One thing I don’t like at all about Silicon Valley culture is its monomaniacal focus on Hugeness: on the very biggest companies and websites.
Living in said valley, we get bombarded with news and gossip about what Google, Facebook, Twitter, Apple, and a couple of others are doing (Yahoo and Microsoft, no longer considered “cool”, are slowly dropping off the list.) The tech press acts like the Internet is defined by the actions of these few companies. Whatever they’re doing, everybody else had better copy it, or risk irrelevance. You don’t matter unless you’ve got hundreds of millions of users and are raking in billions of dollars of advertising money.
(I imagine even Google and Facebook must feel the pressure to copy Google and Facebook! Why else do they keep trying so hard to break into each others’ markets?)
Part of Silicon Valley culture is the assumption that the destiny of every company or website is to become huge or to fail: those are the only two options. Global reach, with tens or hundreds of millions of users, is the only definition of success. Venture capitalists are known to base their gambles upon the idea that the profits from one one breakaway hit will pay for the losses from twenty flops. The breakaway hits are what they’re after; a modest but sustainably profitable company is not.
There are structural reasons for this attitude. The lack of barriers to competition on the web means no longer do you just have your neighbors to compete with. You have to compete with everyone in the world. That means that if company X offers something even 1% better than its competition, it can rapidly become a global near-monopoly. And so many web-based activities have network effects — sites like LinkedIn, eBay, etc. become more useful the more other people are using them, so success tends to snowball.
I feel this attitude misses something important. It misses what made the web so interesting in the first place. Think back to 1995 (if you’ve been on the internet that long). What was so exciting about the emerging medium? What was it that pulled you in for the first time?
Whatever your answer is, I’m guessing “the opportunity to be a customer of an enormous global brand” wasn’t it. We already had TV, radio, and shopping malls for that.
What was new about the web as a medium, and what was exciting to me, was the wealth of incredibly specific information relevant to my oddball interests. The web browser was a window into the world of everything outside the mainstream. Exploring it, I found one hidden treasure after another. I could find some tiny niche webcomic, drawn by an amateur with more enthusiasm than artistic skill, which nobody’s heard of but which spoke to me deeply, and I could start reading it every day. I could find a group of people who shared my obscure hobby or musical taste and wanted to talk about it. I could read some weirdo’s weblog about the role-playing games he was designing. I could learn about science directly from the people who were doing it. And so on. The web is a diverse world of idiosyncratic opinions, obscure knowledge, and offbeat works of personal artistry. I could use it to make a direct, personal, one-on-one connection with somebody I’d never met.
The medium is the message, and the message was “It doesn’t matter anymore whether a work is popular enough to get picked up by a big publisher and become a mainstream success. As long as the creator wants to make it and I want to look at it, I can.”
And, of course, the other exciting thing about the web was the fact that I could publish to it and not merely consume it. I could put up evibrainjono.net and it could be on equal footing with yahoo.com. Not equal in the sense of having the same order of magnitude of readers, of course, but equal in the sense that they’re both just URLs typed into a browser window. The structure of the web gave no inherent advantage to the established brand.
The medium is the message, and the message was “You can do it too.” You, too can be a creator. The story of your daily life is as valid a topic for mass publishing as the national news report. Your opinion isn’t less valid than some talk-show host’s opinion just because he’s on TV and you’re not.
Of course, all of this great stuff was happening on tiny, tiny websites.
The amateur web comic, the hobbyist forum, the personal weblog, the gallery site put up to share pictures with your family, the archive of scientific research about an obscure field — those, and billions of other sites which have no mass appeal, nothing in common with each other at all — were what the web was about. The whole reason anybody cared about the web in the first place. Yeah, when Google came along it made searching better, but what do you think people were searching for?
Have we lost that feeling, in the rush to Web 2.0 and then the Social Web and the Mobile Web and the App Store and the Cloud (whatever that means)?
There’s a paradox here. The lack of barriers to competition on the web was supposed to be a benefit to the little guy. It was supposed to be what gave a self-published amateur site the chance to compete on an equal footing with a large entrenched organization. And yet, as we’ve seen, that same lack of barriers is what turns a slight advantage into an overwhelming share of a given market for a single company or an oligopoly of a few companies, leading to new organizations that are larger and seemingly more entrenched than ever.
But let’s get some perspective.
We shared pictures before Flickr. We had websites about our lives before Blogger. We told each other what we were doing before Twitter. We made friends before Facebook. We had cell phones before Apple. We searched for things before Google. The top player in any given field may seem dominating, but it can lose its position to a competitor nearly overnight. The top player is merely the service that people have decided is, for the moment, slightly better than competing services at providing some aspect of web infrastructure. It’s a highly profitable position to be in, but that’s all. We shouldn’t act like those few players define the web, and we certainly shouldn’t let them get away with acting like they own the web. If all the top players disappeared tomorrow, we would adapt. If there wasn’t GMail, we might have to use a not-quite-as-good free webmail client. But it’s not like we’d lose the ability to freely communicate thoughts in writing to people in other parts of the world.
So maybe we need to think about success a little differently. Getting hundreds of millions of users is not the only way to succeed. Making a living is a success. Expressing yourself is a success. Forming a connection with another person is a success.
I’d prefer a culture where the quality of a connection, in depth of meaning and human experience, is considered just as important as the quantity of followers you’re reaching or the number of ad impressions you’re selling.
So show some love today for your favorite little-known, unpopular website, one that’s never going to be the top of anything. Let’s hear it for the bottom 95% of the web. Let’s hear it for the long tail.