The World is Flattened …and the how Internet squashed it

By Matthew Inman

“There are no bosses, no board of directors, no stockholders, and no political rules. Each group of people accessing the Internet is responsible for its own machine and operation of its own section of the network. The Internet belongs to everyone and no one.”

This may seem like the mission statement of some young and hip tech start-up, but it is actually an excerpt from a United States government website set up way back in the 1990s to help introduce people to the “worldwide community called the ‘Internet'” and explain the benefits of getting online.

Although reading this article (entitled “The Internet: A Tool for Empowering People in the Information Age”), which includes explanations that would seem almost condescending to many people today, (the “Web” has “text, images, movies, sounds, and more!”) may feel like coming across a century-old document, the description of the freedom the Internet provides could not be more relevant today.

Today, more than ever, the Internet gives a tremendous amount of power to its users, allowing both business and consumer more choice and greater access to one another while taking unknown people and making them household names with just a few minutes of online video.

Every year there are countless stories overnight success made possible by the Internet. The Internet effectively removes the old media’s gatekeepers – those who decided what you were going to see on TV, hear on the radio, or read in newspapers – and replaces them with anyone with an internet connection and an idea.

When Shawn Fanning and his uncle started a file-sharing website in 1999, they probably did not think it would grow large enough to garner legal action from the music industry to prevent illegal music downloads. Behold the power of the Internet; it takes a good idea like the Fannings’ Napster and allows it to grow to its full potential, no matter how rich, poor, famous, or infamous the idea’s progenitor happens to be.

The really fascinating thing is what happens after that: even when Napster was shut down (in its original form) by a court order, the effect of the idea continued. Numerous file-sharing sites popped up and continue to do so today, sharing music, movies, software and more, still carrying the torch of freedom that the Internet inspires. As the article stated, “the Internet belongs to everyone and no one.” And, morality—and sometimes legality—aside, that goes for everything on the Internet as well.

This is in many ways good news consumers, as this kind of movement gives them convenient access to free products, but even better is the amount of choice that the Internet has created. There are even online auction sites like eBay that provide millions of options to anyone looking to buy or sell virtually anything.

In any facet of business, instead of only hearing about the top few companies, the consumer can now learn about hundreds of similar businesses that may have cheaper and better quality products. Before the Internet, these smaller companies would have been nearly invisible. Now, there are even sites (like FidelityInternet.com) made specifically to help small businesses set up and maintain successful websites.

Recently, it seems that a small business on the Internet is frequently a single person. Every day, people start careers and become famous through the recognition that the Internet can provide. On YouTube, one of the Web’s most popular sites, anyone can have their own television show. Sites that offer online television and radio have blurred the lines between online and on air;having a series of videos on YouTube is arguably as good a start in the industry as landing an audition on a major network show. The competition is just as fierce, but on YouTube everyone is guaranteed a starring role.

Two recent stories come to mind: those of Justin Bieber and Rebecca Black. Both of their stories start on YouTube, but in different ways, and leading to very different results. Bieber was discovered by a manager through the videos of him performing in YouTube, was introduced to R&B singer Usher, and quickly became the superstar (and budding tween perfume mogul) that we know today.

Black, on the other hand, began by starring in her own cookie-cutter pop music video for the song “Friday” (whose chorus, coincidently, is reminiscent of Bieber’s hit “Baby”), an opportunity that was paid for by her mother’s $4,000 and that led to Black’s current infamy as thousands of professional and amateur critics derided the inanity of the song’s lyrics—most notably through comments and responses on YouTube, the site on which her video gained its fame.

For better or worse, young artists are putting themselves out there through the Internet in a way that would never have been possible without it. In industries like the music business, a person needs to make his or her own luck, and on the Internet, luck is just an upload away.

Currently, the inception of e-books readable on devices like Kindle and the iPad has ushered in another aspect of the Internet’s ability to empower the idea makers of the world. Amazon.com offers a self-publishing feature that allows anyone—including Nvate—to get their content to the masses through the site and direct publishing to Kindle. Gone are the days when a prospective author would first have to convince a publisher to sign on, now an author can simply list his or her life’s work on the Kindle marketplace, and let millions of potential readers decide its fate.

The future of the Internet is hardly predictable, but this is certain: it will continue to be a vital tool for anyone willing to explore its possibilities, a veritable slingshot available to any David taking aim at the Goliaths in their industry.

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