The incredible shrinking Internet

We thought it would never end: the Internet would just keep expanding, filling the vacuum beyond its borders, adding sites, users, technologies. We were wrong. Even as this global network continues to grow, gaining thousands of new devotees daily, it's actually shrinking for the average user.
Written by Steve Fox, Contributor on
We thought it would never end: the Internet would just keep expanding, filling the vacuum beyond its borders, adding sites, users, technologies.

We were wrong. Because hidden in the Net's ongoing expansion lies an almost cosmological contradiction: Even as this global network continues to grow, gaining thousands of new devotees daily, it's actually shrinking for the average user.

The new, streamlined Internet feels more like a galaxy than a universe. Instead of one vast network, we're starting to see a collection of interconnected, often closed, networks: communities whose membership will be determined by the kinds of devices people use, the service providers they choose, and the content they find most compelling.

The fancy term for this phenomenon is Balkanization, which Webster's defines as "break[ing] up (as a region or group) into smaller and often hostile units." On the Internet, the urge to unmerge isn't borne out of hostility; rather, it comes from a basic human need to find small, defined spaces where everybody knows your URL.

The Gnutella monster

One intriguing model comes out of Gnutella, the groundbreaking file-swapping technology that's scaring the bejesus out of copyright advocates. Gnutella runs on top of the Net; it's a peer-to-peer network. You log on and connect to someone else's computer (called a host), which is connected to other computers, which are connected to other computers...you get the idea. Part search engine, part file server, Gnutella puts you in direct contact with the hard drives of other users, though it maxes out at 10,000 connections (this 10,000-host universe is called a "horizon" in Gnutella-speak). Your horizon, though fixed in size, can change each time you log on. More interestingly, it's the basis of an alternate Internet, containing shared information from other Gnutella users' computers--data not necessarily available on the Web.

The by now notorious Napster employs a different architecture to share files on members' computers. The effect, however, is the same: a smaller, special-interest network, available to members of the Napster brotherhood, but not to the rest of the Web world. Of course, anyone can join, though most surfers won't. Napster is a self-selecting community of users with common interests that relies on its own web of content providers outside the mainstream.

Just look at AOL

These Net city-states aren't always out of the mainstream. Take America Online, the biggest Balkan state of all. Though AOL offers full Web access to its users, millions of them never leave the confines of AOL. In fact, plenty of users think AOL is the Internet. Often a small icon offers your only clue to where your next click will lead, whether it's to a Web site or to AOL's proprietary content (some of which, I feel compelled to disclose here, is drawn from CNET). Effectively, AOL users have formed their own community built around AOL's exclusive content and features. Outsiders can't peer in, can't access AOL's content, can't even share AOL users' tools. Just witness the recent legal and technological thrusts and parries surrounding AOL's popular chat functions. As quickly as third parties have introduced software to communicate with AOL chatterers, AOL keeps plugging the holes, attempting to keep the system closed.

Plenty of other ISPs have followed AOL's lead. WebTV offers proprietary WebTV-branded content for its members: a set of carefully culled links, plus interactive content such as UltimateTV--digital satellite programming with Web capabilities. Services such as the @Home network have hooked up with cable companies to offer high-speed Net access, though the interface is designed to lead you to the tailored, cobranded areas developed with its content partners. And users don't seem to feel hemmed in by the choices that have been made for them. In fact, according to Nielsen//NetRatings, most people visit just three sites per Web visit anyway; they don't need millions of sites to click through. Typical surfers soon settle on just a handful of bookmarked sites and don't venture much beyond that list. The predesigned neighborhoods of WebTV, @Home, and others allow users to leave, but human nature keeps people inside, cozy and generally well served.

The WAP factor

Even if you're not with a Balkanizing ISP, the device you use to get online may force you into a restricted Net community with its own content stream. If you've got a Web-enabled phone or handheld device, for instance, limited screen real estate dictates the content you can view. Though the number of WAP (Wireless Application Protocol)-enabled sites is growing quickly, you're still getting a subset of Web sites to choose from. And the kind of information that works best on a small screen--stock ticker info, sports scores, and the like--isn't about to change. Ultimately, many sites will create two separate versions: a full-on, whiz-bang Web site and a Web-clipped variety for teeny screens. Other developers will create unique content only appropriate for handhelds: just one more community among thousands.

These strategies of content-based communities coexisting within and alongside the Web proper will thrive because they recognize basic human needs. People like to be among their own, to feel like they're part of a neighborhood where they're comfortable. Who needs to venture out into the mind-boggling reaches of the Net when you've got what you need right in your own backyard?

In eastern Europe, Balkanization has often proved catastrophic. On the Internet, the process is more benign, less hostile. It's not good; it's not bad. It's just so. And it will ultimately force many of us to make choices of which Net nation-states feel most like home.

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