Jaron Lanier makes a point.
Our melodrama is driven by a vision of an open Internet that has already been distorted, though not by the old industries that fear piracy.
For instance, until a year ago, I enjoyed a certain kind of user-generated content very much: I participated in forums in which musicians talked about musical instruments.
For years, I was warned that old-fashioned control freaks like media moguls might separate me from my beloved forums. Perhaps a forum would be shut down because it was hosted on some server with pirated content.
While acknowledging that this is a possible scenario, a very different factor — proprietary social networking — is ending my freedom to participate in the forums I used to love, at least on terms I accept. Like many other forms of contact, the musical conversations are moving into private sites, particularly Facebook. To continue to participate, I’d have to accept Facebook’s philosophy, under which it analyzes me, and is searching for new ways to charge third parties for the use of that analysis.
And it’s not Facebook’s fault! We, the idealists, insisted that information be able to flow freely online, which meant that services relating to information, instead of the information itself, would be the main profit centers. Some businesses do sell content, but that doesn’t address the business side of everyday user-generated content.
The adulation of “free content” inevitably meant that “advertising” would become the biggest business in the open part of the information economy. Furthermore, that system isn’t so welcoming to new competitors. Once networks are established, it is hard to reduce their power. Google’s advertisers, for instance, know what will happen if they move away. The next-highest bidder for each position in Google’s auction-based model for selling ads will inherit that position if the top bidder goes elsewhere. So Google’s advertisers tend to stay put because the consequences of leaving are obvious to them, whereas the opportunities they might gain by leaving are not.
The obvious strategy in the fight for a piece of the advertising pie is to close off substantial parts of the Internet so Google doesn’t see it all anymore. That’s how Facebook hopes to make money, by sealing off a huge amount of user-generated information into a separate, non-Google world. Networks lock in their users, whether it is Facebook’s members or Google’s advertisers.