Monday, February 25, 2008 

The Medium is the Mess....

Although Web leviathans like YouTube, MySpace and Facebook all clearly leverage aspects of the many-to-many/ peer-to-peer trend, they also usurp and plunder the power freely given by their users via constraining them inside the legacy client-server system of the web. The difficulty is, that in the web-context, the P2P meme’s pluralistic tendencies, as is obvious on sites like 'The P2P Foundation' (of which I am a member) tend to see the term 'P2P' applied in ever increasing ways, arguably diluting some of its power and potential, and its valid identity as a technical-system born of the Internet that actually predates 'The Web' by about 20 years.

A more objective Value-Axis of the Internet?

From where I stand there is a clear ‘value-axis’ existing on the Internet, and a rather peculiar ‘Cargo-Cult’ type adherence to a dominant cultural meme called “The Web” which as a term is used too often interchangeably with the term “Internet”. This simple semantic muddle must end, as it is the source of a lot of confused reasoning.

There are three primary components in a value-axis of the Internet, Connectivity, Communications and Transactions. Of these three, Connectivity is the most fundamental, with the next most fundamental factor being Communications and then Transactions with all other general applications, (information, entertainment, blogs, websites, web2.0 etc) sitting above these three. This simple taxonomy ranks factors in terms of which is more primary in its ability to ‘enable’ the others.

Websites, Portals (Facebook, MySpace, Saleforce, etc) are at the upper end of this scale of importance. (ie least fundamental) This does not mean to imply that consumer or business websites and ASP-based web-services are not important, but rather that as a rule these sites function atop a foundation of established connectivity, communications and transaction protocols, and are not in themselves ‘fundamental’ in the sense that they exclusively enable higher applications.

The Web itself sits on layer 2, ‘Communications’. After all, the Web, for all the hype associated with it, really just resembles a massive Amusement Park accessed by obtaining a ‘Browser’ ticket. In other words the Browser is your ticket, and you ride this communication platform which is actually built on the more fundamental Connectivity layer. Its no secret where the value truly resides in this mega-market duality. Browsers are free, Connectivity you pay for, and the ‘Attention Economy’ (acknowledgement to Umair Haque) sits like an ecosystem above all that, with Google currently at the top of the food-chain.

In his illuminating article ‘Content is Not King’ written in 2001, Andrew Odlyzko nailed it with prescient clarity, even though he, like so many, has used the term Internet, when he could well have been referring to the Web.

“The Internet is widely regarded as primarily a content delivery system. Yet historically, connectivity has mattered much more than content. Even on the Internet, content is not as important as is often claimed, since it is e-mail that is still the true "killer app."
- Andrew Odlyzko, First Monday:

Email (by the way) has the same status as the Web, it is a communication platform on layer two. Andrew Odlyzko does not distinguish between Communications and Connectivity. In his article referred to above, they are to all intents and purposes the same, yet his message is clear. Its the connectivity between people that is more fundamental (and valued) than the content exchanged.

The Web and the Internet are not interchangeable concepts

So we need to appreciate that the internet and the World Wide Web are quite different things. The internet is a network that is in fact a loose array of interconnected networks. The Web has been superimposed on this global network, and is the dominant overlay-system, but it is not the only possible system that can utilize that network. The web has allowed many hundreds of millions of people to download information from ‘servers’ via protocols like DNS, (domain name system) and communicate between each other via email by use of DNS and SMTP (simple mail transfer protocol). However these protocols, serve to lock users into the ‘client’ paradigm where ‘clients’ have to accept the terms of the businesses that control the web servers. This system also helps to make the Web and email systems vulnerable to a wide array of security problems. Albert Benschop pulls back the curtains in this slightly ominous description.

“The exponential growth and far-reaching commercialization of the web have lead to an ever-stronger manifestation of the power structures of society in the virtual world. At present specialized computers channel the data traffic on the Internet and portals and search machines such as AOL, Google and Yahoo! dominate and exploit the market of the internet-dollars. Strongly concentrated hubs have arisen that play a crucial role in the Internet traffic. They are monster-servers, diverting their information to millions of regular web-users.”
- Albert Benschop, Peculiarities of CyberSpace- University of Amsterdam

The client/server paradigm of the World Wide Web, overlaid on the internet in the late 1980‘s, with its multiple layers of servers sitting on their underlying enabling protocols (DNS, SMTP, FTP etc) represented, at the time, a ground-breaking innovation and has gone on to become a global phenomenon. However, as the Web has grown, its hierarchical structure, identity and addressing protocols have also facilitated many of its almost intractable negative externalities.

For all the web’s vulnerabilities to attack and corruption, there is considerable ‘lock-in’ to WWW legacy systems, with the marketplace in general having built up a history of blind-acceptance trust and familiarity with it’s processes. This is a large part of the conundrum typified in the usual search for solutions to the web’s problems.

Projects like APML (Attention Profiling Mark-up Language), BCCF (the Buyer Centric Commerce Forum) and Project VRM (Vendor Relationship Management) are all well intentioned projects by switched-on people who want to do something about the inherent inequities and privacy problems of the web, and are arguably contained within this larger P2P pluralism. But… with the greatest respect, they all miss the point. Doing it actually ‘on the Web’, is self-defeating because its not a level playing field. There’s an orthodoxy present on the Web as dominant as the Catholic Church during the middle ages.

This is where an understanding of the pure definition of P2P, as it has developed on the Internet, may provide an instructive counter-weight, and clues to dealing with the over-hyped and over-rated orthodoxies of the web.