No More Winner Takes All

Over the last year, I’ve been in a number of discussions where the concept of Winner Takes All was raised, and it’s now starting to annoy me. In a Winner Takes All market, there is a dominant competitor who takes a very large share of the profits. An example at the moment is the mobile phone manufacturing market, where it seems Apple is the winner who is taking all (or, at least, most). However, there may be a widespread view that any market relating to the Internet is Winner Takes All, and that would be a problem.

Winner Takes All is typically put forward to justify either betting big (eg. intentionally making multi-year losses in order to get the scale of users/customers needed to be dominant in a market) or not doing anything (eg. because only one can win anything, and the likelihood is that it won’t be you). In other words, Winner Takes All markets are for only the bravest of the brave. But if anything relating to the Internet is Winner Takes All, then unless you’re pretty special, you should stay off the Internet. Or so the thinking goes.

You might expect that I disagree – and you’d be right. Let me break down why.

Firstly, there are mature businesses on the Internet that have multiple big players, and yet not a single winner. Web mail is a good example, with the biggest services (from Microsoft, Yahoo and Google) having similar sized user-bases.

Global Web Mail Unique Visits (ComScore May 2012)
Service Users
Microsoft Hotmail 325 million
Yahoo Mail 298 million
Google GMail 289 million

And while one counter-example is enough to disprove a hypothesis, here’s another one to show the first wasn’t merely an exception. Desktop web browser share is largely split between three big players (Microsoft, Mozilla and Google). Another one is Internet-connected game consoles. I’d say this myth is busted.

A response to the above is granting that not every market relating to the Internet is applicable to Winner Takes All, but that there are some important ones that are. For example, Internet services with “network effects” (those where the more users that adopt it, the more value they are to those users) are in such a market, and Facebook’s dominance in social networking illustrates this.

While this watered-down Winner Takes All view appears more reasonable, there are two lines of evidence that discount it also. The first is the historical record of all the previous social networking services where it appeared there was a winner, but then they lost to a subsequent service that rapidly took over. Back in 2007, MySpace was considered dominant over Facebook, and before MySpace were other services like GeoCities which, according to Wikipedia, in 1999 was the third most visited site on the Internet. If a winner can be displaced so quickly, can they really be said to have “won”?

The second line of evidence is the active competition still occurring in the social networking market. There are both alternative services such as Twitter, LinkedIn and Yammer, and also similar services operating in specific (yet still sizeable) markets such as Qzone, Renren or Sina Weibo in the Chinese language market. If a service isn’t dominant everywhere, can they really be said to have taken it “all”?

But wait, I hear someone say. Cyworld was dominant in the South Korea language market, and yet now Facebook has displaced Cyworld over the course of a year. Doesn’t this show that the same could happen in China and Facebook is operating in a Winner Takes All market? Well, yes it could happen in China, but no, all this shows is that Facebook is a good competitor. There’s no need to explain away Facebook’s appeal through claiming their rise in South Korea was an inevitable consequence of the market structure.

So, I don’t find Winner Takes All convincing, but the danger is that some people believe it and choose not to attempt to launch valuable Internet-based ideas. We users of the Internet would end up deprived of those services as a result. But, it seems the good news is that plenty of people do not believe in the pessimistic world view of Winner Takes All and are happily putting their products and services on the Internet.

Escaping Container Hell

Over time, we have amassed a chaotic collection of plastic containers. I’m sure that’s not unusual, since stuff expands to fill available space, especially if it’s polyethylene.

Due to the sheer number of containers in our plastics cupboard, it became extremely annoying to find a matching container and its lid. (Again, something that’s not usual¬†according to the comic on this site.) We initially tried just buying a container system and sticking that in its own box in the cupboard, but it didn’t take long before it got out of hand, too. Then we struck upon the simple solution of just putting all the lids in one box and this has greatly improved the time to match a container with its lid.

I was going to post a proof of why this makes sense. But, then I figured, generalising  the Internet Rule 34, if someone can think of it, it will be on the Internet. So, I tried to find it. And failed.

Perhaps it’s out there, but the reason I was searching for it was to save myself the time to write up a proof. Eventually too much time had been spent searching that I had neither my own proof nor someone else’s.

However, I did find the following delightful video of someone who is clearly very passionate about organising things, and who espouses the same strategy of putting lids in a separate box.

YouTube Preview Image

So, this post has become really quite pointless. However, I have managed to link to all of Wikipedia, Urban Dictionary and YouTube, so I trust the deities of the Internet will give me a pass this time.

The cycle of www

In the early days of the web, it was common to have nearly every website begin with “www.” as a way to indicate that the domain name related to a website, rather than (say) an ftp site, or a news site, or any of a dozen other common types of site on the Internet. However, as more people begin to believe that The Web == The Internet, this practice has slowly disappeared among the “cool” sites. This guide on the net even suggests that “pro” sites should avoid using “www.”

If you type “www.twitter.com” into your favourite web browser, you’ll find that you end up at “twitter.com” (minus the “www.”). Similarly for www.wordpress.com, www.go.com, www.thepiratebay.org, www.digg.com and www.stackoverflow.com – to pick a few other popular sites. While many other sites support leaving off the “www.” in the first instance (such as mine), redirecting you automatically to the site, these listed sites use the www-free name as the canonical version.

Even if this practice continues to build in popularity, in the longer term, it is going to need to change or it will cause a problem.

The trigger will be the complete opening up of the top-level of domain names so that instead of “.com” or “.au” suffixes on names, or a preset list of them, absolutely anything will be possible as a domain name suffix (also known as the top level). Things like “drink.coke” and “stop.spam” could be completely legitimate domain names. Aside from the dot (full-stop, point, period, etc.) in the name, there is nothing about it that would indicate that you should type it into your favourite web browser.

It is convenient for me to be able to click on links in emails that I receive. Another aspect of the above is that my email client (or the sender’s) won’t be able to automatically tell that some domain names should be turned into links, so I may not realise that I ought to visit them. But if I do, I’ll need to cut-n-paste the name, rather than just make an easy click.

The work-around is to put “http://” at the start of every one of these new domain names, so that it’s clear to both human and machine that something is an address on the web. Simple – just add 7 characters to the beginning.

However, this is also achieved by putting the 4 characters “www.” at the beginning, which is universally understood to refer to a website. It’s about half as long, easier to type (especially on mobile devices), and less techy.

So, let the cycle turn, and have it become more common for popular and cool – and “pro” – sites to use “www.” (again).

Anonymity is a trap

When I was back at Uni studying for my Comp Sci degree, I came across the tatty printout of a cartoon blu-tacked to the door of the computer club. It’s now become somewhat famous, with the immortal line: “On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog.”

That’s one of the great things about interacting with people online: that if you want, you can ensure people aren’t going to judge you by your race, religion, nationality, gender, or even species. The anonymity of the Internet provides a level of freedom to communicate that is hard to achieve elsewhere. And, if you would otherwise be at risk of retribution based on what you say, it can provide a measure of protection.

However, if you don’t need the protection, then anonymity can be a trap.

Another thing I picked up while doing my Comp Sci degree is that some program languages provide more flexibility than is usually needed, and it can get you into trouble. For example, in the C language, you can check whether a variable ‘x’ has a particular value (say 1) by writing if(x == 1), you can assign a value to a particular variable by writing x = 1, and you can also treat the assignment as a check (if you’re being clever) by writing if(x = 1). But if you didn’t mean to do that – and it was easy to overlook that you’d done it when you meant to write if(x == 1) – then your program will probably malfunction.

So, what I started to do was to write both my checks and assignments differently. By adopting a new habit, I avoided this problem resulting from the freedom that the programming language provided. I would simply swap the left and right hand sides of the check, so I would write x = 1 for assignment and if(1 == x) for checks, and if I accidentally wrote if(1 = x) then the compiler would generate an error and I could fix it before there was a chance for the program to malfunction.

The general learning here was that sometimes when you don’t need all the freedom offered, you can get yourself into trouble, but by adopting an appropriate habit, you can prevent yourself getting into as much trouble. This is also applicable to anonymity.

The sense of anonymity and freedom to behave badly without repercussions is one aspect of why otherwise polite people demonstrate rude behaviour when driving a car. Being anonymous allows them to “get away with it”. In research from 2006, it was found that participants drove more aggressively when they were anonymous.

The same effect applies online. In a study by Microsoft Research into bad behaviour by online users, it was concluded that

Anonymity granted in online environments and a lack of accountability (fear of punishment) have been identified as two of the primary causes of bad behavior.

Anonymous social/gossip sites such as GossipReport.com, JuicyCampus (now deceased) and 4Chan are the sort of places where death threats, bullying behaviour and slanderous accusations have been known to pop up. This is clearly an extreme section of the Internet, and these sites’ reputations attract similar-minded contributors. The practice of writing anonymously is not restricted to such sites, however, and so the risk of bad behaviour exists more broadly.

Research from 2007 into anonymity in blogging found that over a third of bloggers were anonymous or used a pseudonym to hide their real identity. Many such bloggers surveyed were concerned that negative comments made about other people online could come back to bite them.

All of which suggests to me that a useful habit in this space is to identify yourself whenever you can, and reserve anonymity for those times when it is really needed. I know that when those who I write about or interact with online can see my real name and find my home page, I am much more likely to consider what I write before I hit “send”. Anonymity, by its nature, prevents another party from coming back at me, creating a social barrier that allows me to opt out of complying with social etiquette.

Now, I’m not in the camp of “those who don’t do anything wrong have nothing to fear”, and I acknowledge that there are many valid times when posting and commenting is best done anonymously. It’s just that being anonymous should not be the default mode of interacting online, and I think the Internet community would be better behaved if there was less of it. Anonymity is a powerful tool that should be always available but used sparingly.

Just like when I changed my habit of how to program in C in order to prevent myself doing something stupid, I’ll now be adopting the habit of identifying myself online in order to prevent myself saying something stupid.

Free(dom) plug

So, apparently this year is an election year, and we’ll be forced to choose between the policies of Rudd and Abbott. But whatever happens, it is going to be full of crazy stuff, because election years always are.

Unfortunately, some of the crazy stuff is likely to go beyond ordinary crazy, and be crazily bad. One example is the proposed Internet filter. It must appeal to voters in key marginal seats, or something, because it’s hard to see any good reason to introduce such a thing.

On the other hand, there are plenty of reasons why it would be a terrible idea. If this is an issue you care about, you’ve heard them already, so I won’t rehash them here. Although, today Senator Conroy publicly released the submissions that various people and companies made on the proposal, and it was clear that there was wide condemnation that the proposal was unworkable, ineffectual and would prevent legitimate uses.

Since I’m not able to effectively fight against it myself, I’ve donated some money to the EFA (Electronic Frontiers Australia) to go into bat for me. They make it more likely that we’ll all have the freedom to use the Internet unencumbered by crazy stuff like filters. The EFA is a volunteer-run organisation that survives on donations and is currently running a fund-raising campaign. This is just a free plug to say: help them out and they’ll help us all out.

Support EFA