A recent report from Jupiter Media Metrix made the seemingly provocative claim that as of March of 2001, a mere four companies control just over 50 percent of all user minutes spent online in the U.S. (both home and work). That's down from 11 companies controlling 50 percent of online minutes in March of 1999, two years ago. Even more provocative is that the number of companies controlling 60 percent of online minutes was only 14 in March of 2001, versus 110 in March of 1999.
The four top companies are AOL Time Warner (32 percent), Microsoft (7.5 percent), Yahoo (7.2 percent), and Napster (3.6 percent). Speaking from a position outside these corporate monoliths, I find this report troubling due to its implicit assumptions, and in the end, it leads me to an understanding diametrically opposed to the report's conclusion that market dominance on the Internet is possible.
Assumption 1: All User Minutes Are Equal -- Jupiter Media Metrix doesn't reveal methodology in the report's summary, but in one footnote they do give a hint of the extent to which these numbers aren't necessarily comparable. AOL Time Warner's percentage seems wildly high, and that's in large part due to the fact that two-thirds of the total comes from proprietary communications services such as email and instant messaging. Remove those services and AOL Time Warner remains in first place, but drops to 10.7 percent. None of the other companies (other than second-tier Juno, with its proprietary free email service) exert the kind of control necessary over communications services to include those in this "user minutes" calculation. It's also unclear if standard Internet email and non-proprietary instant messaging services are included in the user minutes calculation - I know I spend a lot more time in Eudora than any other Internet application.
In fact, once you start thinking about what a "user minute" is, you wonder why Napster is included at all. Combine the large size of MP3 files with the large proportion of the Internet community still using modems, and you can see how all those slow downloads would confer a vast number of user minutes to Napster. It makes some sense to include AOL Time Warner's communications services in the calculation, since AOL's use of proprietary software ensures they can flash ads or otherwise affect the user experience for the entire usage time. Most Napster usage, on the other hand, is almost certainly happening in the background, unseen and ignored until completion.
Assumption 2: Users Are Mindless Minute Generators -- TidBITS exists primarily to help information flow to and from the individuals who make up the Macintosh Internet community. That involves constantly interacting with our readers, who are intelligent, interesting people who have chosen to spend their time reading and responding to our articles. It's a constant give and take, and although our approach to publishing would undoubtedly require modification if we had millions of readers, I still find myself cringing whenever I read phrases like "controlling user minutes" or "monetizing the user."
The implication in the report seems to be that users don't have any choice in what they do, that they're compelled to use the services provided by the big four. I use Yahoo a fair amount, but that's because I like Yahoo's services and design, not because Yahoo has in some way locked me in. In fact, my impression is that Internet users are incredibly fickle, and it wouldn't take much for any one of the top four to drop fast in the rankings. Napster's suffering that drop even now, thanks to losing the first rounds in its legal battle with the recording industry, reducing the amount (and accessibility) of popular material previously available through its service. Plus, other services are quickly filling in the vacuum Napster has left behind.
For anyone in the Internet media business, I'd recast the entire situation in terms of needing to earn and retain the loyalty of online users. There are certainly ways of encouraging users to stick within a single company's services, ranging from AOL's proprietary interface to Microsoft's pushing of MSN on the Windows desktop, but in the end, it comes down to providing quality services that offer real value to users.
Assumption 3: The Rest of the Internet Is Uninteresting -- What about the 40 percent of user minutes that aren't "controlled" by these 14 companies? They don't warrant even a mention in the report, and yet, I'd wager that if you asked people what they remembered about an online session, it would be more likely to be some piece of personal email or an unusual Web page or service, not the bland portal that delivered the day's weather report. What sets the Internet apart from other mass media vehicles is that it's incredibly deep. Consider how shallow television, radio, movies, and even books, software, and magazines are. In these other arenas, there are relatively few producers, and the barriers to production remain high. In theory, such a situation lets the market create quality, but as we've seen, it means instead that the market enforces only a least common denominator.
This isn't to imply that independent content is good, because most isn't. Sturgeon's Law states that 90 percent of science fiction is crud, but that's because 90 percent of everything is crud. So if 90 percent of television shows are crud (an optimistic estimate), the remaining 10 percent add up to a small number. But when you apply the same logic to the Internet, if only 10 percent of the Web sites and services out there are any good, you still end up with a vast number of worthwhile spots in the morass of crud.
That's an important difference, and is an interesting shift in the standard quality versus quantity argument. The sheer quantity of Internet sites almost ensures that quality can't be lost, as it is so often in situations where the barriers to entry are essentially insurmountable.
Assumption 4: Information Monocultures Are Good -- Are there any lessons to be learned from Jupiter Media Metrix's report? Yes, but not the one the report's authors expect. They portray it as evidence that severe market dominance is indeed possible on the Internet, despite the infinite number of "channels," as they so quaintly state it. That's true, but isn't particularly interesting, for the simple reason that most of the heavily used services on the Internet have been replicated numerous times with little variability. Headline news, stock quotes, telephone number lookups, mapping services, Web-based email, search engines, comparison shopping services - you name it and it's been done by many different companies at this point. So when you look at Yahoo, MSN, AOL, and Netscape, they're all offering roughly the same content and functionality, and which one any given person uses is likely due to either to personal preference or to some outside factor. The fact that other companies offering similar services have fallen away or been acquired isn't much of a revelation or even, frankly, much of a concern.
Diversity is the most important aspect of the Internet, and the kinds of content and services from the largest companies are the information equivalent of cash crop monocultures. Biological monocultures trade off high levels of production against susceptibility to catastrophic disease and environmental damage, and I'd argue there's a similar trade-off in the world of data, information, knowledge, and thought. One commonly cited biological parallel is the modern computer virus, which thrives in the near-monoculture of Microsoft Windows and Microsoft's Outlook email client. Another parallel is the concept of the meme, a self-replicating, contagious idea, which has also become well accepted.
Apply that analogy to information and thought in general, and I think it's clear that the Internet, and more specifically, the bit of the Internet that isn't generated in a corporate monoculture, is an essential part of our intellectual evolution. Why? Because evolution requires raw materials with which to work. That's why sexual reproduction has proven so evolutionarily successful - the immense number of possible DNA combinations ensures constant change and experimentation. The information made accessible by the Internet can be seen as the DNA of new ideas, without which we can't move forward and may even inflict significant damage on ourselves as a species. So do your part for the intellectual future of the human race and venture out to some of the lesser-travelled nodes of the Internet!