shirky.com Clay Shirky's Writings About the Internet
Economics and Culture, Media and Community, Open Source
1999, the Year the World Wide Web Went World Wide

1999 was a turning point in the history of the net -- for the first
time (and from now on) US internet users make up less than 50% of the
net's total population, marking the end of the American Internet.
(1969-1999, R.I.P.) This growing internationalization will have
profound effects on the growth of the internet over the next several
years, as country after country gets wired. The large and growing
pressure on businesses to get the citizens of their own country
online, and then to expand beyond their own borders in pursuit of
further growth, will accelerate internet penetration throughout the
world. Internet theorist Frances Cainrcross has called the internet
"the death of distance" in her book of the same name, and as the
American internet fades and the global internet takes its place, it
will finally begin to live up to that promise.

Countries do not get wired gradually. Instead, they pass through a
tipping point in their internet population (somewhere around 10%)
where for a sizable segment of the population network access stops
being a luxury and starts being a necessity. Once this threshold is
crossed, the wired population quickly grows large enough to begin
affecting that country's economics, politics, culture. The US crossed
that threshold in 1995, and because of this early passage, it is very
fashionable these days to assume that most of the rest of the world is
still several years behind the US.  This view, most recently espoused
by Morgan Stanley's star internet analyst Mary Meeker, is dead
wrong. What that smug, Americ-o-centric attitude overlooks is that
internet adoption is accelerating -- these days when countries cross
the 1/10th tipping point, they are now growing faster then the
US did. It took 4 years for the US internet population to go from
1/10th of the country to 1/3rd, 1995 to 1998. In the UK that growth
took just 15 months, from fall of 1998 to now. The Chinese internet
population quadrupled in 1999. The big change in these figures
is the role of business -- in the US, businesses got in the way of the
internet in the early years, while in the UK and elsewhere, businesses
have now assumed a driving role in the internet's growth.

In the US, the online services and ISPs created a wired population
long before anyone ever heard the word e-commerce, and the early
reaction of most US businesses was to ignore or fear the internet,
usually in that order. As it became clear that the online audience
wasn't going away, this left the businesses playing catch up, a
situation people in the US are so used to it has become almost a
reflex to assume that businesses don't "get it". Today, however,
businesses in countries at the tipping point of widespread internet
adoption have learned their lesson by watching the US -- once the
internet comes along, businesses know they will be valued in part by
their internet strategy, and generating loyal internet clients will
raise their worth in the market. The results of these lessons is clear
in two of todays most dynamic markets, Britain and Brazil; in both of
those countries existing banks are offering free internet access for
life to their clients, in order to acquire loyal e-customers, while
driving up internet adoption as a side effect. The effect of
businesses getting it sooner means that once a country crosses the
tipping point, its market will grow faster and become net-savvy
sooner than the US market did. The Mary Meekers of the world are
going to be caught by surprise when they see how rapidly the
industrialized world becomes synonymous with the wired world.

This change in the role of businesses -- going from sitting on the
sidelines to accelerating internet growth -- will separate the world
into 3 spheres: countries with little or no internet penetration,
whether for reasons of insfrastructure or political resistance or
both: think Cuba, Sierra Leone, Iraq. In the middle will be countries
with a small but rapidly growing net population, often doubling
annually -- countries crossing the tipping point, like Brazil, Italy,
Taiwan. Finally, there will be a few countries with a large and mature
net population, whose growth will have slowed to a more leisurely 25%
a year or so.  The first country in this group is the US, of course,
but the UK and the Scandinavian countries are joining this club as
well. 1999 marks the end of businesses focussed on growing within the
net population of their home countries.  In the next few years, the
real action is going to be between tipping point countries and mature
market countries, because every business in both groups is pursuing
the same thing: growth.

The cultural and economic logic of internet businesses demands
constant growth -- in page views, unique users, sales, transaction
value, in every possible measure of success. The valuations of
internet stocks are based on a climate where that growth has been easy
to attain -- the US from 1996-1999 -- but as the US nears 50%
penetration, the growth in users is still strong but no longer
breathtaking. This leaves mature market internet companies with two
choices: break the news to their shareholders about lowered growth
expectations, or look for customers in other markets. The usual answer
has been international expansion: Yahoo is in over 20 countries, the
biggest online bookstore and auction site in the UK are Amazon and
eBay respectively, and a host of other US-based internet companies,
everyone from AOL to salon, are expanding aggressively overseas. All
these companies are trying to hit other markets at the same moment:
after they have crossed the tipping point, but before the playing
field holds too many well-established competitors.

This pressure from the mature markets is in turn creating huge
incentives for businesses in small but growing markets to go
international as well, particularly if they can do it along linguistic
lines, with Spanish-speaking businesses reaching out across Latin
American, English-speaking businesses re-tracing the lines of the
British Empire, and so on. The goal of this metaphorical land grab is
two-fold: first to stave off the competition from mature markets where
possible and grab the growth in user base for themselves, and second
to provide themselves with leverage when the inevitable partnerships
and acquisition offers come in from the Yahoo's and Amazons of the
world. 

The next five years are going to see several cycles of customer
acquisition, consolidation through partnership or purchase, followed
by a new round of customer acquisition, and only companies with a
credible international strategy will be able to play that game at the
highest levels. The US-based intenret companies will have an advantage
in this market, but not a complete one, now that the US internet
population is in a minority, 1999 marks the point where the real work
of taking the World Wide Web world wide began.



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shirky.com Clay Shirky's Writings About the Internet
Economics and Culture, Media and Community, Open Source