The Year Megaplatforms Ruled The Internet

On the web we lost, the web we deserve, and the web we want. posted on

A visitor looks at portraits of Facebook’s founder Mark Zuckerberg at solo exhibition The Face of Facebook by Chinese artist Zhu Jia at a gallery in Singapore, Oct. 30, 2013. Edgar Su / Reuters

Here’s something you probably didn’t read this year.

Buried deep in a 179-page SEC filing by a company you probably haven’t heard of is a paragraph about a Gmail change that most people may not have noticed. But this IPO filing for Zulily, a daily deals site for parents, may contain the emblematic passage of this year in tech. Under “RISK FACTORS”:

Our business relies heavily on email and other messaging services, and any restrictions on the sending of emails or messages or an inability to timely deliver such communications could adversely affect our net sales and business…

It goes on:

For example, Google Inc.’s Gmail service recently introduced a new feature that organizes incoming emails into categories (for example, primary, social and promotions). Such categorization or similar inbox organizational features may result in our emails being delivered in a less prominent location in a subscriber’s inbox or viewed as “spam” by our subscribers and may reduce the likelihood of that subscriber opening our emails.

What Zulily is saying, here, is that its prospects — its chances for continued existence — are contingent on the whims of Google, a company that doesn’t really care about Zulily. It’s saying that Zulily, the company, means about as much to Google as Zulily, the word, means to you. A minor interface tweak for Google translates to an existential threat for this objectively large but comparatively small company. For this multibillion-dollar enterprise, and its investors, incremental Google updates may as well be acts of God.

This week, lyrics site Rap Genius realized Zulily’s worst fears. After it was revealed that Rap Genius was using spam tactics to help its lyrics rank highly in searches, Google effectively delisted the entire site. By adjusting its figurative traffic dials ever so slightly, Google dropped Rap Genius’ daily visitors from 650,000 uniques to 136,000 in just two days. Rap Genius, which has raised over $15 million in funding, says it’s working on a compromise with Google, but the company’s message could not be clearer: We are in control here. And don’t forget it.

2013 was a year in which tech’s largest, most visible companies became incumbents — it was the year that the new guard became slightly old. It was not, despite a thousand press releases to the contrary, a year for “disruption” — it was the year that the biggest companies on the internet became bigger, went public, and digested smaller competitors. It was the year that the internet’s mega-platforms became both its center and its central authority. It was a year for “building,” sure, but only on borrowed property.

It was the year that Facebook, sensing that it had lost a margin of control over its users’ experiences to app and game developers, reined them in. It was the year that, in response to a perceived threat from Twitter, Facebook lavished publishers with unexpected traffic by simply diverting tiny slices of its billion users’ attention; it was the year after it had done, without warning, the exact opposite. It was the year that Twitter took back most of what it had been loaning to developers for years, consolidating an ecosystem of outside apps and services into a monolithic corporate entity. The classic concept of a power user is not compatible with the megaplatform.

2013 was the year that Yahoo, coffers stuffed with cash and stock propped up by a nearly blown investment in Chinese e-commerce, gave up on earning cultural cachet and straight up bought it, spending over $1 billion on Tumblr, which it promptly sanitized and monetized. It was the year that Apple let podcasts live and let tablet magazines die by doing the same thing to both: not really paying any attention.

It was the year that Facebook turned into Twitter, Twitter turned into Instagram, Instagram turned into Snapchat. It was the year you could rearrange the pairs in the last sentence at random without making it false. It was the year we found out that nearly every major internet service had been compromised in some way by the NSA, and that some were complicit; it was the year these same services refined and fulfilled their financial promises in the form of advertising strategies. It was the year we decided to use these services anyway.

The most exciting change, and the closest thing the internet had to a true surprise this year, was the rise of messaging apps: picture messaging, ephemeral messaging, over-the-top messaging. These were apps that Facebook and Google and Twitter and Instagram (and, why not, Yahoo and Microsoft) had virtually no control over, and which together have accumulated hundreds upon hundreds of millions of dedicated users, inducing in the megaplatform leadership a mild panic. But the narrative of mobile messaging is inseparable from the larger story of apps. If you accept the premise that the future of internet use is not just primarily but almost exclusively mobile, then Facebook and Twitter and Instagram and WeChat and WhatsApp and Snapchat and Kik are aligned against one another on platforms controlled by Apple and Google. This is a subordinate relationship: Both companies’ marketplace policies and operating system limitations decide the shapes and limits of the apps they host. Here, too, the power balance is lopsided: As long as people are buying and using their smartphones, Apple and Google are happy. The needs of even the most popular app are a secondary consideration.

This is the year, in other words, that drove home exactly what it means when we refer to the web we lost. Anil Dash, writing at the end of 2012, described its contours:

The tech industry and its press have treated the rise of billion-scale social networks and ubiquitous smartphone apps as an unadulterated win for regular people, a triumph of usability and empowerment. They seldom talk about what we’ve lost along the way in this transition, and I find that younger folks may not even know how the web used to be.

He enumerated the casualties: a searchable social web, a sensible and widely accepted system of tagging, generous APIs and open feeds. More broadly, he suggested, there had been a loss of privacy — at least, a measure of privacy, and of your internet identity, had been ceded to large, centralized, ad-driven services.

This was a letter to a lost love, so it’s fair to accuse Dash of sentimentality. But his premise — the rise of billion-scale social networks and ubiquitous smartphone apps — was correct. This is the year we began to feel its consequences.

It’s tempting to predict that 2014 will be the year the megaplatforms begin to falter. It’s extremely tempting to predict that the internet will be remade by teens — those inscrutable, ingenious, or just demographically desirable teens — in their image. Perhaps we widen our view and suggest that 2014 will be the year that casts doubt on America’s continued ability to set international internet trends. Maybe it’s the year a Japanese service takes the international internet by storm, or the habits of Indian users dramatically reshape the web, helping an already huge messaging app from a Chinese company become the most popular service in the world.

Here’s a more realistic prediction: All of these things will happen to some extent, but none will be definitive. 2014 will be the year that the megaplatforms reckon with their age, and that we reconsider our own relationships with them. Their obsessions with one another combined with their users’ creeping unease may create openings for insurgent services and apps, but the megaplatforms’ momentum is strong. New services will catch our attention, but countless old ones will go public, grow, and remain important.

2013 was the year that a major, decade-long internet cycle neared its completion. 2014, at best, will be the very beginning of the next one.

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