The future of the Internet: Will societal norms hold up?

After having read Jonathan Zittrain’s “The Future of the Internet,” I have been thinking a lot about what the future holds, and the importance of finding a solution between maintaining an open Internet and handling underlying privacy and security issues.
Zittrain places a lot of emphasis and hope in Wikipedia’s model of a kind of bottom-up hierarchy. The hierarchy in Wikipedia is one in which the main editors or site “leaders” are not dictating the content. Instead, they merely manage content while absolutely anyone can contribute to articles.

This model works for Wikipedia, for the most part. Many would argue that the crowd-sourced Web site is exactly what the Internet was intended for.  Rules have evolved and changed over time as the site has expanded.

But can Wikipedia be held up as a model that could scale to become mainstream?

As Solove pointed out in “Future of Reputation,” norms evolve over time, guiding society and potentially having a larger impact on social behavior than the law. But can this idea completely transfer to our behavior on the Internet?

I’m not sure.

I like Wikipedia and enjoy the overall concept, but I don’t think that it would fair well large scale. Imagine if the Internet as a whole operated in this fashion? Wikipedia has a couple hundred main editors. But who would comprise hierarchy equivalent to this on the Internet? There are enough issues with the Internet in terms of international law and Internet governance. I just think it would be more of a struggle to develop a group of “leaders” who would be able to resist becoming over-zealous and too powerful.

In addition, while Zittrain makes valuable arguments about how worms on the Internet have resisted full-scale destruction across various nodes, I don’t know how long this will hold up for—especially if we keep the Internet entirely open with just a few small rules.

Wikipedia is a small-scale example in comparison. And there are issues that arise every day. Some articles have to be blocked temporarily or heavily edited. False information is often presented within different entries that are often not discovered for significant amounts of time. If this many problems can occur on one Web site, what would happen if we took this approach for the Internet as a whole?

I just think that it’s too much for a relatively small amount of people to manage. In addition, I think that social norms and societal pressures may hold up for a while, but there will always be someone presenting false information, or collaborating to build a worm. We need to preserve the fundamental principles on which the Internet was founded, without relying too much on norms to hold the enormous network together.


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