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The Room for Everyone

February 2, 2015

YouTube's most popular and most subscribed channel is, to nobody's surprise, the gaming/comedy channel PewDiePie, amassing over 34,256,298 subscribers as of today and nearly 100 million views each month.* Daring Fireball, a popular tech blog by Mark Gruber, also reaches millions of individuals each month with dozens of millions of page views. And Hello Internet, YouTubers C.G.P.Grey and Brady Haran's podcast, also garners just as much attention as their respective YouTube channels, in the multi-millions. And with these kinds of viewership, you may think that the Internet gets pretty close to matching the overwhelming audience headcount of traditional media like televised broadcast, radio, and magazines. And in some cases, Internet audience does match or overshadow the traditional audiences. But more importantly, the Internet is a two-way platform, whereas traditional media is a one-way pipe. So the interaction between the creator and the audience is infinitely better online. All this is to say, with the slow decline of traditional media and faster Internet, the Internet is becoming the new place for any kind of content and storytelling. This is on the whole not surprising.

Beginning near the turn of the century, the talk of the industry was that Internet was going to revolutionize media, that the open environment will enable everyone to have a voice, and to create all sorts of social movements and be creative in ways that weren't possible before. But fifteen years later, I think we've fallen quite short of the massive expectations of the Internet. Don't get me wrong: there has been plenty of incredible stories of the Internet empowering ideas and creating revolutions. But the utopian view of the truly democratic platform for everyone's voice to be equal, as we saw it in the early days of the Internet, hasn't exactly come true yet. To understand my position why, though, we need to go far back, even before the Internet's beginning. When the first airwaves were being used for televised broadcasts in the bulged-out, black-and-white screens and the first radio stations were being built, people said exactly the same things for these new budding platforms of media. Television was going to "revolutionize" industries and radios would forever change the music industry......except it didn't. No offense to the six broadcast companies who own almost every one of the channels on TV**, but the kind of corporate power dominating the traditional media hasn't helped us reach the vision of the media as an equalizing power. Instead, it lead to a landscape of a handful of companies dominating everything in the field.

The Internet has become an incredibly crowded place, but can we all fit inside one Internet without crowding out? (image credit: Lucasbfr, Wikimedia Commons)

Now let's look back at our Internet. It's still open and free, much more so than the TV and publishing. Part of that's because there's hardly no barrier to entry. If I wanted to set up a new radio station or a new magazine company, that would cost quite a bit of pocket change. But I could one day decide to make an Internet startup and have it off the ground, chugging along in a few days, with almost no cost to myself. But as Internet, too, matures as a media, I think it's starting to lose the sense of "open and free" that it had in the early 2000s, for the same reasons as before. Contrary to the image of the perfect Internet we had a decade ago, mass media companies own the vast majority of the Internet, and there's hardly a room for smaller companies and individual voices. That's not to say these individual voices and smaller innovative companies can't thrive*** -- they can, for now. But it's not the perfectly democratic landscape that I wish it could be. Google owns nearly half of the Internet's traffic, and increasingly, when we're on the Internet, we aren't looking to listen to individual voices of each other anymore; we're there for the big guns, the corporations' services. In other words, the ideal, equal Internet would have just as much attention directed at companies like Google and Hulu and Netflix as the attention towards smaller creators like personal blogs, smaller YouTube creators, and independent artists****. But that's quite far from reality, for better or for worse. The corporate push pulls the Internet along, innovating on faster Internet, better technologies for the web, and getting more people to join the global Internet population. But that also means smaller voices like personal blogs hardly see the light of day. The large media powers are way overshadowing the quality-made, smaller voices. It's the TV and radio all over again.

The Internet will always have room for everyone -- it's up to us to decide who we invite in.

That raises two questions. 1) Will the Internet ever be entirely dominated by companies, leaving no room for independent voices? and 2) How can we stop the Internet from becoming just another variation of the same old story? The first question is a pretty simple one: it won't, as long as there's net neutrality. Net neutrality means that larger corporations like Google and Netflix are given the same preference through the Internet pipes as smaller websites like my blog. In other words, Internet providers like Comcast and Time Warner shouldn't try to give faster service to Google and Netflix than my blog because they're bigger more profitable to them. This allows smaller, independent voices to reach more audience and more ears without limitation. As long as everyone is given the same opportunities, I think the we can count on people to find creative ways to make their mark online. The second question is much harder, though. The Internet, so far, has given rise to a lot of the "American Dream" stories, of budding developers fresh out of college starting a small company and leading to a massive hit. Although not every story is as fantastic as the stereotypical one, there's a lot of instances of people starting out small and gaining a much wider, appreciative audience online, everywhere from music to arts to technology and education. I think there's still room for everyone on the Internet though. It's not like we're running out of gigabytes on Earth anytime soon. What's important, I think, is that we stay aware and conscious of these smaller voices, and we stay aware of the fact that just because they're smaller doesn't mean they have any less important things to say. The Internet will always have room for everyone -- it's up to us to decide who we invite in.

* That's almost 40 views per second, if you're counting. FORTY VIEWS PER SECOND!

** Those would be Time Warner, General Electric, Viacom, The Walt Disney Company, News Corporation, and CBS.

*** At least, this would be true so long as net neutrality is kept alive.

**** Of course, I'm also a part of this "independent creators" mix