cruising) but 384 kbps upload.
You can suck, but can't serve.
That's a big deal. That means that you can't really use your computer as a server, peer-to-peer networks are limited, the online gaming experience has inherent bottlenecks, etc. Basically unfettered by upload caps, and enjoying ridiculous download speeds, Korean Internet looks very different from its American counterpart. Korean Internet is cool, and it leads to a pretty intense Internet-enabled culture.
You see, Koreans have been watching online content since forever now. Traditional broadcasting has been avaiable for online viewing for years. People actually "watch TV" on the computer. Moms download Hollywood movies on pay services (copyright suits should have fun researching that one). Online video is so – ho hum.
So even though Korean Internet is very cool in being very fast, fast enough to serve video freely, it has evolved into a mere extension of traditional media, and hasn't evolved that much as a form unto itself. It was so technically sweet and compatible with serving video from the beginning, that it never really evolved into anything new – and the big media companies are the ones serving up all the content, even over the digital mobile devices (DMB) and cellphones.
While it may seem all cool that Koreans have those cool cellies on which you can watch the latest episode of the new popular drama, it does nothing in terms of defining a new medium. Now that blogging and podcasting has taken off in the rest of the world, the big Korean companies that run everything – the big Internet portals such as Daum and Naver, and the terrestrial broadcasting networks and media conglomerates – have (surprise!) tried to follow the same trends.
THE "UCC" MODEL
Enter the Korean concept of "User Created Content." Sure, it's probably a term picked up in the communications field somewhere, but it's a Korean concept, deployed in a Korean way. The big companies here are pushing "UCC" to the people as ways they can "get in on the action" and create content (THAT WE'LL USE) with the implied promise of perhaps being able to become as famous as all those YouTube people you hear about in the news, like that guitar kid everyone is talking about and who got on Korean TV because of it.
Problem is, I think it's doomed to failure. The overall trends are going in exactly the opposite direction, and savvy Korean netizens are going to be demanding their real user power, and will resent being crippled by ugly Daum and Naver blog templates, and creating content for portal sites, which is essentially what they are doing.
The biggest sponsors of the UCC drives are, not surprisingly, big Korean media companies. I call this system the jaebeol media model, and it is particularly and uniquely Korean. Make video content and we will let you put it on our site, for the company's commercial benefit. It's pretty much using the content – with limitations, set templates, and rigid feature sets – for the benefit of the company.
A typical Naver blog.
Maybe it's a peculiarly Korean way of doing things, but I don't think it can be sustained for very long, especially since the rest of the world is offering all kinds of free space, open-source freedom, and the ability for the market to grow and expand without control from the top. The Korean model offers – not surprisingly, given this country's style of business and governance – top-down, centralized control, limitations, and lack of a user-centric experience.
TO BE CONTINUED...