Surprises of the Internet

With the Internet being a regular feature of our lives for about 20 years now, what have been the related developments that were hard to pick at the outset? What are the lessons? Five thoughts:

  1. Communication and personal expression is the main business of the Internet. That was not easy to pick beforehand. The main early surprise was that individuals mainly used it for email. Buying things online and having open flows of information were much later in coming than originally thought. The killer application was people mailing each other.
  2. League tables. Nowadays, every click goes towards a score. Based on scores your webpages are high or low on the google searchers; our web-visibility is measured in a zillion different ways, ranking from ‘profile views’, to ‘trending hashes, to ‘friend endorsements’. Our life online seems continuously pegging us against everyone else. If a random twitter is shared a million times, the person is interviewed on tv about it, such is now the attention given to online league tables. It was hard to pick that the internet was going to lead to races in everything.
  3. (corollary of 2) The rise of likes. With the flood of information that the Internet has given rise to, subjective feedback has become the main way in which reputations are made, and both search and purchasing decisions are guided. From being a trusted supplier on eBay to having had a satisfactory experience at a coffee shop. Subjective information is now coming to the fore as one of the few ways a huge amount of information is being organised, and I certainly didn’t see coming that one of my fields of expertise (satisfaction) was going to become completely mainstream as a result of the Internet.
  4. Increased public prudishness. There was a time when in the Nordic countries and even in Australia, nude swimming or running naked through a campus was a regular occurrence, if only as an initiation rite. No more: with the ubiquitous availability of mobile phones and Internet profiles, the risk of any free or unencumbered moment being photographed and then immortalised\ridiculed on-line forever has become too great, even in the more relaxed countries. Whilst porn is easier to access than ever before, the general culture has arguably become more squeamish about any open nudity because of the Internet.
  5. Capital has gained relative to low-skilled labour for the Internet has made it easier to move money across borders and re-label it in various ways so as to avoid taxes or others interested in a share, whilst low-skilled labour has seen no such international advantage.

The internet of course has had many more effects. From an economic point of view, it has reduced search costs, giving rise to a huge increase in intermediary services and small-scale trades that previously could only be done within small communities, simply because the trust and the possibility to make small particular trades with strangers was impossible. It has become a new venue for philanthropic activities, and it has allowed people who fit poorly into mainstream society to find the niche in which they are normal. Also some initial hopes have not been realised, but those hopes were a bit naïve. The dreams of the early anarchic internet users that a revolution in participation would ensue has for instance not materialised as the world of officialdom and secrecy has gradually put its own mark on the Internet, using the fundamental fact that electricity moves with the speed of light, but the individual internet user has an address and a tax file number.

Anything that strikes the reader as a surprise of the Internet?

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21 Responses to Surprises of the Internet

  1. conrad says:

    1) The freedom of information flow appears to be a causal factor in the beginning of the end for many dictatorships no matter how hard they try and censor it (North Korea excluded). Even the Chinese government has to pretend to be “nice” to the people these days.

    2) Far better service from businesses, and not just small ones — there is no need to leave you house for mundane stuff anymore.

    3) A large change in mainstream entertainment preferences.

    • conrad says:

      I’ll add another: A whole new set of semi-universal written characters for expressing emotions (smileys etc.), so now we have more than just the exclamation mark in English (they seem similar to particles in some languages).

  2. Crocodile Chuck says:

    An explosive increase in access to information on science [eg, Wikipedia, which in this domain at least, & at a high level, is surprisingly good].

    The ability to see/learn how to do just about anything, e.g. MIG welding on YouTube.

    & don’t get me started on recipes..


      • David Walker says:


        If someone had said to me in 1990, “within 20 years there will be a single set of worldwide communications and media protocols connecting many millions of personal computers”, I would have said “about time”. If that someone had added “and it will allow the development of many reputation management systems” I would have said “interesting, tell me more”. If they had then added “and one of the big things on it will be kitten videos” I would have been mystified.

        The cats were the big surprise.

    • Nicholas Gruen says:

      A Troppo MIG welder. What a great idea! Will be available for the next competition.

  3. John walker says:

    One other effect is that what used to be mostly Village level gossip and general BS etc , now have an extraordinary degree of circulation. Be it anti- vax groups , quantum skin creams or fundamentalist rants , they can get around the globe like never before.

  4. Nicholas Gruen says:

    Thanks Paul,

    With apologies for any hindsight sneaking into my commentary, I’d like to offer an account of my own performance in anticipating some of your points – though I can’t document a lot of it. It’s as truthful an account as I can manage. It relates only to points 1 and 3. No claims of prescience of any kind are made regarding the others.

    1. I remember seeing my father and brother using email between the ANU and Princeton in the late 1980s or perhaps very early 1990s. It seemed completely obvious that this was (in terminology I wouldn’t have known at the time) a killer app. I was amazed at how long it took business to catch on to email, and likewise amazed at how long it took to make standard protocols that enabled one to send files over email so one could collaborate on them.

    2. No prediction or expectation – didn’t think about it till it was happening, though, apropos of nothing much, whenever I see league tables mentioned I always think of Woody Allen’s line in Annie Hall, which predates the internet. “All you do in California is give away awards. Greatest Fascist Dictator: Adolf Hitler.”

    3. It pains me to say that I’ve been talking about the importance of reputation since before I was aware of the internet. It seemed so neglected and such an obvious way in which we could improve the efficiency of markets. I don’t know if I can put my hands on anything I wrote before the internet arrived – though I was certainly talking about those things. I can offer this in evidence, which is a paper published in 2002. It’s striking that I’m arguing these points – as I still am – not by saying “hey look at what’s happening on the internet, that proves how cool it is” but from first principles using the internet – in the second piece identified for examples, rather than as the template for the ideas.

  5. ChrisB says:

    Another totally unexpected development was the growth of privacy. I can remember when the value of the telephone system was specifically linked to the existence of the telephone book, as the automobile was to the highway system, one inconceivable without the other. Now we have the situation where there are no internet phone books, and access to any person’s address is essentially individually negotiated. I did not see this coming. Yes, there are threats to privacy, but imagine trying to launch the telephone today; “You want all this information – name, home address, wealth – to be just out there for anybody to access? A continual never-ending data breach?”

  6. ChrisB says:

    Oh, and there are now no mobile phonebooks, either. Privacy.

  7. Crocodile Chuck says:

    Poor attempt at trolling.

    To even imagine that we enjoy ‘greater privacy’ today is laughable. Ask the NSA e.g., ‘PRISM’, ASIS here, e.g. ‘Metadata retention’, and, more egregiously, the GlobalTech Co’s that accumulate OUR data and deliver it to the gov’t intell agencies mentioned above.


  8. Nicholas Gruen says:

    But it’s an interesting thing. You could say in our reaction to the prospect of widespread privacy breach, we’ve got ourselves in a sufficient lather that some privacy breaches that made sense have been run out of town – the phone book is one, but commonsensical everyday logistical things – when you get rung on your own mobile phone and the person ringing you goes through a ridiculous ID routine. Or you want to find if a relative of yours made the plane you’re intending to meet, and they can’t tell you for privacy reasons.

    Personally I preferred the way we dealt with privacy according to informal ethical codes rather than legislated ones. But that may be rose coloured glasses. I do know that some dodgy things were done by business.

  9. paul frijters says:

    Yes, the internet’s effect on privacy has been unclear. It has killed phone books, but you can search for names easier than ever before, both on social fora like facebook, and professional fora.
    The reaction in different countries is interesting in this regard. The Scandinavian countries have become almost obsessively open. You can find your neighbour’s tax files online in one of them (Norway, I think), and a sample of the Danish population’s census information, linked to their medical history and other administrative data records, is open for use to any researcher in the world. In Australia, by contrast, much of the interesting data is kept secret never to be used by anyone except the NSA and other such agencies.

    So I am unsure how to rate the overall effect of the internet on privacy. It seems to depend more on national institutions, suggesting that the Internet has empowered particular institutions in particular countries in a way that is not so easy to pin-point.

  10. David Walker says:

    Terrific list, especially for the league tables idea. Email and reputation management are underrated too.

    One you may have left out is simply: words.

    In the early 1990s we were still debating the ideas of people like Neil Postman, who warned in 1985’s Amusing Ourselves To Death that we risked creating a dumbed-down world where the image was king.

    And then the Internet came along, and … Oh my god, it’s full of words. Even today, video on the Internet is confined to the great ghetto of YouTube. Most web pages are mostly words, with images as a sort of weak supporting act. Multimedia presentations and embedded video in web pages aren’t even all that popular. From twitter to email to Wikipedia to Kindle, the Internet is helping to create a more writing-oriented society, at least for the moment.

  11. John Quiggin says:

    The point about capital flows is unrelated to the Internet. The systems for transferring large volumes of money are closed and proprietary and predate the rise of the Internet.

    At the individual level, what’s surprising is how little difference the Internet has made to international financial transactions. Paypal and Bitcoin are innovations, but their adoption is too limited to make them generally useful. Try to do something that ought to be instantaneous, like depositing a US check in an Oz bank, and you’ll find it would be faster to take a cruise boat to the US and deposit it there.

    • paul frijters says:

      I was thinking less about individual transactions, though those too have become easier (I shudder to think of having to go back to bring cash to a travel agent to book my international flights!), but more about financial markets moving billions in seconds across countries. Those are packages of money, bundling the resources of many into the hands of single traders. For instance, hard to envisage the trade and speculation in US mortgages by EU banks that was involved in the GFC without the internet.
      I also would venture that setting up subsidiary companies in dozens of other countries to hide taxes has become easier with the net. Not a simple matter of moving money, but certainly a means of re-labeling money.

  12. Comments have got this far in, and no one has mentioned international terrorist radicalisation? I really don’t think anyone foresaw the PR outreach which ISIS could “successfully” use it for.

    Or what about the bizarre pro-anorexia sites which no one quite knows how to respond to? And I have been saying for a while that the climate change denialism movement has almost certainly had a great deal of unwarranted success because of the speed and ease with which disinformation can be promulgated to people primed to believe it.

    While I love the internet, I don’t just don’t think people foresaw the malicious and harmful uses it could be put to in spreading such memes. Or perhaps they assumed it would be easier to put such sites out of action?

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