The rich sardine
As if it's not bad enough that the sidewalks are filled with people moving at a snail's pace - because as long as they can stare at their phones why should they care how long it takes them to get anywhere? - for the last couple of years there's been a noticeable trend toward making ordinary websites look like apps. Navigational aids have been replaced by the little block of lines, headlines and standfirsts have shortened to be replaced by big pictures, and the whole effect for someone sitting at a desk with three 24-inch monitors is rather like the 1954 Roger Price droodle "The Rich Sardine". What a waste...
Still, while some websites are becoming increasingly non-functional - and yes, I'm looking at the tennis tour's awful 2015 versions of Wimbledon, the French Open, and the ATP tour - one could be smug about one thing: blocking obtrusive ads and locking out scripts is a lot easier on the desktop. That is, of course, exactly why publishers were so quick to leap on the app bandwagon. At last! A way to make some money on digital!
If there is one advantage Apple has, it's that it does not depend on advertising. Apple, like Amazon, eBay, and Microsoft, ultimately thrives on real people putting down real money to buy things. Google, Facebook, Twitter, and the rest have far fewer expenses (no messy factories to build, or distribution logistics to manage), but there's a certain fragility in depending solely on advertising. Sooner or later, the the need to increase revenues collides with your audience's unwillingness to consume ads, and that way lies an arms race. The Do Not Track initiative foundered on just such conflicts.
A week or two back, Nieman Labs broke the story that Apple would include ad-blocking in the next version of mobile Safari. The Economist recently noted how popular ad-blocking is. For Apple, this is a fantastic way to sell many more phones. For publishers who thought Apple was providing a revenue path, this is a body blow that goes to prove, as the Reuters chief said in the Guardian, that it's essential to retain ownership of your audience. He warns against being pwned by Facebook's Instant Articles, but you could easily make the same case regarding Google's search engine, as Spanish publishers recently learned. It's easy to imagine some bright soul at Apple realizing they could make a deal where publishers pay a premium to get their ads through the native block., much like mobile operators want sponsored data.
Writing in the New York Times, Andrew Lih predicts the death of Wikipedia. It's a little unfortunate that he uses the still-alive WELL and blogging to make his case. True, many who used to write screeds in personal blogs happily confine themselves to 140 characters on Twitter, but blogs are everywhere, it's just that they're no longer a novelty. Things fade into invisibility for a bit after the novelty explosion subsides, and then they find their true market. The dot-com bust of 2000-2001 is an example.
Another is the web itself: in 2010 Wired proclaimed the web is dead At the time, I thought it was a twist on the New York restaurant joke: "Nobody goes there any more. It's too crowded." How could they possibly be serious? Four years later, Wired recanted. To their apparent surprise, apps, instead of supplanting the web, drove millions more people to it. A few years from now, the people who think blogging is dead will be looking around in surprise at all the blogs everywhere. Wikipedia may well be the same: why shouldn't it adopt new technology to enable editing and mbed its content everywhere in new ways?
At the Transparent (Season 1, episode 3, "Rollin") when he asks who's taking the encyclopedias, "No one, Dad. Nobody in the world wants those."
Plenty has been written about Wikipedia's internal culture and the ferocity of its edit wars; the page detailing its "lamest edit wars is both hilarious and sad (and you thought Jennifer Aniston was just American). The organization knows itself that attracting greater diversity of editors requires toning down some of the hostilities. It's possible that five years from now Wikipedia will be atrophying. But anyone who's been to Wikimania recently knows the passion that still animates hundreds of people, especially in countries where content is at an earlier stage of being built. It's possible that five years from now the site will be turning into an ordinary organization with paid editors and a dwindling volunteer corps. But it's also possible that even if its technology looks dated to mobile-trained eyes Wikipedia will be bigger then than it is now, and what appears today to be incipient death is just that same old intermediate novelty-worn-off stage. Maybe greatness still awaits.
Wendy M. Grossman is the 2013 winner of the Enigma Award. Her Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of earlier columns in this series. Stories about the border wars between cyberspace and real life are posted occasionally during the week at the net.wars Pinboard - or follow on Twitter.