Kevin Kelly: The Web Runs on Love, Not Greed
This article appeared in the Wall Street Journal on January 4, 2002. It's reprinted here with the author's permission.
Right on cue, the demise of the dot-com revolution has prompted
skepticism of the Internet and all that it promised. An honest
evaluation would have to admit it has been a very bad year for hip
startup companies, hi-tech investors, and hundred of thousands of
workers in the technology field. Three trillion dollars lost on
Nasdaq, 500 failed dot-coms, and half a million hi-tech jobs gone.
Even consumers in the street are underwhelmed by look-alike gizmos
and bandwidth that never came. The hundreds of ways in which the
Internet would "change everything" appear to have melted away, or to
have not happened at all. As the end of the year approaches a
collective New Year's resolution is surfacing: "Next year, next time,
we won't believe the hype."
This revised view of the Internet, as sensible as it is, is a
misguided as the previous view that the Internet could only go up.
The Internet is less a creation dictated by economics than it is a
miracle and a gift.
Netscape's legendary IPO in 1995 launched the web in the mind of the
public. That jumpstart happened not much more than 2,000 days ago. In
the 2,000 days since then, we have collectively created more than 3
billion public web pages. We've established twenty million web sites.
Each year we send about 3.5 trillion email messages. If we could
return back time a mere 6 years ago and ask anyone, even a geek,
whether we could create 3 billion interactive, graphically rich,
hyperlinked text pages on every subject known to humans, they would
have frankly told you it was impossible. I would have told you it was
impossible. Send 3 trillion emails? Where is the time even to push
the send button? Who is going to pay for the creation of 3 billion
web pages, each one which must be designed and coded and hosted? The
economics of this don't work out. In 2,000 days? It's impossible.
Yet, here at the end of a very bad year, this web is alive and still
growing. It looks like a miracle.
In our disappointment of grand riches, we have failed to see the
miracle on our desks. Ten years ago, it was easy to dismiss visions
of a wondrous screen in our homes that would provide the whole world
in its magical window. The idea of a universal information port was
considered uneconomical, and too futuristic to be real in our
lifetimes. Yet at any hour of today, most readers of this paper have
access to the full text of the Encyclopedia Britannica, precise map
directions to anywhere in the country, stock quotes in real time,
local weather forecasts with radar pictures, immediate sports scores
from your hometown, any kind of music you could desire, answers to
medical questions, hobbyists who know more than you do, tickets to
just about anything, 24/7 e-mail, news from a hundred newspapers, and
so on. Much of this is for free. This abundance simply overwhelms
what was promised by the most optimistic guru.
Why don't we see this miracle? Because large amounts of money can
obscure larger evidence. So much money flew around dot-coms, that it
hid the main event on the web, which is the exchange of gifts. While
the most popular 50 websites are crassly commercial, most of the 3
billion web pages in the world are not. Only thirty percent of the
pages of the web are built by companies and corporations like
pets.com. The rest is built on love, such as care4pets.com or
responsiblepetcare.org. The answer to the mystery of why people would
make 3 billion web pages in 2,000 days is simple: sharing. While
everyone was riveted by the drama of companies such as pets.com, we
overlooked the steady growth of enthusiast sites and governmental
depots such as Usenet and nasa.gov, to name some larger ones.
As the Internet continues to expand in volume and diversity without
interruption, only a relatively small percent of its total mass will
be money-making. The rest will be created and maintained out of
passion, enthusiasm, a sense of civic obligation, or simply on the
faith that it may later provide some economic use. High-profile
portal sites like Yahoo and AOL will continue to consolidate and
demand our attention (and maybe make some money), while millions of
smaller sites and hundreds of millions of users do the heavy work of
creating content that is used and linked. These will be paid entirely
in the gift economy.
Will we ever appreciate this web woven out of love and greed for the
fabulous miracle it is? Perhaps as more of the world wins access to
it, and more of our books, and movies, and history are added, we will
come to see it as a dream come true, a collective dream created by
people like you and me, sharing what they love. Who would have
guessed that at the end of a harrowing year, the heart of this gift
and miracle already beats?
Upcoming Book: ASIAN GRACE, all images, no words, from Taschen, spring 2002.
Newest Project: Long Bets, ask me about it.
Official Website: http://www.kk.org
Current Passion: All Species Inventory http://www.all-species.org
Previous Book: NEW RULES FOR THE NEW ECONOMY, in 9 languages.
Old Book: OUT OF CONTROL, free text at
First Love: WHOLE EARTH CATALOG: Editor/Publisher http://www.wholeearthmag.com
Former Passion: Editor, WIRED magazine http://www.wiredmag.com