An apology to the internauts

About this time last year, I was putting the final touches on a presentation I would later give as the opening presentation of TPSA’s Akademia TP Trendy Przyszłości in Warsaw. It probably wasn’t the most interesting presentation I’ve ever given, but it was by far the largest and most attentive audience I’ve ever stood up in front of. I’d like to think that the 300 people who turned up did so because I had something revolutionary to say but I think it probably had more to do with the excitement with which the young people of Poland were taking their first steps onto the internet. As the Lada taxi drove me from doing a webchat which, I was told, broke all previous attendance records with several thousand concurrent users, I must have seen half a dozen internet cafes, calling to the "internauts".

Imagine their disappointment then when, following my StarWars theme song accompanied entrance (it wasn’t my choice!) to the auditorium, I opened my talk by saying that as the rate of internet penetration has increased in countries such as the UK and USA, the way that people used the internet had become much less interesting. More ordinary. More like any other network, be it the transportation network or various communications networks.

I’m not the first person to ever say this, of course. I recall hearing Dr. Chris Yapp say at a conference that the internet doesn’t allow anyone to do anything that they couldn’t do before using different methods, it only changes the ease with which we do it. I also recall thinking he was a complete tosser for making such a statement – "the internet is REVOLUTIONARY and will change EVERYTHING!" I thought at the time. But, for some time now, I’ve come to agree with Chris.

In Warsaw, I told the audience that "The internet was initially conceptualised as a way to overcome the limitations of geography. Pioneering researchers of Life Online continued the trend of thinking globally about the network, enthusing about everything that is new about the internet whilst ignoring the nodes – that is, ignoring the fact that each node on the network is a person who is intimately connected to the geography around them. Evidence continues to grow that, instead of using the internet to act globally, many users today are more interested in using the internet to make new local connections or to supplement existing communication between themselves and people they are already familiar with… I believe that researchers and those running web based services need to begin thinking more about the local aspects of the Internet."

Don’t believe me? Time for a little test. Take a look at your email outbox. Not your inbox, because that’s filled with spam, but your outbox. Who did you email the most? People you already know, perhaps friends who went to the same university as you, work colleagues sitting ten feet away, your ex, family members who live far away?

Next, take a look at your mobile phone bill. Who do you phone the most- people you know? This, of course, makes perfect sense. The telephone network is a global network and is excellent at helping people to communicate without being hindered by geography, distance, and time. It, like the internet, is a global network yet you use it primarily to keep in touch with people you already know. I did once know a techie who used to fire out devil (and other) phone icons to outer mongolia, having figured out the country code and mobile pre-fix numbers, but other than him I can’t think of anyone who randomly dials up people on the other side of the World for a chat about politics or whatever. [And before you shout "that’s not free", with Skype or even a pre-paid calling service, you can call just about anywhere for around 2p a minute.]

The same is true with journeys using public transport which, unless you happen to live in the UK where public transport doesn’t seem to be able to get anyone anywhere, is also a global network. You could go anywhere but because it’s more relavent, and in this case significantly cheaper, you stay close to home. Most car journeys are local too.

Whilst we’re comparing various networks that are global but which are used primarily for local purposes, I probably should mention that, in Polish, the word for "transportation" is "communication". I’m glad it’s not the other way around – transportation networks help to take you places so that you can communicate, but communication networks don’t, despite what I and most of the other people writing about the internet in 1995 would have said, take you to another place. Well, not fully anyway, although it certainly is true that one can be immersed in an online discussion to the point of not recognising the onset of RSI, forgetting to eat, or even having an orgasm.

The point I’m trying to make is this. When I first started using BBS’s then, later, the Internet, it was new. Like many early adopters, I was a hobbiest, interested in experimenting with this new technology for the sake of experimentation. The most interesting aspect of the internet for me at the time was that I could communicate with people all over the world for the price of a local phone call. Now, people of all ages, backgrounds, and classes are using the internet, at least in countries where internet penetration is high, and ordinary people aren’t necessarily interested in making new friends online, joining online communities, debating politics in a forum, chatting with someone in who-knows-where, etc. They log on to do something that is relevant to them and, more often than not, what’s relevant is what, and who, one already knows. I’m not saying that us online community people got it wrong, or that online communities won’t continue to develop, grow, and help us in various ways. But I do think that we need to start putting more thought into how we can use social software to facilitate communication that is meaningful and relevant to those who aren’t particularly interested in the technology – that is, to develop software and services for the masses of non-technical non-specialist non-geeky not-like-you-and-me people coming online today.

I’m sure at least a few of the "internauts" at my talk in Warsaw last May thought I was a tosser for telling them that, before long, rather than surfing cyberspace, hanging out online, experimenting with aspects of their selves in the relative safety of cyberspace and all the other fun stuff, they’ll be emailing mom instead.

My apologies for raining on your parade.