[This article was written for the fifth anniversary of the Society for New Communications Research (SNCR) - a Palo Alto, California based think tank. I'm a founding fellow of SNCR.]
It's easy to forget that we are still in the very early stages of the Internet -- a basket of technologies that continues to evolve and affect nearly every aspect of our business and personal lives.
The first phase of the Internet emerged into the commercial space only in the mid-1990s, from military applications at first and then university research uses.
In this first phase of the commercial Internet, the development of web browsers meant that we could now publish a page of content: text, photos, video, to any computer screen regardless of the platform. It didn't matter what the operating system was, or the type of computer: mainframe, minicomputer or pocket computer -- as long as it can run a web browser we can publish a web page to it from anywhere.
That was a significant achievement because you used to have to be on the same network, for example AOL, or CompuServe to be able to publish the same content to other users. There was no cross-platform communications, even email was difficult. I remember it took years for gateways to be developed that could send email between CompuServe and MCI Mail - two popular email networks.
It took government funding and support for industry standard protocols to be able to achieve what we call the Internet. And once the rivalries between the competing self-contained networks could be bypassed, the Internet took off like a rocket.
The Internet's potential effect on business was extraordinary. In the mid to late 1990s, stock market investors built a massive "dotcom" bubble. A company only had to announce that they would launch a web site to have a massive spike in its market value.
Those days seem ridiculous in hindsight but only because we did not yet have the means to truly transform business operations, at least not yet. But the investors were correct in their prediction that there was a truly disruptive force at work and that those companies that were forging ahead would have significant advantages.
In those heady, early days, large corporations were faced with threats that the "dotcom" companies would "eat their lunch." Many companies panicked and launched expensive Internet operations without thinking things through; many companies were frozen in indecision and did nothing.
The dotcom dotbomb soon arrived and established businesses breathed a collective sigh of relief: their lunch was intact and most dotcoms disappeared overnight. A recession gripped the entire tech sector for several years as the excesses of those early years played themselves out.
Recessions, however, are excellent nurseries, it's where innovation emerges. And the early 2000s is where blogging started to emerge, and thats when the first social networks such as Friendster and MySpace appeared. And it is where the roots of what we now call social media emerged.
There is much written about, and spoken about, and tweeted about social media, social networks, social CRM ... "social" with everything. But the "social" part is a red herring because what emerged in the early 2000s was the second phase of the Internet.
The first phase allowed us to publish content to any computer screen. The second phase of the Internet is where any computer screen can publish back.
We now have a two-way Internet.
If you thought Internet 1.0 was impressive then look out because now we have a two-way Internet, and this time, the new "dotcoms" will be far more challenging to established businesses, they will eat lunch, breakfast, and anything else of value. It is an Internet on steroids.
For example, we now have a printing press in our pockets that can potentially reach tens of millions and soon billions of people. It's no wonder that Rupert Murdoch is pissed. You used to have to be a media mogul, buying ink by the barrel to have the potential reach an audience that anyone with a smart phone, or desktop computer can now reach.
The Internet is a powerful media technology, it's a publishing technology. And it has become very easy to use thanks to sophisticated development tools and services that anyone can use.
- You used to have to be a computer expert to set up and publish a web site, now anyone can do it in less than ten minutes.
- You used to have to build a large audience in order for your content to be seen now you can post something to Facebook or Twitter and your network of friends or contacts will republish it and potentially reach huge audiences.
The Internet has become a two-way medium.
What does this mean?
It means that "social" media is just one application of this next stage of the Internet. It means that every company, every person is potentially a media company and has to learn how to use this two-way Internet.
Every company, even if it makes diapers or ball bearings is also a media company because it publishes to its potential customers, employees, neighbors, etc. And it also has to learn how to listen and engage with those communities as they publish back.
Businesses that figure out how to use the two-way Internet will prosper and the ones that don't, won't.
New types of applications will emerge such as personalized advertising that is location based; and a whole host of other applications that have yet to be imagined.
- A two-way Internet means that anything and everything can become connected.
- A two-way Internet means that there is a huge amount of data to be mined that can provide businesses with incredible insights into their markets.
- A two-way Internet can provide businesses with real-time responses to changing market conditions.
- A two-way Internet will unleash a tremendous amount of innovation in the forms of applications, new media formats, and new societies/communities.
A two-way Internet will also transform the way we consume and interact with media. The media is dying but long live the media because we now have more forms of media, in more formats than at any time in our human history.
How will that affect us? Media is how society "thinks" it is how countries develop policies, it is how we figure out solutions to important problems such as the economy, the environment, education, elderly care, energy and those are just the problems that begin with "e."
What are the new cultures being formed? What will the cultural changes mean to business?
A business that doesn't understand its changing culture won't be in business for long.
It is these types of issues that SNCR was formed to research and to try and understand.
We have plenty of technology and technologies in our world but so what? It's how these technologies are used, how they are applied, how they affect and effect our society that SNCR seeks to understand and to share with others.
We now live in a two-way Internet and that's an immense field of study and it is one that will continually surprise us with its near infinite permutations.
For journalists, for professional communicators of all kinds, these are troubled times but also extremely exciting times. At no other time in our professional lives will we see such huge changes in our jobs, our lives, our communities.
We don't know the answers, we know some of them but there are so many more to discover.
We all can take part in figuring out what those answers are. Those answers might keep changing or they might become the new rules for the next phase of the Internet. We don't know yet, we don't even know all the questions but it's sure exciting finding out.
And that's why SNCR has managed to attract some of the best people working in this area, eager and curious about the future and what it might look like.
- - -
If you liked "The Two-Way Internet" there are similar posts in my book: "In My Humble Opinion"