Don’t look now, but the internet user has an increasing amount of influence over how or what is consumed online. Early on, only the geeks held some influence, but it is quickly moving towards the masses.
Geeks Force Legal Issues to Forefront
Roll the clock back to around 1997, way before the technological wonders of today’s world. The mp3 was invented a few years earlier and the distribution of mp3s slowly began underground on places like IRC. (I’m sure elsewhere as well, but that was my primary method) I never thought mp3s would ever make it to the average user, but boy was I wrong. We didn’t know it at the time, but music would never be the same again. At first the music industry was scared of something they did not understand. Fast forward to today and mp3s outsell physical disc copies.
Also in the late 90s, the DVD was created to consume movies in a digital format. Soon, a way to circumvent protection schemes on the DVDs, called DeCSS, was created. Fair Use? Freedom of Speech? The source code was printed on tvshirts and spread across the internet. Geeks came in-defense of one of its authors and the internet was actively backing one of its own.
Fast forward a few years to the advent of HD-DVDs and the HD-DVD key fiasco on Digg. I was a part of that, and we actually got Kevin Rose and Digg to change their stance and it felt pretty remarkable. I thought this is about as big as it could get by having a voice online. Boy was I wrong.
The Masses Get Involved
As the internet user base continued to grow, the average user became much more knowledgeable about the internet world around them. Privacy started to become a key issue online and what is or is not appropriate. Google had one of their first blunders when it came to Google Buzz and privacy. Facebook too had their run in with privacy concerns (facebook beacon anyone?) again and again and forced some real change when the FTC got involved.
Average users also influence how websites evolve over time. Twitter is a great example of this, as the hashtag was invented by one of its users. Now we can see the hashtag across multiple websites and platforms that are incorporated in various ways.
Never before has an online following or action resulted in a pre-emptive strike against legislation until SOPA happened this month. The blackout on Jan 18th was a great idea and major players across the internet were leading the charge. Everyone should be proud of what was accomplished. My prior examples have had their fair share of change and influence, but this is the first time I think that Congress has actually realized that we have power too.
Continue to be proactive. Learn about the services you use online and the media you consume. Learn about how the internet works and appreciate the work and sacrifice geeks did to transform the internet into what it is today. In 25 years, don’t be surprised if high schools across America make the history of the internet mandatory curriculum.
The internet is our playground. We are its users.
(For more discussion, head over to hacker news)