What Will The Internet Look Like In 5 Years?

Five years ago, Twitter and the iPhone – now central to most professionals’ lives – were just launching. So what’s in store for the online world in 2017 and beyond? One of the keenest observers is Doc Searls, co-author of the seminal Internet-era text The Cluetrain Manifesto and author of the newly-released The Intention Economy: When Customers Take Charge.

To understand our current relationship to technology, he says, it pays to look back at the revolutions that have shaped modern digital life. The first came in the early 1980s, with the advent of the personal computer (and the cloning of it). “Computational power that had only belonged to large corporations was now something anybody could do,” says Searls. “With it, there were endless applications. It was a radical change.”

The next key phase came in 1995 with the rise of the Internet browser and Internet Service Providers (ISPs). “That made it possible for anybody to network on their own,” says Searls. “Your email was your own; before that, your email was with MCI or Compuserve or Prodigy and you could only communicate within those silos…Suddenly everybody had the ability to communicate globally at no cost.”

The third phase, which we’re currently in, is the Smartphone Era. “That took computing and networking and put it in your pocket,” says Searls. “That was cool, but it’s an unfinished revolution.” The reason? Smartphones are, by and large, still a “walled garden” like Compuserve in the 1990s. “It’s not a general purpose device,” he says. “Apple owns it and controls it, and the system outside of wifi is patrolled by a phone company. Those people are keeping their genies inside the bottle.”

With its Android operating system, Google has been trying to open up the field, he says. But our current smartphone system just isn’t there yet: “What we have is something that’s not fully personal. We rent it from Apple or AT&T or Verizon, and it’s like a rental car. You essentially lease it, and you can’t tinker with it. It’s not general purpose, it’s special purpose.” The ability to make changes, to tinker and modify, “should be embodied in our devices and is not yet.” Just as previous walled gardens of technology have been broken down, Searls predicts similar liberation when it comes to our handheld devices and the social media we access on them.

He draws a parallel with nature. “Whenever you have a monoculture in biology, you get these weird ecological distortions,” he says, and Web 2.0 titans like Google and Facebook have both become monocultures. “Facebook is like a 2000-story building that’s tall and narrow,” he says. “It’s like predicting the next earthquake. You know it’s going to happen, you just don’t know when. But cracks are there in the earth and you see some evidence of movement.” Facebook won’t disappear in the short run, he says, but “they may end up being kind of like Orkut,” Google’s early social network that is now best known for its popularity in Brazil. Even Google itself is vulnerable to changing tides and the increasing empowerment of consumers rather than sellers, says Searls. “If the ‘intention economy’ goes the way I think it will, and we can advertise our intentions outside someone’s silo in the long run, Google needs a new business.” He praises Google’s flexibility as a company but notes, “Every business, if it lives, turns into a niche.” Railroads and radio were once a dominant force in their respective eras.

So what will we see instead? Searls sees a future where social media has a broader, and better, definition. “To me, it’s somewhere between silly and offensive to call Twitter and Facebook ‘social media’ or to restrict our understanding of social to what these commercial companies do,” he says. “We were social long before these guys came along. Blogging is social, using the phone is social, texting is social, IMing is social, all these things are social. We should not assume social is the line we draw around these two or three companies; it’s wrong, it’s a category error, and it will make [social media] look, in several years, faddish.”

As individuals become more empowered in their relationships with corporations (Searls argues for Vendor Relationship Management, rather than the current model of Customer Relationship Management), we’ll eventually see an end to the pervasive monitoring of our online behavior, which many consumers aren’t even fully aware of. “The tracking beacons constantly deposited in our browsers – they’re parasites we put up with,” says Searls. They purport to be symbiotic, but they’re not.

In short, he says, the tendency of the Internet toward openness will eventually pave the way to a “very rich and varied ecosystem,” rather than the current social media monocultures. “But it’ll never stop being chaotic, which is part of how a market works.”

What do you see for the online world in the next 5-10 years? Do you think we’ll continue to see a trend toward openness and away from proprietary systems?

This post originally appeared on the Forbes website on July 27, 2012.

Dorie Clark is CEO of Clark Strategic Communications and the author of Reinventing You: Define Your Brand, Imagine Your Future (Harvard Business Review Press). She is a strategy consultant who has worked with clients including Google, Yale University, and the Ford Foundation. Listen to her podcasts or follow her on Twitter.