I’ve slowly made the conversion to DuckDuckGo, an “alternative” search engine now nearing its fourth-year anniversary of existence. It at first looks like just another Google, but it’s when you begin to use it that you understand it’s almost hacker-like function. Specific syntax and open-source development make it much less simple than Google, but also more compelling. If Bing and Yahoo are meant for obvious functionality, DuckDuckGo is the IFTTT of web-search.
But at no point does DuckDuckGo feel like anything outstandingly new, either. And they’re not trying to be. Any meta-related blurbs you see from the service will tell you first and foremost about the very simple feature of privacy. With their FAQ’s and blogs, they clearly acknowledge the existence of Google, and distinguish themselves as an alternative for those who are: first, aware of, and second, don’t want Google’s crap.
Famously, Steve Jobs proudly touted the Picasso quote, “Good artists copy, great artists steal,” as a mantra for the advancement of Apple’s products. And while that quote can be taken in a sly way, most would agree that the context Jobs was using it in inferred no fowl play. The mindset it invokes is that people will always come up with new things, but it takes the better creative to turn it into something that works. While Google is by no contest the largest and most successful of the two companies, DuckDuckGo has taken advantage of an opportunity that Google basically handed them.
In the early days, Google invented -in fact was- a product that changed the world. However, in their drive for expansion of services and increased functionality, they’ve drifted from what made them good in the first place. When this thought became obvious, Google declared open season for re-creating the core purpose google.com had once served. DuckDuckGo stole Google’s product, except they’ve made it work better. No fowl play if Google brought it upon themselves.
The DuckDuckGo/Google paradigm is just an example of a trend that we’re beginning to see in the industry. The internet now is about social. And with that, its very clear who the winners and losers are as to who’s carrying that social element forward. Like Google, the sun of Facebook and Twitter’s humble beginnings have now set, and the repercussions of becoming a fully mature company are beginning to affect the user. When speaking of the life cycle of a tech company, history actually does repeat itself.
Google has become too large for their own good. This makes it feel clunky and unfocused, yet not without its occasional big hits (i.e. Android, Gmail). Facebook is oftentimes the subject of everything that’s wrong about the Internet- not in the quality of a product, but the addictively unproductive functionality it serves. And albeit being just as big a company, Twitter has been known to be the much friendlier service to both users and developers alike, yet has just within the past weeks shown signs of spoil in its recent API changes.
Rather, think of it this way: Google is Darth Vader. Good-natured in the beginning, but its literal form of potential turned it into something else entirely, an “evil” presence that rules the galaxy; and there was nothing we could have ever done to stop it. Facebook is becoming Darth Vader; it’s the Anakin of Episode III, turning on Jedi, killing younglings, and clearly having chosen its destiny of ads and suppression towards the user. Yet it hasn’t quite become the villain just yet. Twitter is the Anakin of early Episode II; innocent, while scaring others with its subtle signs of turning towards the dark side. Yet we still trust it, as Twitter is still a Jedi. They’re still the good guy.
Its a very recognizable cycle that we stand by and watch happen all the time. The internet has only been around for twenty or so years, and something I wonder is whether this is a cycle that will last forever. Or is it a phase; a side-effect of an entirely new thing such as the internet?
Perhaps RIM is an example of the endpoint of the cycle; on top of the world at one point, but coming down hard due to its lack of self-awareness and/or lack of industry-awareness. What about, say, the auto industry? While some companies might be better than others, its clearly a level playing field. No company sits on top of all the others for a while, then suddenly watches itself crash and burn. Or the print industry. Everyone has their preferred source of news, or magazines. This cycle is something that obviously exists, but is really only observable in the internet industry.
“When you consider we’ve been publishing on paper for over 500 years and on the Internet for only a couple decades, it’s no surprise we haven’t figured it all out,” writes Evan Williams, ”It’s still early days.”
Evan Williams has a big say in this situation. He was a co-founder of the “Blogger” platform (invented the word, in fact) and later co-founded Twitter, to which he was at one point CEO and later stepped down to continue creating new things at his company, Obvious Corp. He wrote this in a sort of self-defining blog post for his latest platform, Medium. He explains that the entire purpose of Medium is to develop a community of user-creators who contribute the site with their own content: whether it be writing, or photography, or both. The goal is not for someone to browse content as organized by creators, but to browse the content as organized by the nature of the content. You have no profile or personal hub; all you possess on Medium is your content.
By definition, Medium is yet another blogging platform with just a few tweaks; as all other platforms are. But by ideology, Medium is an alternative to other platforms for those who care. It’s repeated many times throughout its meta discussion: many of us have grown tired of these other services, yet not so much the company itself as of the way people use it. In an ironic coming-full-circle circumstance, Evan Williams has developed a product that is stealing his older product, Blogger, and making it about quality. Just like what Steve Jobs was talking about.
When I use Facebook, Twitter, and even Tumblr, I use them sparingly (at least compared to most people). While one’s experience is determined by who they follow, they -in a wider scope- are a convoluted mess of janky outside integration and useless duck-face culture. However, when I post on Facebook, I try to imagine myself in some sort of official Facebook video, posting meaningful things that I hope will benefit others.
In other words, I’m a nerd. I use these social platforms in a way that shows I care more about the adhering to the company’s intentions than I do about just using it.
Medium is as far away as possible from being mainstream. The only ones who really know anything about it are the people like me: the nerds. But right now, it feels like it will always remain that way. In his post, Evan Williams wrote:
Still, some things haven’t evolved as much as we would have expected. Lots of services have successfully lowered the bar for sharing information, but there’s been less progress toward raising the quality of what’s produced. While it’s great that you can be a one-person media company, it’d be even better if there were more ways you could work with others.
He understands the social, self-publishing state of the internet we know now is something that can’t, and shouldn’t, last forever. With Medium, Obvious Corp. is stealing an idea (a function), and making it better; not for everyone, but for the nerds. For the people who care about good content. Medium isn’t vaporware, or a fad that will eventually be bought by some larger competitor. It will remain a place for people who want to escape from the saturation of low-quality usage that now populate products which allow us to create things. Yet at the same time, it will never grow as large as the big guys like Twitter, Facebook, or even Blogger.
Similarly, Obvious Corp. has a hand in another “idea stealing” service which caters to the same nerds as does Medium. Branch addresses the culturally broken system of online commenting. Take a look at the comments on any Youtube video and you’ll know that the comment system’s original intent is now being abused. By developing threads specific to a certain topic, contributors to a conversation are allowed within the conversation only by the conversation starters. No trolling allowed. It’s nothing particularly fancy, but its functionality is obvious for a nerd who seeks out meaningful conversations.
Medium and Branch are both the DuckDuckGos of their kind. They recognized an original idea, watched it become something less than it could’ve been, and “stole” that original idea to turn it into something that works. They, in a sense, are the Luke Skywalkers of the analogy. Luke possessed that same insurmountable potential as his father, understood how he had succumbed to what shouldn’t have been, and became the Jedi Anakin was meant to be. A fully established Luke Skywalker company functioning now might be Vimeo. It stole Youtube’s function, and became a community for the nerds who cared about the content.
So its a cycle. And if that’s the case, then right now we’re sitting in the middle of it. We’re watching the internet’s big ideas start in humble beginnings, grow as they entered the mainstream, and are now watching them fall away from the ideas of potential they once were. As these Anakins become Darth Vaders, we’re also watching the Luke Skywalkers begin to rise against the Empire. A new hope. Branch will not replace Twitter, Medium will not replace Blogger, DuckDuckGo hasn’t replaced Google, and Vimeo hasn’t replaced Youtube. But I’ll still continue to use them within my white fence of quality; alongside the rest of the picky nerds.
Maybe we’re being pretentious. But with each internet migration that takes place, each flock of the nerds, we’re dutifully progressing the cycle. And that’s important. Perhaps this cycle won’t last forever, and we’ll begin to form the simple polarity as is with the print industry. Those who care about quality writing in a particular subject will subscribe to their own magazine. No winner, no loser. I hope that the future of the social internet will be a more populated place with their own cultures. Perhaps then there shall be peace in the galaxy.