12 Internet players you’ll want to know about

The tech business teems with Yalies. Here are snapshots of just a few—and digital predictions from a maven of the online.

Clay Shirky ’86, an associate professor at New York University, writes, consults, and teaches on social and economic effects of Internet technologies.

The story of the Internet is like a lot of the technology stories before it, of movable type, or the steam engine, or radio waves. A new invention makes many new things possible. Most of those things don’t come to fruition right away, though. The new invention doesn’t work very well at first, certainly not well enough for civilian life, and nobody is very good at it yet. (It took decades before anyone used the steam engine for anything other than pumping water.)

It’s hard to remember now, but 20 years ago, when we weren’t very good at it yet, the very idea of using a computer network to do business was radical enough that it came as a more or less constant surprise. The Seattle Mariners garnered breathless national coverage for launching a website in the mid-1990s; the précis of most stories was “A baseball team! With a website!”

The break between the pre-business Internet and today came in 1993, when the National Science Foundation opened the core Internet to commercial traffic. At the same time, the World Wide Web, then a nascent and text-heavy medium, got its first graphical browser—NCSA Mosaic—which was the conceptual parent of every browser we use today. As 1993 dawned, the Internet and the web—the wires and the content—were used almost solely by geeks of various persuasions. By the end of the year, both were open to the world.

This opened the floodgates to new, and often chaotic, experimentation. In the early days, the core skills required for building web businesses were a willingness to make things up as we went along, and an ability to run with successes and to learn from failure. (I jumped into the Internet in 1992, and can report from experience that we had lots of failure to learn from.) Some early businesses that seemed essential simply vanished: Geocities, Blue Mountain Arts, PointCast, and The Globe were assumed to be juggernauts. All were gone by 2000. The trajectories of even the most successful businesses diverged: Amazon and Yahoo were both central to the web by the end of 1995, but Amazon has gone from strength to strength, while Yahoo’s corporate story reads like The Perils of Pauline (with Marissa Mayer currently untying it from the tracks). Google launched at a time when people still thought that search was a sideshow, while the real action was in building hierarchical directories, like a card catalog.

And what now? The first decade of the commercial Internet revolution centered on information—search engines, finding plane tickets, buying books. The next centered on people—the rise of amateur publishing, the spread of social networks, “people who liked X also like Y.” And now, as the third decade begins, it looks like integrating objects and the environment is the next big challenge.

One strand of this is the widely discussed Internet of Things, where ordinary objects start to sprout processors and sensors and ties to the rest of the network. We’ve already grown accustomed to cars that know where they are and phones that can locate a restaurant, but those sorts of capabilities are becoming cheaper and cheaper and fitting into smaller and smaller objects. Your chair can tell when you’re gaining weight, your plants text you to ask for water. Farmers can drop sensors into the soil that report back on fertilizer and pests; doctors can drop probes into the bloodstream that perform analogous tasks.

But the Internet of Things is only part of what is happening to the physical world. Another major source of change is in how things will come to be created in the first place. The spread of cheap 3D printers is being lauded for revolutionizing the creation of objects, but its real effect, still mostly in the future, will be around how those objects are designed and modified. We are beginning to see how collaborative groups can do industrial design: one person posts an interesting but failed attempt at printing the shell of a radio-controlled car, and other users with 3D software all over the world modify the design until it works. This sort of collaborative, fix-driven effort has generally been confined to small teams, but sites like Thingiverse and TinkerCAD now make it widely available and cheap, creating something we might call micro-globalization. Industrial designs like the Clyde lamp or the Glif camera stand can start as a project on Kickstarter and end up being produced in Shenzen, China, without ever going through the usual middle step of being adopted by a large firm.

Then there’s the work going on to replace infrastructure with information, exemplified by efforts like Lyft (for transportation), AirBnB (for lodging), Waze (for traffic avoidance; just bought by Google), the creation of neighborhood tool-lending libraries, and so on. The intuition common to these “collaborative consumption” services: needing access to something as small as a drill or as large as a car doesn’t mean needing to own it. This is leading to more intensive uses of durable goods (the average drill is only used half an hour a year; why not share?) and, in extreme cases, to more intensive use of the built environment, where fewer cars can transport more people. These problems are all information problems; a network that makes moving information cheap and fast brings new solutions into view.

We’ve now passed the point where the Internet doesn’t work well or people don’t understand it. But the other thing we can learn from earlier technological revolutions is that the new normal also creates the conditions for new surprises. The non-commercial Internet created an environment robust enough for business. The spread of the web created a large and adventurous group of users, willing to try out new social patterns. And now we have an Internet so tightly woven into people’s lives that we can imagine extending it into the environments we inhabit.