On May 14, 1607, explorers from the Virginia Company set foot on Jamestown Island, establishing a colony in the new world. The first North American colonies began the great and sometimes tragic transformation of the landscape. Nearly 400 years later, explorers with browsers instead of masted ships, led by Tim Berners-Lee, landed in the cyberspace and the colonization and civilizing of the mostly virgin digital territory began.
Colonization is often associated with one tribe, with better technology or numbers, conquering another and taking over property and governance, and asserting its culture and values. It can also introduce benefits to less advanced civilizations, such as improved sanitation and new sources of food and commerce.
In cyberspace, colonialism is less about one tribe conquering or subjugating another. In the mid-1990's GeoCities allowed "homesteaders" to carve out their own Web pages within virtual neighborhoods. In 1997, the site had million homesteaders, and during the height of the Internet bubble was acquired by Yahoo for around $3.5 billion. The tools for creation, production and distribution were crude by today's standards, and GeoCities, AOL and other early colonialists entrants have been eclipsed by the new colonialists--MySpace with 100 million homesteaders, as well as other social networking sites like Facebook, YouTube, Flickr and dozens of others hoping to colonize the digital planet.
As the re-colonization of the Web continues with the emergence of the above mentioned social networking sites, battles for mindshare and user attention have resulted in a kind of lock-in, with barriers erected to keep people from easily migrating to other services. For example, it's not easy for members to export or import their friend lists, relationships and images.
Setting up artificial boundaries is not part of to the original WorldWide Web, or open source, ethos, but it is the nature of the modern Web, driven by commerce and increasingly powerful entities, such as Google, News Corp., Microsoft, Yahoo and Time Warner for whom scale is everything. It's about building skyscrapers and locking in occupants.
Cyberspace is infinite, but the number of humans is not. The re-colonization of Web today is about the big entities capturing as many those humans within their borders or extending their borders through annexation and acquisition. It's just business, the natural way civilizations digital or analog evolve, and not necessary a negative. But, as my friend Marc Canter says, the skyscrapers need to open up their data silos, even if it runs counter to their nature.