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Relevance Is Relative: Internet Predictions Past & Present

August 17, 2016

I'm sure many of you saw this much-shared gem: a Newsweek article from 1995 called "The Internet? Bah!" (subtitled "Why cyberspace isn't, and will never be, nirvana"), in which author Clifford Stoll argues that the Internet is overrated and will never be as pervasive as the pundits claim (emphases mine):

I'm uneasy about this most trendy and oversold community. Visionaries see a future of telecommuting workers, interactive libraries and multimedia classrooms. They speak of electronic town meetings and virtual communities. Commerce and business will shift from offices and malls to networks and modems. And the freedom of digital networks will make government more democratic.

Baloney. Do our computer pundits lack all common sense? The truth in no online database will replace your daily newspaper, no CD-ROM can take the place of a competent teacher and no computer network will change the way government works.

Telecommuting workers, multimedia classrooms, virtual communities, online newspapers – doesn't sound so much like flying cars and robot maids now, does it? The whole thing actually reads like a gag or a hoax (the typos don't help): "Nicholas Negroponte, director of the MIT Media Lab, predicts that we'll soon buy books and newspapers straight over the Intenet [sic]. Uh, sure." He complains about the mountains of "unfiltered data":

You don't know what to ignore and what's worth reading. Logged onto the World Wide Web, I hunt for the date of the Battle of Trafalgar. Hundreds of files show up, and it takes 15 minutes to unravel them—one's a biography written by an eighth grader, the second is a computer game that doesn't work and the third is an image of a London monument.

A-ha! Stoll didn't anticipate that search engines would get exponentially better at filtering data, determining relevance and answering questions. Today, it takes a second or two to find this date – you don't even have to type the full phrase thanks to auto-suggest.

He also pooh-poohs e-commerce:

Then there's cyberbusiness. We're promised instant catalog shopping—just point and click for great deals. We'll order airline tickets over the network, make restaurant reservations and negotiate sales contracts. Stores will become obselete [sic]. So how come my local mall does more business in an afternoon than the entire Internet handles in a month? Even if there were a trustworthy way to send money over the Internet—which there isn't—the network is missing a most essential ingredient of capitalism: salespeople.

Of course, many people now shop online specifically to avoid annoying salespeople. And the freaking mall.

Internet Predictions

So Stoll's predictions sound completely absurd now. What about this prediction, made this week by John Herlihy, Google's European director of online sales: "In three years time, desktops will be irrelevant."

Well, relevance is relative – irrelevant to whom, or to what? Certainly, mobile computing is rapidly growing in importance. Maybe in three years, maybe less, desktops will seem irrelevant to high-school students – they'll rely on smartphones and tablets for connectivity, gaming, word processing and the like. But will desktops – in 2013 – be irrelevant to everybody? Will be they be obsolete?

Several commenters point out that while they embrace mobile devices, they still see uses for desktops (e.g., software development and film editing) that are unlikely to go away soon. It seems that Google means desktops will be irrelevant for the average consumer, the person who uses a computer primarily to check Facebook, watch videos, and shop. That seems plausible, but that's not what Herlihy said. Maybe what he should have said is that desktops will be irrelevant to Google's business model.

These predictions all seem to fit a sort of template after a while. A month or so ago, everyone was bashing the iPad, calling it too expensive for what it is. But in years previous, people said the same about the iPod and the iPhone. (When are people going to realize that lots of people like overpaying? It's a status thing.)

Books aren't dead yet. Even newspapers aren't quite dead yet. Desktops, for the moment, are alive and well. But for how much longer? I won't commit to a number – when you're wrong on the Internet, you're wrong forever.

This Week's Online Marketing Highlights

  • In "Massive Passive Inbound Links," Debra Mastaler argues that a passive approach to link building, based on loyalty campaigns and incentive linking, can net a large amount of "good" links without a lot of effort.
  • On the aimClear blog, Lauren Litwinka explains how to mine query data to define user intent and incorporate intent keywords into your PPC ad copy.
  • Some good tips in this article from the Wall Street Journal about "making pay-per-click pay," including "filter out undesirable clicks" and "align ads with landing pages."
  • On Marketing Profs, Avinash Kaushik asks if bounce rate is "the sexiest web metric ever." He explains what it means and how to use bounce rate to analyze traffic sources, ad campaigns, and top trafficked pages.
  • Glen of ViperChill lists 28 resources from his Internet marketing toolbox, including analytics and research tools, productivity software, Firefox add-ons and online tools like Google Apps.

Have a good weekend, all!

Photo credit: seanmcgrath

Elisa Gabbert

Elisa Gabbert is WordStream's Sr. Manager of Content Marketing and SEO. Likes include wine, karaoke, poker, ping-pong, perfume, and poetry.