Thursday, December 4, 2008


The internet makes lots of tasks infinitely easier than they used to be. Want an executive summary of the War of 1812? Check Wikipedia. Want to know more? Keep reading. If you're really hardcore, the article lists eighty-two scholarly references. Need an obscure book printed by some shop in Khazakstan? Amazon can probably ship it to you for free in ten days or so. Want to convert a kilowatt hour into BTUs? Google "a kilowatt hour in btus". I have no experience here, but I bet that before the web, lots of these tasks would have taken minutes or hours rather than seconds.

Isn't it strange, though, that such a powerful tool for getting stuff done gets used so extensively for the purpose of not getting stuff done? I can't think of another way to explain the fifty-or-so bits of chatlist spam that land in my inbox every day, the SuperPokes, the pirates, the ninjas, the lolcats, and everything else along those lines. Even respectable, otherwise interesting sites like Digg and Youtube are filled with mildly funny, mildly shocking, and mildly sexual banalities.
A while ago, I posted about Twitter, the flagship time-waster-in-chief of all web 2.0 apps. Never before has humanity been this effective at wasting time.

I don't think that lost time is the real problem, though. When the novelty wears off and everything else they could have done with all that time sinks in, people will stop. I'm worried about money.

Parallel to this Cambrian explosion of "web 2.0" apps, replete with tweets, pokes, nudges, posts, threads, and lists, there have been all sorts of new revenue models, further and further removed from the sale of actual goods and services to consumers. Take Slide, Inc, which recently got a $500m valuation from some venture capitalists. It makes slideshow widgets (and little gems like "SuperPoke Pets!") which it plans to monetize by integrating targeted ads into users' slideshows. Many of the ads I see (and ignore) all the time are already advertise other ad-supported sites that don't actually sell anything. It's only a matter of time before I see some ads for Slide.

I think that the system by which dotcoms are funded today looks suspiciously like the way they were funded in the nineties. People are spending way too much money building castles in the air.

Someday, people will tire of spending so much time connected to each other, wasting each others time. The torrent of tweets, pokes, FWD:fwd:Fwd:Fwd:funny pics, and all their unholy brethren will start slowing down as people take back the time that used to be theirs. Maybe someday, sending pointless emails to a chatlist will have the same social stigma that shouting across a crowded room might have now. Maybe the parents of 2015 will tell their kids to finish their homework before they comment on each other's blogs. Maybe they'll warn their kids that too much Twitter rots your brain, or that Facebook bullies are probably just looking for attention and are best left ignored. Maybe someday, I'll log into Facebook and nobody will care what my hooker name would be. I can't wait for that day to come!

Let me skip back for a moment, to the first stock I ever owned ~ two shares of Microsoft, back in 1998 when I was in second grade. My best friend's dad thought that a market in which grade-schoolers own stock couldn't possibly be sustainable. He was right. Today, we've got a market in which investors bet billions on web startups with Rube Goldberg business plans, with almost no connection to reality. They're betting on people barely older than myself trying to capitalize on the time-wasting habits of people, often a lot younger than me, by showing them ads. As people become savvier and the web becomes fully integrated into our culture, my guess is that many dotcoms will be winnowed out in a second crash.

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