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The Year The Internet Tipped

How small changes to the Internet have changed the way we talk.


This year, something happened to the Internet. A subtle shift in the fabric. Years after the dot-com boom, after the blog revolution and Napster something happened that leads me to believe that the revolution is about to begin, and we "ain't seen nothing yet."

To explain this shift, I have to go back to Malcolm Gladwell. A cult icon, reporter for The New Yorker, and admired by everyone from captains of industry to pimply-faced computer geeks and everyone in between. Each of his new articles get passed around the blogosphere and corporate email systems with equal ease. As an example of his impact, the hip hop band The Roots named one of their albums after his first book, and Donald Rumsfeld used it to describe the war in Iraq.

So what makes him so popular? It's hard to describe. He writes about little things. The subtle ways we influence and are influenced by our environment. By taking things apart and putting them back together again, he can explain how seemingly minor things have a major influence on our lives.

Almost as proof of this, his first book The Tipping Point was subtitled How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference. By examining how ideas take hold, he deconstructs the mechanisms of communication, thought, and "cool," and puts them back together again. He offers up "three rules of the Tipping Point.

Law of the Few, the Stickiness Factor, and the Power of Context.

The Law of the Few says that there are exceptional people out there who are capable of starting epidemics. All you have to do is find them. The lesson of stickiness is the same. There is a simple way to package information that, under the right circumstances, can make it irresistible. All you have to do is find it.... (The Power of Context says that) small changes in context can be just as important in tipping epidemics.

Before Malcolm Gladwell, there was Richard Dawkins, whose seminal and controversial book The Selfish Gene describes not just how genes influence our lives, but how ideas too can take hold like a virus. He calls these idea viruses memes. Passed from one person to another, a meme takes hold like the cold virus does. Infecting one person, then another, until the entire third grade class has the Measles, or to the point where one person can mention the word "meme" in a conversation and fully expect the other person to understand what he means.

The Internet has always been a breeding ground for memes. An idea can come from anywhere and catch on within a matter of days. Within a year it's fully caught hold, and not only does it change what's being talked about, but the point of view of the people having the conversation as well.

But something happened this year that sets it apart from previous years. Like The Tipping Point, memes, and Malcolm Gladwell well himself, it's subtle. To contrast, let's go back to September 12, 2001.

That day, there was one topic of conversation everywhere you went - what happened the day before. Every corner of the Internet was talking about it. It didn't matter what the purpose of any forum was, this event was so big that it eclipsed all normal conversation. But then we went back to talking about what we were supposed to be talking about.

External events shaped our conversation. Now let's talk about the conversations we were having this year.

A small, unassuming three year old book by a corporate consultant on productivity went - within the span of one year - from something only business management types talked about, to (perhaps) the most talked about book of the year. Virtually unknown by the tech/blogging community 12 months ago, if you mention Getting Things Done (by David Allen), anywhere on the Internet today, people will hear you, and respond. Mention the acronym GTD and people know what you're talking about.

This is completely unlike September 12, 2001. Not imposed on us by the outside media, nor about trivially common events (like those ubiquitous "favorite recipe" threads), this book became a topic of conversation everywhere slowly. It became both a noun and a verb. Not only could you have a conversation about GTD without anyone accusing you of being off topic, but you could have conversations about other things and GTD would come up without derailing the conversation.

Just like The Tipping Point, this book deconstructs our activities and puts them back together again in a more meaningful, cohesive way. It's advice is completely practical, like "in order to accomplish anything, you have to think about what you're going to do next. Why not think about this as soon as you're given a task, rather than later? If you already know what you have to do next, you're more likely to actually do it." (I'm paraphrasing... badly.)

Anyone (the few of you) who haven't read GTD might read that and say "What kind of meaningless management crap is that?" But those of you (most of you) who've read GTD might say "Yup, I'm already doing it."

Another example of something that spread from person to person until it became part of our vocabulary was Jon Stewart's appearance on the show Crossfire. Approximately 800,000 people watched that show, but millions of people (let's just say 8 million) downloaded it and watched it within days and weeks of it's airing.

These things aren't things that could have happened just a few short years ago. I doubt they could have happened just last year, not on this scale anyway.

So what makes this year different from the last? How is the Internet is more of a community now than before? The answer is simple. We went from theory to practice.

Sites like SixDegrees.com and Friendster.com told us that we're all connected. But the way they went about connecting us was artificial. "Create an account, and tell all your friends to do the same." As many of us did it (we like to feel like part of a community), it didn't really tell us anything about ourselves, and it didn't stick. The initial fascination wore off, and it disappeared.

Sites like Popdex and Daypop told us that bloggers ideas entered blogger consciousness and left. One look at Daypop's Word Bursts tells exactly what words are entering our vocabulary and when. Again, this is the exercise of a theory that exists simply to prove that the theory exists.

Don Peppers and Martha Rogers, in their classic (1996) marketing book The One to One Future told marketers that if you ask someone to do something, like register for a website, you have to give them something in return. This builds a level of trust. As cynical internet users, we know that we don't need to give out our information unless the other person expects to use it. But by giving us something in return, we forgive it. Give us something truly usefull, and we won't even think of what we're giving up in order to get it.

So how did this theory of "everyone is connected" go from theory to practical use?

Social bookmarking site del.icio.us doesn't tell us that we're all connected, it simply, and beautifully shows it. It doesn't ask what my relationship is to anyone else is, but it does show me that we're interested in the same things. Just head over to http://del.icio.us/popular/ and you'll see that people who use del.icio.us become interested in the same things at the same time. It elegantly shows the meme virus in action.

43 Things is a web site that seems to straddle the barrier between theory and practicality. The idea is if you list the things you want to do, you're more likely to do them. And you can meet people who also want to do those things. It may be interesting to see what things become popular to want to do when.

Upcoming.org is a website where anyone can post an event that they're going to, and other people can sign up and say "Yeah, I'm going to that too," and start to talk to each other. We're starting to have conversations not just about what happened, but what will happen, and what we want to do.

Another theory was that peer-to-peer applications would revolutionize the way we consume media. Napster, Kazaa and other P2P apps allowed us to search each other's hard drives and download music and movies from each other. It seems simple, and viral enough - if any one of us has it, we can all have it.

But according to some articles I read, it was a relatively small percentage of Kazaa users (1% or 2%) that had most of the content that we wanted to download. While this kind of thing worked for getting the most popular MP3's, it doesn't work for really distributing new and interesting media on a wide scale.

It took BitTorrent to distribute the Jon Stewart/Crossfire video clip to every corner of the internet. Under BitTorrent, not only can everyone have what I have, but they can do it without me. Once I've "uploaded" my content (in the form of a .torrent file), I'm no longer needed - the file is broken up into pieces and everyone gets the pieces from each other.

What I'm seeing this year is that we can have a global conversation. I no longer have to read every blog or every forum to see what people are interested in, I can just see what del.icio.us says is popular, or I can get an RSS Feed of a blog (which also really only caught on this year thanks to software like FeedDemon, and integration with mail clients like Thunderbird) I'm interested in and ideas will come to me through the grape vine. Trackback links show us not only the source of an idea, but what conversation an article inspired.

An article I write about Getting Things Done or Small Freeware Applications can gain mindshare, and fade. Then other, similar sites and articles will become part of the conversation, I can learn about them through the same mechanisms other people used to discover me.

The theory was that people were connected and that ideas spread like viruses. We can now see how this happens in practice.

Perhaps this explains why Google is so important. It said that the most important measure of a web page was how many people were talking about it. Google is a manifestation of the global conversation. We explored the boundaries of this with Google Bombing, just to see how it could be artificially manipulated. Microsoft won't be able to take Google down unless they can figure out the social aspect of searching. It's not about the best results (despite what everyone says), it's about the most interesting, most talked about results.

So what's on the horizon? 2004 has wrapped itself up and 2005 is about to unleash itself on the world. How will the context within which we have our conversations change?

Well, if we're lucky, more theories about the Internet and life in general will work their way into practical tools in unexpected ways. The things people are talking about and clumsily trying to achieve will be realized elegantly, and from completely unknown and unknowable places. While all the focus is on Microsoft and Google, all the innovation will come, as Google did, seemingly out of nowhere.

According to Clayton M. Christensen in The Innovator's Dilemma, small companies can chip away at larger companies by taking small pieces of the business that the larger company isn't interested in until one day the large company sees that the only thing they're doing is the large, unwieldy stuff, and they collapse from the weight.

Well, I think that's where we're eventually headed, except it won't be the underdog vs. the monolith. We won't know who to cheer for, and the corporations won't know who to defend themselves from because the innovations won't come from their competitors. They'll just come out of nowhere.

Microsoft will so busy itself trying to topple Google, rid themselves of FireFox, and take down Sony that they won't realize that del.icio.us is just one more step away from desktops and towards a system that's platform independent. The RIAA and MPAA will be so busy trying to destroy the alternative means of distribution that they won't see how, when a product is good and the situation is just right, the Internet is free and immediate publicity.

Marketers will continue to study us, and try to co-opt any and all new methods of communications for their own purposes. Already there are corporate advertising blogs and viral marketing campaigns (which involve creating bizarre & interesting advertising about a product so it will get passed around the blogosphere).

And Malcom Gladwell's new book, Blink, will become a best seller, and predict the next 4 years. By then, we'll have deconstructed all of reality and built a new communications model that, paradoxically, informs us instantly of what everyone else is thinking, and gives us room to interpret and think independantly about it.

You ain't seen nothin' yet.



page first created on Friday, December 31, 2004


© Mark Wieczorek