It had four grocery stores, two manned gas stations and one unmanned, two banks, one post office, two coffee shops, and three diners. It also had some small clothing stores of no consequence to me at the time.
All in all, it was a pretty normal setup for a town of that size at the time, in the early 80s in Sweden.
I usually try to pay a visit to the old neighborhood every other year or so and this summer I was there for the first time in three years. It is completely different from when I grew up, which isn’t that long ago. There’s now just the one grocery store and it’s not a grocery “store” anymore. It’s a mega market. The banks have closed, as have the diners and coffee shops. The one gas station left is an unmanned two pump facility where they’ve even dismounted the old garbage cans, presumably because it wasn’t worth keeping a guy on the payroll emptying them from time to time.
I don’t think this is something unique. In fact, I bet most of you have a similar story to tell.
I’ll leave it up to someone else to judge whether this development is a good thing or not. In this case, I’m just an observer and we’ll settle for saying that things have certainly changed in my old hometown.
In view of the above, I can’t help but reflecting over another neighborhood that seems to be heading the same way.
Let’s take a step back. I started using the Internet in 1993. My first mail address had three subdomains after the @-sign. Google was still spelled Googol and meant 10 to the power of 100, and had nothing to do with Internet search. There were about ten or so search engines; Webcrawler, Excite, Lycos, Hotbot to name a few. They all had a mixed set of search results. AltaVista was just about to be launched. I remember the url http://www.altavista.digital.com. That kind of URL says a lot, doesn’t it?
In my dorm at the university we used Gopher, IRC, Newsgroups, and the World Wide Web. There were a lot of new services popping up, almost on a daily basis, using these various protocols, and the one that was most popular could boast over a thousand visits a day!
Over IRC you could meet the most fantastic (?) and odd personalities who knew everything from how to code Fortran77 to how to disassemble a stackable washer/dryer. In the newsgroups there were discussions on the latest technology as well as a forum hosted by our university on what we needed to study for the upcoming exams, among other things.
Fast forward to 2013, we have the web. There are of course enthusiasts left on IRC and other places but the web is what most of us mean when we say “the Internet”.
On the web, we have Google for search. We have Twitter for when you want to say something official (it has in effect replaced news agency flashes). We have Facebook for when you want to say something to your friends, and we have the iPhone for when you want to text someone what you’re really thinking (yes, iPhone uses iMessage that sends SMS/MMS-like messages over http).
Again, there may be other services out there; other forms of communication, but weighing them against Twitter and Facebook I’m sure it’s in the decimals when it comes to usage and adaptation.
At the same time, the Internet is full of small startups. Isn’t it?
Well, yes it is. But for most of them it’s a short stay since you need millions of visitors (or pageviews) these days to make it sustainable. The adaptation of most of them remains low and so they eventually fade away.
Recently, more and more of my friends have started using phrases like “It feels like I’ve reached the end of Internet”. They visit the site of their local paper, then check Facebook and Twitter and then… Well, after that it’s not that much left to do anymore.
Furthermore, we all find the same news at the same time since we’re following the same hip people on Twitter and we all use Google to search for facts for our articles so if you think about it, you’d be really lucky to find some information that wasn’t already common knowledge since everyone else is using the exact same services as you are using.
The problem isn’t so much that you and I won’t have as many fun sites or cool apps to use anymore. The big problem is that the thing we had hoped would give us more freedom of choice, more diversity, is now heading in the opposite direction.
Though, with every movement, there’s a counter movement. I think we can expect to see two major waves coming from this; member restricted content and pay-for-service.
In order to survive – and stand out – I believe we can expect to see more companies providing services over the internet at a cost to the user (that is today, essentially, free). It’s certainly a feat to be able to start charging users with a fee for bringing them a service which can be gotten elsewhere for free, but the demand for real content, excellent user experience is already there today. It’s just a matter of finding the right type of service to start with (which isn’t easy, of course).
In the longer perspective, I think that we’ll start seeing new business models for Internet services in which we’ll both enjoy better user experience and better content. I for one would be more than happy to pay for a good enough news service, if only there was one to be had.