Three Predictions About the Internet That (Kind of) Came to Pass

02/13/2013 12:30 EST | Updated 04/15/2013 05:12 EDT

According to Eric Schmidt's famous (and famously contested) factoid from a 2010 comment, five exabytes of user-generated information now get created every 10 minutes in 2013. Schmidt may, in fact, be too low by a few exabytes. No matter. In this era of Big Data, three visions of the future of the Internet have crystallized. Depending on which vision emerges as correct will impact knowledge-generation forever.

1. The Zuckerberg Vision

Whatever his alleged missteps as CEO post-IPO -- and I for one count Mr. Zuckerberg as among the greatest entrepreneurs of the last 40 years -- the young man (pre-IPO) had a singular vision of how the Internet would evolve. Specifically, he saw the social Web, and Facebook in particular, as the window to the Web and to all information of relevance to the user. Since the inception of Facebook, other companies, notably Google+ and Twitter, have competed to own the social space -- and one could argue that the entire Web today is social. Most sites that users click on every day have 'share' and 'like' buttons and comment boards. To this extent, Mr. Zuckerberg has so far been wrong about Facebook, or any social pipe, becoming the single portal to all content on the Internet, but he has been right that there would be multiple social sandboxes, such as Twitter, from which Big Data companies would try to extract information of relevance.

Meanwhile, the need for new monetization strategies and post-IPO revenue have polluted the Zuckerberg vision; specifically, cookie-based, targeted ads (based on what you have 'shared' or 'liked') clutter the content of the social experience, at least for some users bothered by this. Data extraction from these sandboxes is also seriously threatened by emerging privacy legislation that should raise a huge red flag with Big Data extraction and analytics companies everywhere.

2. The Tim Berners-Lee Vision

Given that he invented the World Wide Web, observers often anoint Sir Berners-Lee with hagiographic status, but his vision was just that, and it has been wrong -- so far. Specifically, he felt that the next era of the Web (i.e. today) would see a beautiful semantic Web emerge supreme, such that all of us would enjoy the elegant and scientific organization of knowledge most relevant to us. So, for example, when I Google my lawyer, his slosh-fest at his fraternity keg bash in 1996 doesn't land on the top page of Google results. Instead, Berners-Lee forecasts, search would become an increasingly intelligent statistical Bayesian agent, always somehow knowing what really matters to me (i.e., that my lawyer has certain experience in a rarefied area of the law that matters to me right now).

This is difficult in the context of two factors at play today: first, companies are increasingly sophisticated at Googlewashing, or gaming search results; second, the need, as with Facebook, for search companies to move away from data purity and artificial intelligence and toward targeted ads based on user relevancy. In the world of search, Big Data companies can thereby extract information based on search relevancy and intensity (e.g., the frequency and intensity with which a URL gets shared).

3. The Jimmy Wales Vision

Bless Jimmy Donal Wales, for he co-founded one of the most important information tools in history, Wikipedia. His vision of the future of the Internet was almost right. Specifically, he imagined, based on crowdsourcing goodwill and collective intelligence, that Wikipedia could create a kind of mini-semantic web -- the accurate, elegant organization of knowledge, over time -- as a sandbox within the World Wide Web itself, but he under-estimated the decline of 'Wikipedians' committed to the cause. The very success of Wikipedia hyped the value of the wiki as an open organizational knowledge tool for others to emulate, and then sucked away legions from the Wikipedian army of collaborative editors, especially as contribution guidelines became stricter.

What's emerging now is more like a Big Data swamp

At present, the Web is and will likely continue to be a vast, deep swamp of information, bigger and bigger, dirtier and dirtier, with everyone fishing for gems of insight with different fishing rods to extract information of value. Our company uses a suite of fishing rods; we, and our clients, value the nature of the global data we extract. How others extract the right information of relevance will depend on which vision of the Internet wins out. And have no doubt; there will be only one winner.

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