In Wired’s recent article “The Web is Dead, Long Live the Internet”, Editor in chief Chris Anderson and contributing editor Michael Wolff lay out their vision of a complete pervasion of electronic media by capitalist interests. In their view, apps are the perfect vehicle for this victory: They are small, limited, and perfectly controllable containers for focused transactions between consumers who willingly give up freedom of choice for convenience and companies who are willing to invest in the necessary technology to make the consumer experience as positive as possible as quickly as possible.
However, this cannot be seen as the whole story, at least not at the moment or in the near future, as the Wired editors project it. Yes, consumers willingly give up freedom of choice in the act of consumption, but this is something they’ve always done, e.g. by entering a store with a limited selection of wares but with expert consultation at hand. And no, consumers do not seem willing to give up their freedom of choice altogether, just as they would not give up their right to leave a brick-and-mortar store and walk down the street to look at what other stores have to offer. In the landscape of the web today, there are always alternatives just around the corner. If the popular and successful offering’s grave drawbacks become visible, consumers can and will turn to the seemingly better alternative. That’s what happened between 2007 and 2009, when MySpace lost almost all of its social relevance to Facebook. But the users are aware of such shifts, and they use technologies to prepare for them. An artist with a presence on MySpace or Facebook would still keep on paying for a domain name and website and maintain an email list of an interested audience, and teenagers who organize 98% of their contacts through Facebook will still have backups of this data locally somewhere, if only in the address book of their phone that syncs with the online service.
Such fallbacks mark the ability to survive the shifts between dominating services, and therefore survive – stay connected! – in today’s world. The only way to control user behaviour entirely would be by controlling their access to the online data and merge the different, yet surely capitalist interests of networking services, content providers, and ISPs. But would the users, consumers, give up their freedom to chose which access to use just as willingly as they give up a simple buying decision? Maybe. Maybe a Facebook-only mobile device with heavy discounts on monthly payments but no access to anything else but Facebook could be successful. But would its users also give up their internet connection at home in order to use such a device? Would they give up their phone numbers and be reachable exclusively via their Facebook identity? I doubt it. And as long as there is freedom in the choice of access, there is freedom to leave one company’s cozy and convenient offerings and gather somewhere else.