What Will the Internet Be Like in 12 Years Time?
It’s now been 12 years since I quit my day job, and went full time with websites. It’s even longer since I first tinkered with HTML using Macromedia Dreamweaver.
So much has changed. The web was viewed (via dialup) thru an 800×600 monitor running Netscape navigator.
We’ve gained so much (mostly convenience), but, on the way, we’ve lost a few things as well.
Being Online Has Changed Us
We continue to experience massive shifts in the way we consume media, and communicate with each other. I feel a tinge of nostalgia as I watch the last DVD rental store close its doors. Or as I remember lazy Sundays sitting in the sun working my way through a fat newspaper.
I was once an early adopter, carrying a cellphone (for my job) in the early 90s. Running Wifi on my laptop (via PCMCIA card) long before Wifi was a thing. I could even get email on my Nokia “smartphone”.
Then the information fatigue started to haunt me. Cynicism began to creep in. Was I a better person? Wiser? Happier?
Have the tools that have bought us so much freedom and power been entirely benign?
Shiny Happy People
Between 1994 and 2012 prescriptions for anti-depressants have risen by over 400% (see CDC’s health). In the 1970s around 11% of people experienced loneliness. In recent years that number is around 40% (depending on your source).
That’s disturbing. I’m not implying that technology has caused this. But it certainly hasn’t been the miracle cure.
If there’s one thing that defines technological innovation: the law of unintended consequences.
Zuckerberg might have dreamed of everyone in the world joining hands and singing kumbaya (aka Facebook). The unintended consequence is that social media use is linked with depression.
Social media is a double-edged sword (src).
“We’ve found that if you use social networking as a way to promote face-to-face conversation, it lowers loneliness. But if you use [as] a destination, as a replacement for the face-to-face, it increases loneliness.”
Radical Change Could Happen Any Day
No one knows what will happen when technology is released into the wild.
Mobile traffic now makes up 75% of my total traffic across all sites! If you’d told me that a few years back I would have laughed.
I’m not laughing now, as display advertising revenues plunge.
I once asked someone who ran a (now defunct) chain of CD music stores: “What was the single factor that lead to your business failing?”
They answered immediately: “The day the iPhone 4 came out“.
They never saw it coming. Apple probably did, but to the consumer it was just a fancy phone.
How Will We Consume Information?
It’s mind-bendingly difficult to predict the future. Is everyone wearing Google glasses? Nope. Apple Watch? Very niche. Even iPad sales are on their way down (peaked in 2014).
Technology changes tend to come in bursts. Nothing happens for a while, then suddenly we experience a shift in just a few years.
The AI winter has passed. We are in a time of great change, and the job market will take a hit over the next decade. Gardeners and plumbers will be fine. But well-educated analysts of varying ilk may find themselves replaced by a machine-learning algorithm.
VR is advancing, but I’m still struggling to see this as a mainstream technology.
Text and Pictures
Video exploded online with youtube, and for a while I was desperately trying to incorporate video content onto my websites.
But text and images still sit at the core of online information.
What’s concerning is how many corporations are attempting to host all online information. Even before writing this post I wondered whether to write directly on LinkedIn or Medium. Every other week I get an email from Google asking me to convert some of my content to their AMP format, so they can host and serve it fast.
It’s about exchanging ownership and control for a potentially larger viewership.
Many publishers do this well – they write a fantastic post on Medium, which then has multiple links back to their own site. This battle will continue. I hope I see independent blogs survive.
Screens Still Win… For Now
A decade ago you might create a webpage that answers a particular query. Then Google co-opted (scraped?) the information. Now that information may well be a spoken answer. The technology can only be hosted by one of the giants (apple, google, amazon, microsoft etc).
That rules out people like myself who make text and images.
Screens still dominate. But I’ve observed that us humans are lazy and ill-disciplined. We would rather consume information on a device with a 4.7″ screen than walk across the room and pickup a laptop. I continually observe people enduring a poor mobile UX, rather than get the full experience on a full-size screen.
If we’re willing to strain our eyes on tiny screens, what else might we forgo to get our information in the quickest way possible?
Will the current chatbot trend last? Do people have the patience for conversational interfaces? Will China lead the way as we slowly dispense with swipes and taps in favour of speech? Will neural interfaces appear? (it will happen one day).
Decreasing Engagement – When Will It Stop?
Here is almost 10 years of data from my site CaffeineInformer.com. Despite devoting hundreds of hours to building out more long-form and indepth content – engagement continues to slide.
On another older site (over 10 years of data), time on site dropped from 4 minutes to around 1:45 (pages per session tend to follow the same trend). Bounce rate went from 38% to over 70%. Content has hardly changed except for design improvements along the way.
It’s not just about the mobile revolution. Time on site across all devices has been dropping.
More than ever, media consumers are content to skim (and share) nothing but the title of an article. So, fake news flourishes, and ill-informed and baseless assertions flood the online world.
As a website owner I’m sometimes delusional. I think that users are sitting there exploring every pixel of my webpage. They don’t.
Despite seeing such growth in beautiful rich long-form content across the web, I suspect hardly anyone actually reads it.
Maybe that’s a baseless assertion right there, but metrics from my own sites show our patience for online info continues to dwindle.
The Year 2029
Purely information-based websites will become increasingly precarious. Websites will need some form of engagement and interactivity to survive. Facebook and Google have collectively swallowed up the Internet. But no company lasts forever.
There’s always room for niches with a more boutique feel. In the future thousands of us might be content to buy coffee from a robot. But I would argue that many would rather pay for the few minutes of banter with a barista.
Our world might be immersed in algorithms, but the human heart craves real connection with people.
In much the same way I still see personality-based blogs flourishing on the sidelines of the mega-corporations.
The online world of 2029 is an unknown, but creative entrepreneurs will always find a way.