The latest Internet boom has brought us a wide range of services, but variety is remarkably absent from a key category: The Internet itself.
Some 20 years after its launch, the consumer Internet has reached a creativity plateau, with the same websites now being created by the thousands from the same content-management systems every day. At the same time, Facebook and other social networks have forced us into what I call “templated selves” — standardized units of user identity and user-generated content, confining free expression into a limited set of prefabricated molds. And mobile app stores, once the promised platform for new businesses drawn from new ideas, are drowning in largely homogeneous content, with the barrier to discovering truly unique apps now raised so high, few can effectively compete.
In a word, the Internet has become boring. When it went mass market in the mid-’90s, the Web was promised as a place of open exploration and creativity. Now, instead, it restricts our activity at nearly every turn. This doesn’t just constrain us as people, but threatens to impede the very inventiveness that the Internet industry depends on to continue thriving. What’s needed now is an understanding of how we reached this point — and an alternative vision for the Internet’s next generation.
The Internet as playground
In 2013, I conducted an online survey featured on Slashdot, asking programmers a basic question: How did you first learn to code? More than a thousand people responded; remarkably, not a single one cited “school.” For the most part, the respondents taught themselves to code, starting as kids in the ’80s and early ’90s, when the commercial Internet didn’t yet exist. This helped them inculcate a “what if” spirit for themselves, an interest in creating content over consuming it, and a willingness to fail and have fun failing.
These early adopters brought this spirit with them when they helped power earlier tech booms in the mid- to late ’90s, and you can see it reflected in many websites from that period — the Web as a playground, full of interesting (if sometimes silly) experiments, toys and DIY inventions. This energy also comes with a communal, supportive ethos, still evident in legacy sites like DeviantArt and LiveJournal.
A whole generation came to the Internet this way, as did the first pioneers who brought computing to the masses. Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak hacked together ways to make phone calls for free, anywhere in the world. Even Bill Gates got his start sneaking out of his house to use the University of Washington’s computer between 3 am and 6 am — the only time it was available.
These kinds of playful workarounds continue to transform the tech industry today. Slack, created by Internet veteran Stewart Butterfield, is among the most highly valued startups on the market now, and is essentially an updated version of IRC from the ’90s. What’s more, Slack began as a spinoff of Glitch, Butterfield’s open-ended virtual-world project, while his previous startup, Flickr, came out of the first version of Glitch, an MMO called Game Neverending.
From playground to career opportunity
As the Web became commercially viable and the venture funding poured in, however, a new generation sought development work in a largely homogenized Internet. Facebook, YouTube and most other leading social media networks have been around for nearly 10 years, as has WordPress, by far the leading CMS platform.
So, unlike the respondents in my programming survey, many in this new wave don’t remember the Internet when it was a playground, and missed out on its era of experimentation. Instead, they seem to see the Internet primarily as a career opportunity, learning how to code through online schools and colleges, focusing their talents on the hottest languages and projects. And because they didn’t train up for fun, they missed the chance to troubleshoot their own experiments and learn to push forward past coding roadblocks. Consequently, they can easily get frustrated by coding challenges they didn’t specifically learn about in their courses, or may solve them with bloated code instead of fresh solutions.
This dearth of creativity further hampers the current wave of Internet startups, as these developers saturate the market with undifferentiated websites and apps. For similar cultural reasons, the latest wave of technologists and investors feel safe working only on things that have been built before.
Finding (and funding) a fun Internet
Fortunately, we are starting to see a strong movement away from the templated, uniform Internet. Instead of defining the limits of their identity and expressiveness through social media, teens and pre-teens have already turned en masse to indie games like Minecraft (bought by Microsoft for $2.5 billion last year), a free-form, online sandbox world, with building tools that enable them to build everything from massive 3-D cities to working computers and continent-spanning roller coasters. NeoCities, a quasi-rebirth of GeoCities and a vanguard member of the independent Web movement, has seen enormous growth since launching in 2013, with nearly 50,000 websites created by its users.
I see just as much inventiveness among the quantified-self community, as they experiment with wearable devices and personal data to hack a better, healthier life for themselves and their community — fueled by a desire, as Anne Wright puts it, to break free from the tyranny of the norm.
What will we see for the future of the Web? My bet (and hope) is that the latest generation of pranksters and outsiders playing around on the Internet now will invent new, online creations which take us away from the norm we have today — away from templated identities on centralized servers, toward decentralized expressions on servers and personal websites that we, not corporations, control.
Smart people know that the edges are smart, and investing in those edges will benefit everyone in the long term. Because those edges are harbingers of what’s to come. And what might seem weird today often becomes tomorrow’s norm.
Amber Case is an entrepreneur and researcher who helps Fortune 500 companies design, build and think through their roadmap for connected devices. She is the former co-founder and CEO of Geoloqi, a location-based software company, acquired by Esri in 2012. She spoke about the future of the interface for SXSW 2012’s keynote address, and her TED talk, “We Are All Cyborgs Now,” has been viewed more than a million times. Named one of National Geographic’s Emerging Explorers, Case has been listed among Inc. Magazine’s “30 Under 30” and featured among Fast Company’s Most Influential Women in Technology. She is the author of “An Illustrated Dictionary of Cyborg Anthropology” and “Designing Calm Technology.” A passionate advocate of privacy and the future of data ownership, she lives and works in Portland, Oregon. Reach her @caseorganic and at caseorganic.com.
This article originally appeared on Recode.net.