Wednesday, August 12, 2009

The Fragile Internet

The events of this week continue to highlight the fragility of the new Internet. The new Internet is based on a few simple principles and emerging trends: real-time communication, person-to-person sharing of content (especially links, the real currency of the Web), one-to-many dialogue, and the proliferation of mobile as an added channel.

What all of these trends have in common is that they depend on one or more bottlenecks to exist - e.g. social networks such as Facebook, communication platforms such as Twitter, URL shorteners such as, etc. Gone are the days where email was the primary means of communication - i.e. where a technical collapse can be easily isolated to a company or a region. Today, the collapse of Facebook would instantaneously disrupt a global web of communication.

What's particularly frightening is the fact that these bottlenecks have become so important that they are global targets for scammers, nefarious hackers, and other bad guys. Even seemingly benign changes can affect how bottlenecks function and thus how the whole Internet communicates. Three examples from the past week clearly illustrate the delicate nature of the new Web:
  • Out of business. This week announced that it was shutting down its operations. Although this second-tier URL shortener is relatively small, it still facilitates thousands of active shared links. Its demise would mean that those links would cease to function, thus instantly creating thousands of dead ends. The potential ramifications of such a meltdown have led to a variety of plans to either save the company or the links themselves.
  • Absorbed. A few days ago, Facebook announced that it has purchased FriendFeed - a more robust Twitter-type sharing platform. FriendFeed is still a nascent platform with a small yet growing following and an interesting portfolio of technology and talent. Although the move makes sense, it depicts two troubling facts - 1. Logical consolidation will only lead to bigger and more valuable bottlenecks; 2. The users of these technologies are fickle - as seen by a revolt of old-time FriendFeed users.
  • Too big for its own good. Finally, the ongoing saga of the DDOS attacks on Twitter illustrates that bottlenecks are perfect targets for disrupting global communication. The bigger and the more important these new Internet platforms become, the greater the media coverage they will receive, and the larger the probability of more persistent attacks.

In the past, the collapse of AOL's or Yahoo's website would be disruptive but still localized. In the present, we have the growing consolidation of a relatively few global communication platforms. The platforms increasingly sustain a diverse set of economic, artistic, and social activities that provide significant value to our society. These platforms are bottlenecks that are susceptible to a wide variety of disruptions. The emerging Internet is quite fragile for now.

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