In the late 80’s and 90’s, the world for most kids was the immediate hyper local: the neighborhood, school, the friends.
Imagine a world where the only people you knew, talked to and experienced life with were people who for sheer coincidence were born around you. That’s the reality of nearly everyone in their 30’s+ today.
One thing did manage to pierce through and burst the locality bubble for a curious fortunate few: BBSes.
BBSes were a pre-cursor to the Internet, a telephony network of barely connected computers, mostly limited to the same city or country you’re in (International calls were expensive).
Those curios few had the opportunity to expand how they thought of the world and the future of communication.
I was among those few. Connecting to BBSes was the first time in my life where the world stopped being local. It lead me to a path of making international friends, joining digital crews, learning how to create a business and a path of believing in the future.
Along the way I’ve noticed a pattern that reemerges in the analog and digital world and I’m writing this to share the observation.
Spirals in Technology
While technology moves forward quickly, the human experience and underpinning motivations move at a much slower pace.
Twitter, Skype, Slack, Spotify, Team Fortress and many other ideas have predecessors that attempted to tackle similar if not the same foundational human needs with the cutting edge technology of their time.
We always want to be seen, loved, feel special and purposeful; We want to compete, succeed and win. We enjoy being around people, individuals and groups (in various forms and extents).We crave a challenge, being comfortable and entertained.
Many of those constants allow us to keep revisiting the means in which we deal with those needs.
OneLiners was a BBSing feature that would show up every time you logged into a BBS. Every user may post 1 line (hence the name), similar to how twitter limits tweets to 140 chars. It created a unique sense of community on each BBS.
Twitter was born in a time where millions of users were already connected to the Internet – and having one wall of short texts would lead to millions and millions of tweets to scroll through. Twitter redefined the concept with #hashtags, personal feeds, followers, retweets and way way more personalization tools.
It created the technology needed to support an unprecedented number of overlapping micro communities of individuals, loosely coupled around interests, facilitated by new ways of communicating. Users spread consensus through retweeting, a collective megaphone, allowing communities to slice through the noise.
Net2Phone was the first application that popularized calling people over the Internet. Being a kid, I remember ringing up a random person in what I thought of as the land of Anime, Japan.
The idea that the entire world population could fit into one really long virtual list was mind-bending in a hyper local daily existence. “Everyone could be in there” was a transformative idea, the world became flat.
Years later, Skype was the first company that could create a completely free audio (and later video) calling service over the Internet, without driving the company to bankruptcy. They did it by leveraging every users’ Internet to take on little bits of the cost.
It signaled the arrival of legitimate, high value free services that would challenge entrenched industries like the telecoms.
Napster, along with MP3 compression, forced the music industry to re-invent itself. It was the first time you could listen to a song heard on MTV, and 20 minutes later have a copy of it for playback-on-demand.
Spotify in its turn re-invented the category by bringing in millions of users into the streaming world and subsequently working out the business models. It’s still unclear if we’ve settled into how we’ll consume music in the near future, but the hard battles have been fought, and what’s left is the details.
Like twitter, the amount of content and users drives Spotify to have ever growing ways to personalize music discovery. Shaping public perception of stardom takes new forms, and the local radio’s Top 20 list becomes one of the many lists you’re exposed to.
So, Nothings Changed?
On the contrary – everything is changing, all the time. Billions now share the same space, though in different fidelities, and billions more to come. Computing is also continually becoming more accessible and affordable for consumers, and more easily programmable for developers.
That allows for new ideas to emerge, or old ideas to be reimagined for the new computing reality.
New platforms like Microsoft HoloLens, Magic Leap and Oculus Rift might be the frontiers where we’ll redefine every solution to a human need we’ve attempted so far.
The constants are us, the human beings, and with our extremely slow evolutionary cycles we’ll continue to invent and reinvent ways to satisfy those needs.