Read: Facebook is not a technology company
Other contexts, from other creators, would be different. Even the version of a social network the Winklevosses might have rolled out would have been different. For me, privacy was a matter of ethos as much as action. Writing today, 17 years later, it’s remarkably difficult to remember why that was. These were my kids I was publishing, and that was strange to do at the time. I imagined, rightly I think, that others would find it strange as well. That was just the ethos of the time.
And to its credit, I suppose, Facebook has changed that ethos. Now people think of information differently. But to call that change progress, in the way Zuckerberg touts, is to forget how things might have been different. Had I succeeded at launching and scaling the thing even toward Friendster-level success, a commitment to privacy would have guided the product. My take on a service akin to Facebook suffered for being less ideological. The world as it was was fine for us, more or less. The tenor of information privacy in particular. We saw no need to change it. That was a losing bet, it turns out, but it’s one I’d rather have made and been wrong about.
The differences were about more than just privacy, too. A chasm also separates the viable businesses of these two eras. It’s easy to laugh at the dot-com age, with its bespoke web stores for pet kibble or Tickle Me Elmos, but the first age of the web embraced a deep respect for the existing world. Global triumph achieved by “moving fast and breaking things,” as the infamous Facebook slogan goes, wasn’t really on the table. The web wasn’t meant to disrupt bricks and mortar, but to bring them into the future, and most of its services were trying to solve problems for established economic sectors via run-of-the-mill IT consulting. Solutions, rather than disruption, was the keyword. Buy pet food, but online. Make auto-repair appointments, but online. Pay your cable bill, but online. The web was a connection to the rest of life, rather a replacement for it.
Companies of the sort that thrive today died dramatic deaths back then: Webvan, an early online grocer, for example, or Kozmo, the delivery convenience store. These were implausible, hubristic efforts to overwhelm the offline world with the online one. Now that’s the explicit aim of most technology companies. With a goal like that, we should have anticipated how it would feel to live in the world that would achieve it.
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