Ghost towns are a rich part of world history. There are literally thousands of examples of these now-irrelevant pin pricks on a map. Overnight sensations quickly became a distant memory in the years that followed.
Is the Internet today really that much different than the gold rush stories of the late 1800s?
For ghost towns, the reasons behind their demise vary tremendously. Pripyat, a small town in northern Ukraine, reached a population of 50,000 before the Chernobyl Nuclear Power disaster. Today, it is glowing with abandonment.
Jonestown, Guyana was founded as both a “socialist paradise” and a “sanctuary” from media scrutiny by cult leader Rev Jim Jones. After reaching a population of nearly 1,000 people, the entire population participated in a mass suicide, causing it to become little more than an entry in the why-in-the-hell-did-they-listen-to-him history books.
These, of course, are unusual examples. But the world is filled with unusual examples. A disaster is still a disaster no matter how unusual the circumstances may be.
Will the digital ruins of today’s Internet ever compare to the physical ruins of Ancient Greece or Ancient Rome? Will anyone even know they existed?
In 1962, Woolco began a 20 year rollercoaster ride through retail history. At its peak the Woolco name was a powerful force in the marketplace, with hundreds of big box stores in the U.S., Canada, and Great Britain employing tens of thousands of people. Today the name hardly merits a mention in history books.
In the 1970s, IBM’s Selectric Typewriter had established itself as a critical cornerstone of office activity. But when computers arrived in the 1980, typewriters began to disappear and now the Selectric brand is little more than a museum piece.
In 1999 some of the top Internet properties were Lycos, Xoom, Excite, AltaVista, and GeoCities. Each of them were attracting millions of web visitors each month, competing head to head with companies like Microsoft, Yahoo, and Amazon. Today each exists in name only, resting quietly in the shadow of its former existence.
Organic Content Creation
As we entered the 2000s, many companies began to focus on organic content creation with customer doing most of the heavy lifting when it comes to the time and labor used to build a primo web property.
As a result of this trend, data has been accumulating so fast that companies are investing heavily in server capacity to accommodate customer demand.
While the exact numbers are being closely guarded, here are some notable data points to consider:
Google is rumored to manage over one million servers in its various data centers around the globe. Google’s data capacity for its search, YouTube, G-Mail, and other data-heavy services is said to be over twice the size of its competitors – Microsoft, Amazon, Apple, Yahoo, and IBM.
Microsoft’s newest data center in Chicago has been architected around installing entire containers filled with servers. Each container holds over 2,000 servers and can be installed in less than eight hours.
Amazon currently runs the world’s largest online store and one of the world’s largest cloud computing operations.
IBM currently operates eight million square feet of data center space on six continents.
EDS is now managing over 380,000 servers in 180 data centers.
Facebook’s data centers store more than 40 billion photos, and users upload 40 million new photos each day – about 2,000 photos every second.
The Tokyo Data Center serves as Japan’s Internet backbone. Japan claims it to be the largest data center in the world
IDC is predicting that the cost of powering data centers around the world will reach $40 billion annually by 2012.
How long before that number doubles, triples, or quadruples?
The difference today between the ghost towns of the Wild West and the brand names of the 70s is the speed with which changes are happening.
Organic growth often leads to organic abandonment. Is the speed with which they arrive a predictor of the speed with which they will leave?
Future Ruins Viewed as a Digital Past
As we look at the next generation of the Internet, watching carefully as it unfolds, we cannot help but be struck by how quickly it has infiltrated our lives and how much of our attention it currently commands.
Much like the physical structures in our cities that form along the horizons of our urban landscapes, the data structures inside today’s data giants represent some of mankind’s most remarkable feats. True, they exist only as a digital compliment to the bricks and steel of physical buildings, but they hold within them vital clues about who we are, what we find valuable, and our drives and passions for forging ahead.
So what will happen to the likes of these ground-losing giants?
- Second Life – Less than 3 years ago this one time buzz-dominator of the virtual world’s industry was the darling of media discussions, but has now been relegated to competing for mindshare with lesser contenders like video games and social media.
- MySpace – People have rapidly shifted from the chaotic page-building systems on MySpace to the cleaner look and interface on Facebook. How long before some new contender arrives and begin to steal market share from both?
- Plaxo – Starting off as a constantly updating business card service, Plaxo has lost ground to other mindshare grabbers like LinkedIn and Twitter.
- Monster.com – Monster suffered a 33% decline in revenues in 2009 compared to 2008 as the bad economy and lack of jobs drove many would be customers to CraigsList and other contenders.
- Friendster – An early pioneer in social media, Friendster has lost its footing and remains a distant memory among the historians for social media.
- PhotoBucket – Riding on the coattails of MySpace, this one-time darling of the photo hosting world has lost ground to companies like Flickr and Picassa.
Certainly each of the companies has the potential to breathe new life into their business and add buoyancy to their sinking ship. But even the best business managers can only hold things together for a while.
Life expectancy for modern day businesses, even the remarkable ones, is measured in decades, not centuries.
Are today’s success stories nothing more than a prelude to tomorrow’s disaster stories?
The digital world as it exists today contains the keys to humanity, the raw essence of personhood, and in the long run, the future of our children’s children.
More important than the decaying wood and weed infested streets of physical ghost towns, what will happen to the data reserves and important scraps of our civilization that can be instantly erased with the flip of a switch rather than the erosion of time?
These are all hard questions without good answers. But rest assured, the ghost town era of the Internet is coming, and for some, it has already arrived.
By Thomas Frey