The shrinking web

In a column in today’s Guardian, I look at the consolidation of online traffic and content at a small number of “information plantations” – the megasites like Google, MySpace, Facebook, and Wikipedia that increasingly dominate the new medium.


On the internet, the big get bigger.

It wasn’t supposed to be like that. When the web arrived in the early 1990s, it was heralded as a liberating force that would free us from the confines of gated communities like AOL and Compuserve. The web was supposed to be an open, democratic medium, an information bazaar putting individuals on the same footing as big companies. In the end, though, the internet seems to be following the same pattern that has always characterised popular media. A few huge outlets come to dominate readership and viewership and smaller, more specialised ones are consigned to the periphery.

15 thoughts on “The shrinking web

  1. Meelar

    OTOH, Nick, I wonder how accurate it is to characterize, say, Myspace as a single outlet. Since Myspace or Wikipedia pages are written by inidivuals or groups of contributors, rather than centralized under the control of a specific corporation and its employees, how are they not “putting individuals on the same footing as big companies”?

  2. Ross Hunter

    I’m with Meelar – who actually goes to these giants as destinations? They simply aggregate the millions of individuals we’re connecting with.

    In this sense, anything appearing in an incorporated form has less real connective value than any human individual, or smaller entity with a still-recognizeable humanity to it.

  3. John Koetsier

    I guess the beauty of reaching different audiences, Nick, is that they haven’t heard you say that 1500 times already.

    (I’m not arguing the point – although some cases could be made – just highlighting that we’ve heard this one before from you.)

  4. Colin

    Not sure the Guardian is afraid of the right thing here. That wide open web exists precisely as they expected. Its called The key is that no-one reads Google per se. Google simply provides on method of locating information that would be otherwise impossible to find by guessing where it might be.

    So what should we be afraid of? How about Google search results being tempered by commercial interest, rather than pure information. So long

    as they “do no evil” we are fine, but placing ones confidence in one source for search, over the long haul, just might be something to fear.

  5. Nick Carr

    … just highlighting that we’ve heard this one before from you

    All wells have bottoms, and mine has been scraped.

  6. Anonymous

    Search at for Google or Wikipedia or Yahoo or IT, and the same name will appear at the top of the list of results: Nick Carr. Alter your search into one for Second Life or Yochai Benkler or bloggers or parasites or “miserable failure”, and the same thing will happen. Googlebombing? Nick Carr. Botnets? Nick Carr. Ecstasy? Nick Carr.

    In fact, if you search any person, place or thing today, you’re almost guaranteed to find Nick Carr at or near the top of the list of recommended pages. Despite his flaws, the amateur-hating pundit has become the Grauniad’s all-purpose information source. He’s our new Delphic oracle.

    The hegemony of Nick Carr is only the most striking manifestation of a broad and unexpected phenomenon: The newspaper is shrinking. I don’t mean that there are fewer commenters than there used to be. On that measure, the paper is bigger than ever. I mean that more and more of their online budget is being spent on an ever-smaller number of megatrolls. The wilds of the internet are being carved up among a handful of vast information uncle Toms.

  7. nodesofyesod

    If you’re going to paraphrase like this please a) make it funny and, b) try and make a valid point. Although, when I got to your deployment of the 20+ year old “Grauniad” ‘gag’ I should have known not to bother reading further. Is Nick amateur-hating? Can’t see it myself from his neutral commentary in the column we’re discussing here.

    My own tip is to always type “-wiki” into Google. It’s amazing how much of a wider world is opened up with such a simple addition to your search criteria.

  8. Jim Stogdill

    The consolidation of distribution is important even if the content is coming from all of those Myspace page contributors. You might as well make the argument “of course we all shop at the same grocery store or two, but all the products come from lots and lots of suppliers.” Look at what major grocery chains are able to do with slotting fees etc. by aggregating the distribution function.

  9. Kendall Brookfeld

    Another aspect of this is that the general press seems to cover only the big boys: endless ink about Google’s every twitch and stories that amount to press releases on new products from Yahoo, Amazon, Microsoft, Apple, etc.

    The only way a start-up or obscure website gets coverage is with fancy PR (ala Second Life), or some odd story hook.

  10. Anonymous

    Come now, nodesofyesod, I trust you’ll hold our gracious host here to the same standards?

    Nick Carr has done a very good job of learning from John Dvorak’s methodology – pick a community with passionate supporters, taunt them regularly and thrive on the links and attention generated. His particular line of de haut en bas cynicism about bottom-up efforts plays well with the patrician classicist mindset that Scott and Reith imbued into their organisations, and Carr knows just how to bolster the defence of their cathedral against the bizarre.

    When talking about advertising concentration, do consider that the Guardian has the vast preponderance of public sector and media job advertising in the UK.

    The basic misunderstanding present in the piece is that it assumes that any transient dominance is permanent and cannot be overthrown, while citing precisely the sites that exemplify the actual large shifts in traffic that have occurred. This is the fallacy of survivorship bias. In actuality, when there is a power-law distributed ranking, as in web traffic, the size of changes are also distributed in a power-law way. If Carr’s thesis of hegemony were remotely accurate, Google could never have displaced Alta Vista, MySpace could not have usurped Friendster, and h2g2’s many-year headstart over Wikipedia would have ensured its dominance.

    The weird will continue to outpace the tiered.

  11. Nick Carr

    The question, Marks, is whether over the last few years we’ve been seeing an increasing consolidation of content and traffic or whether we haven’t. I say we have, and the fact that a MySpace might displace a Friendster along the way seems of fairly trivial importance.

  12. tomslee

    Meelar – ‘how are they not “putting individuals on the same footing as big companies”? How about money?

    Nick Carr – Keep scraping that barrel. First, it’s a good one and not many others are scraping it. Second, political points have to be hammered home repeatedly.

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