This is an adaption of a recent entry on my own blog in which I discuss the nature of ‘The Web’ and why it needs to be seen as quite distinct from ‘The Internet’. The focus of this piece is a little different, as I believe there is particular relevance to the P2P movement, in that the term ‘P2P’ when used to refer to P2P-technology, has high relevance to the discussion about ‘Web vs Internet’, and some focus may be needed to differentiate this specific application of the term P2P, from its many other close derivatives. This then is a reference point to keep in mind in relation to the following discussion.
Although Web leviathans like YouTube, MySpace and Facebook all clearly leverage aspects of the many-to-many/ peer-to-peer trend, they also usurp and plunder many aspects of the contributions freely given by their users via constraining them inside the legacy client-server system of the web. However, most web users blindly accept the Webâ€™s plutocratic rules of engagement hook-line-and-sinker and are locked-in to its operational logic which is still very much the antithesis of a peer-to-peer orientated approach.
The concept of P2P on the Web is actively stigmatized from many quarters, mainly by the Music and Movie industries that would like to bury the whole idea, or work out a way to buy and control it. (both unlikely) The difficulty is, that on the pro-P2P side, discussions of the broad applicability of the ‘P2P-Meme’ to so many diverse aspects in our culture, might have the unintended consequence of making the term almost apply to everything and (possibly) nothing at the same time. In other words, the P2P memeâ€™s pluralistic tendencies tend to see the term ‘P2P’ applied in ever increasing ways, arguably diluting some of its power and potential, and its valid heritage as a technical-system born of the Internet that actually predates ‘The Web’ by about 20 years. (my concern is not about ‘history’ so much as the future, as I see P2P-Technology as one of the most compelling potential agents of change in this now fundamental global arena)
From where I stand there is a clear â€˜value-axisâ€™ existing on the Internet, and a rather peculiar â€˜Cargo-Cultâ€™ type adherence to a dominant cultural meme called â€œThe Webâ€ which as a term is used too often interchangeably with the term â€œInternetâ€. This simple semantic muddle must end, as it is the source of a lot of confused reasoning.
There are three primary components in a value-axis of the Internet, Connectivity, Communications and Transactions. Of these three, Connectivity is the most fundamental, with the next most fundamental factor being Communications and then Transactions with all other general applications, (information, entertainment, blogs, websites, web2.0 etc) sitting above these three. This simple taxonomy ranks factors in terms of which is more primary in its ability to â€˜enableâ€™ the others.
Websites, Portals (Facebook, MySpace, Saleforce, etc) are at the upper end of this scale of importance. (ie least fundamental) This does not mean to imply that consumer or business websites and ASP-based web-services are not important, but rather that as a rule these sites function atop a foundation of established connectivity, communications and transaction protocols, and are not in themselves â€˜fundamentalâ€™ in the sense that they exclusively enable higher applications.
The Web itself sits on layer 2, â€˜Communicationsâ€™. After all, the Web, for all the hype associated with it, really just resembles a massive Amusement Park accessed by obtaining a â€˜Browserâ€™ ticket. In other words the Browser is your ticket, and you ride this communication platform which is actually built on the more fundamental Connectivity layer. Its no secret where the value truly resides in this mega-market duality. Browsers are free, Connectivity you pay for, and the â€˜Attention Economyâ€™ (acknowledgement to Umair Haque) sits like an ecosystem above all that, with Google currently at the top of the food-chain.
In his illuminating article â€˜Content is Not Kingâ€™ written in 2001, Andrew Odlyzko nailed it with prescient clarity, even though he, like so many, has used the term Internet, when he could well have been referring to the Web.
â€œThe Internet is widely regarded as primarily a content delivery system. Yet historically, connectivity has mattered much more than content. Even on the Internet, content is not as important as is often claimed, since it is e-mail that is still the true “killer app.”
– Andrew Odlyzko, First Monday: http://www.firstmonday.org/issues/issue6_2/odlyzko/
Email (by the way) has the same status as the Web, it is a communication platform on layer two. Andrew Odlyzko does not distinguish between Communications and Connectivity. In his article referred to above, they are to all intents and purposes the same, yet his message is clear. Its the connectivity between people that is more fundamental (and valued) than the content exchanged.
The Web and the Internet are not interchangeable concepts
So we need to appreciate that the internet and the World Wide Web are quite different things. The internet is a network that is in fact a loose array of interconnected networks. The Web has been superimposed on this global network, and is the dominant overlay-system, but it is not the only possible system that can utilize that network. The web has allowed many hundreds of millions of people to download information from â€˜serversâ€™ via protocols like DNS, (domain name system) and communicate between each other via email by use of DNS and SMTP (simple mail transfer protocol). However these protocols, serve to lock users into the â€˜clientâ€™ paradigm where â€˜clientsâ€™ have to accept the terms of the businesses that control the web servers. Albert Benschop pulls back the curtains in this slightly ominous description.
â€œThe exponential growth and far-reaching commercialization of the web have lead to an ever-stronger manifestation of the power structures of society in the virtual world. At present specialized computers channel the data traffic on the Internet and portals and search machines such as AOL, Google and Yahoo! dominate and exploit the market of the internet-dollars. Strongly concentrated hubs have arisen that play a crucial role in the Internet traffic. They are monster-servers, diverting their information to millions of regular web-users.â€
– Albert Benschop, Peculiarities of CyberSpace- University of Amsterdam
The client/server paradigm of the World Wide Web, overlaid on the internet in the late 1980â€˜s, with its multiple layers of servers sitting on their underlying enabling protocols (DNS, SMTP, FTP etc) represented, at the time, a ground-breaking innovation and has gone on to become a global phenomenon. However, as the Web has grown, its hierarchical structure, identity and addressing protocols have also facilitated many of its almost intractable negative externalities. (Spam, Spy-Ware, Email-Born-Viruses, D.O.S. Attacks, Invasive Key-Stroke-Logging, Phishing (Banking Fraud), Packet-Sniffing, Trojan-Horses, Identity-Spoofing etc)
For all the webâ€™s vulnerabilities to attack and corruption, there is considerable â€˜lock-inâ€™ to WWW legacy systems, with the marketplace in general having built up a history of blind-acceptance trust and familiarity with itâ€™s processes. This is a large part of the conundrum that is represented by the search for solutions to the webâ€™s problems.
Projects like APML (Attention Profiling Mark-up Language), BCCF (the Buyer Centric Commerce Forum) and Project VRM (Vendor Relationship Management) are all well intentioned projects by switched-on people who want to do something about the inherent inequities and privacy problems of the web, and are arguably contained within this larger P2P pluralism. Butâ€¦ with the greatest respect, they all miss the point. Doing it actually â€˜on the Webâ€™, is self-defeating because its not a level playing field. Thereâ€™s an orthodoxy present on the Web almost as dominant as the Catholic Church during the middle ages.
This is where an understanding of the pure definition of P2P, as it has developed on the Internet, may provide an instructive counter-weight, and clues to dealing with the over-hyped and over-rated orthodoxies of the web.