The “dot-com”, a company that generates most of its revenue from online operations, is one of the symbols of the changing perception of the Web. The dotcom era (1995-2001) marked the ultimate end of the internet as a non-commercial space, governed by different laws than those governing the rest of the world. Stock prices of dotcom companies soared, driven by investors’ naïve belief that anything that had its business model based on the internet was doomed to succeed. In most cases, of course, that wasn’t true, which is why the word “dot-com” has come to be associated chiefly with the “dot-com bubble” or “dot-com crash” of 2000-2002.
The naive belief and the subsequent crash were obviously related to perceiving the internet in the 1990s as a kind of technological miracle that, as if by magic, would solve humanity’s problems. The dotcom crash showed that the Web was subject to the same laws that held true for other spheres of human activity. Still, the world with the internet is a different one than before. Dot-coms – those that have survived – have been extremely important for understanding it. It is the strongest and largest players that have survived, and the Web gives them the ability to influence society and culture on a mass scale.
Amazon.com, initially the world’s largest bookstore, today simply a huge online store, became an inspiration for Chris Anderson, who argues that the Web stimulates cultural diversity because it is based on “long tail” economics. The company generates most of its income by selling small quantities of diverse products, so all in all, it makes more money on niche books than on bestsellers like Harry Potter. This is a fundamental change from the traditional bookstore model where the need to keep stocks forces vendors to focus on a relatively small number of bestselling items. Dotcoms thus create space for books, CDs, or movies that wouldn’t find many buyers on the local market but which, thanks to the Web, have a chance to still make a profit because distribution is global.
Another example? Well, the most spectacular one is, of course, Google. The search results returned by the Google search engine are not without significance for what we watch and read, and in many respects the company knows more about us than the state institutions. Google Books has become the world’s largest reading room today, its selection larger than that, for instance, of the EU-funded Europeana library. Google Maps and Google Earth, in turn, are breakthrough online services that have revolutionised our thinking about the globe – and provided by a commercial entity at that.
In Poland, nasza-klasa.pl [Our Class – Polish version of Classmates.com - ed.] has been reconnecting old friends on a mass scale, becoming a reason for many people to start using the internet for the first time and thus achieving what government e-inclusion programs or providers’ advertising campaigns might not. Facebook has a better source of information about independent culture than any information site or guide.
Dotcoms are thus a perfect illustration of the new dynamics of the culture and media market – a market on which a single good idea can change the status quo, overshadowing established cultural institutions or rivals that have been in the business for decades. That’s precisely what YouTube (today owned by, again, Google) has done, becoming for many people in the world their prime source of audiovisual material. Although this may be hard to believe, the world’s largest audiovisual archive did not exist just five years ago. Commercial companies, until now operating as publishers or vendors, have now become middlemen, colonising the non-commercial, private, and popular sphere of culture.
It’s hard to say whether this has been a welcome process or not – by doing so we’d enter the slippery ground of ideology and of personal opinions about what institutions should regulate the distribution of culture. And it’s precisely this ambiguity of the largest dot-coms’ careers that serves as a great symbol of the Web, which some perceive as a revival of communism (because users uploading video clips to YouTube do it for free) while others as a new face of capitalism (because Google makes money on the ads). The funniest thing is that probably both are right.
translated by Marcin Wawrzyńczak