Tuesday, August 31, 2010

It's just a flesh wound

It doesn't have quite the cultural import as Time's famous "Is God Dead?" cover, but Wired magazine's proclamation that "The Web is Dead" has sent shockwaves throughout the geekosphere. Wired editor Chris Anderson argues that we are moving from a web-based, PC-driven Internet to an app-based, mobile-driven Internet, owing to the convience of mobile apps for users and the greater profitability for content producers.

Like this guy, I tend to think this isn't happening with quite the speed and finality that Anderson envisions, though his critics seem to be oversimplifying his arguments a bit. But even if Anderson's vision does come to fruition, I don't think it's nearly the threat to the information culture the web has created as critics such as Jeff Jarvis have made it out to be.

Jarvis and other like-minded observers point out that the while the web is an open platform, with low barriers to entry and no gatekeepers, mobile apps are quite the opposite: closed systems controlled by the makers of mobile devices and their operating systems, most notably Apple with its iPhone and iPad. That's exactly why media companies like apps, Jarvis correctly argues: They can charge users to download to their device and they can hide their content from aggregators, bloggers and search engines that would "steal" their content. Plus there's no commenting. It's the return of the one-way media/audience relationship:

So I see the iPad as a Bizarro Trojan Horse. Instead of importing soldiers into the kingdom to break down its walls, in this horse, we, the people, are stuffed inside and wheeled into the old walls; the gate is shut and we’re welcomed back into the kingdom of controlling media that we left almost a generation ago.

I find it ironic that a media critic that Jarvis, who has been pummeling old media companies for years over their failure to adapt to the ethos of the web, is now beating them up for trying to quickly adopt what appears to be the next big thing. I find it even more incredulous that he assumes they will get it right, and doesn't understand the implications if they don't. People aren't simply going to fork over money for a news organization's app simply because it's available in the app store. Media orgs are going to have to produce good content, something that quite frankly many of them stopped doing years before anyone heard of the Internet.

What's more, users like me have carried their expectations for the web to their mobile device. For example, nothing frustrates me more than an app that doesn't let me share content on Facebook or Twitter. Some only allow you to email links to your friends. What is this, 1998? That's how my 77-year-old father uses the Internet. I might have shelled out a few bucks initially just for the novelty of an app, but I've learned my lesson, and now I'm more discriminating. Free or not, I'll delete an app that doesn't live up to snuff.

It is true that the barriers for entry are far higher in the mobile universe than in the web. But the barriers for entry on the web weren't always so low. The reason that so many IT departments held sway over organizational  web sites for so long -- when a web site really is the province of marketing and PR -- is because web sites were so difficult to build and maintain. Blogger and WordPress haven't always been with us. Nor have WYSIWYG content management systems. The web has gotten easier to develop, as will mobile content.

There is still the matter of the gatekeepers -- the Apples and Googles and others that control what apps you can buy and which you can't. But without putting too much faith in the marketplace, eventually demand to create and consume user-generated content will force those companies to open the gates wider to a greater variety of apps. Sure, some content will probably never flourish on mobile as it did in the web -- namely pornography and fringe political viewpoints.

But the demand for that kind of content is steep enough -- not to mention demand for all the other types of content that flourishes on the web -- that the web will simply not die in the way that Anderson foresees. The ease with which people can create content, and the demand for that content, will keep the web alive and well for decades to come. (Well, years, anyway.) It's a trite example, but there is still good programming on radio, two generations after it was replaced as the dominant home entertainment medium. Filmmakers feared TV would put them out of business, but the experience of going to a movie couldn't replicated at home.

In other words, convienence doesn't always carry the day.

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