Content-type: text/html ~ Stephen's Web ~ 2004 In The Rear View Mirror

Stephen Downes

Knowledge, Learning, Community

Dec 18, 2004

Astrologers, I think, should be required to review the predictions they made yesterday before being allowed to cast a forecast for today. This very reasonable test of credibility would, unfortunately, lead to there being very few astrologers. But at least we could count on the remainder as being either very good or very lucky.

The same, more seriously, should be required of those pundits who presume to predict the future. This time of year, the predictions are set out for all to read. I have not traditionally provided a year-over-year forecast, as the long-term trends I observe are subject to a wide variety of local phenomena. Predicting the widespread emphasis on security was pretty easy at the start of 2002; less so at the start of 2001. But despite the pervasiveness of this trend, it is an eddy - it seems to consume all, but is irrelevant to the eventual flow of the river.

Even so, something piqued me last year and I came out with 2004: The Turning Point, a foolhardy foray into short-term prediction. One unforseen consequence has been the requests for another this year. I cannot say whether I will be moved to prognosticate at length some time between now and the same date next month; readers may have to be satisfied with the (edited) words I send to eLearn Magazine.

Be that as it may, I am not thereby released from the obligation to provide some accounting for the predictions last year (and indeed, another unforseen consequence of this past year was the number of people writing to me demanding that I admit to my errors and perform some public act of atonement (critics who, in the main, did not write back when I asked for details)). Like it or not, though, they had a point: I say a lot of things, and some of them might not be true. And people rely on my projections, perhaps not so much as they rely on astrologers, but enough all the same.

So how did I do? Let's look at the article.

I wrote,

One way or another, the deluge of spam will be resolved in the near future. The most likely outcome is that the email protocol will be replaced with a more restrictive system in which the sender's address, if not identity, will be authenticated. Kill one spam message and all subsequent email from that sender will be blocked.

Well, I do see fewer spam messages in my inbox, and I get the sense that this is true of many other people as well, not because of some system of authentication but because of the increasing use of spam filters in corporate and ISP mail services. There was a concerted effort to create the authentication system I projected, however it fell apart at the eleventh hour over licensing issues. We also saw the launch of services like SxIP. Not sure if I get a cigar for this one; I expect that the prediction will come true eventually, but that many lawyers will get rich in the interim.

I also wrote,

In the interim, much heat (and little light) will be generated surrounding anti-spam legislation. It will become apparent that the legislation passed has been, in essence, the legalization of spam.

Full points for this one; the complaints began ringing out within weeks of the legislation coming into force, and the phrase "legalization of spam" now results in more than 10,000 hits on Google.


Based on this, it will not be surprising to see marketing agencies take to the courts to block the deployment of authenticated email, on the grounds that it makes their now legal mass mailings unprofitable.

There were court cases against anti-spam legislation, which is basically what I meant by that comment. But hey, I don't need to settle for 'close' here. I nailed it dead on.

From spam I shifted my attention to community:

The evolution of email will have as an unexpected consequence a resurgence in the widespread search for community on the internet. Historically, the most popular applications have always been those where people could share their thoughts in groups. Usenet dominated the early days of the net, email and mailing lists the nineties, web based discussion boards the last decade. Because community forums have been so corrupted by commercial content, people have found themselves cut off from their communities.

This phenomenon has emerged largely unremarked (I haven't seen a reference anywhere). But I have a sense that people, if they think about it, will discover that they haven't been reading their email so diligently nor visiting the online discussions so frequently.

I still can't find any quotes - but this is my own observation. Traffic on the mailing lists seems lighter - not so much in volume, because places like DEOS and others have become a haven for conference announcements, calls for papers, and other assorted palaver. Subscriptions to my newsletter via RSS on Bloglines have gone from none to 300 in the last year. But you'll have to make this call yourself - is email as compelling as it was this time last year?

I think I was right about the community aspect - people have been abandoniong email as their means of expression. But they have turned to their blogs, and blogs have become much more of a community phenomenon that I would have reported this time last year.

I continued,

One answer, of course, is the blog. The rise of half a million personal journals in just a couple of years shows, if nothing else, a yearning to communicate. But blogging has already peaked, and over the next year we will see more signs of its regression. Despite blogrolls, comment forms, trackbacks and more (all of which are showing early signs of spam pollution), blogging is essentially an individual activity, not a participation in a group.

Peaked? At half a million? With Technorati and others reporting more than four million blogs, with 2004 being widely regarded as the year of the blog, I think maybe I called a peak before it happened.

But I still think there is an important sense in which I was right - for the early adopters. Will Richardson, for example, expressing angst I reported in my paper Educational Blogging. The slowing down and in some cases cessation of certain blogs altogether. What I failed to do is look beyond my own community. All else being equal, there's no reason to expect blogging to collapse in 2005. But all else, of course, is rarely equal. It's hard to maintain a blog. There will be a peak.


This mass of people will be cast adrift once again, searching for a way to form a group. There won't be a single magic bullet application that meets this need. But a suite of tools, ensuring bloggers not only the capacity to write, but also the chance to be heard, will begin to evolve through the new year. Part of this will have to do with the email redux, which will allow readers to select their sources. The other part will have to do with effective personalization.

The mass of people were, indeed, cast adrift. Orkut was a hit - for a couple of months. Flickr - about which, more below - became a phenomenon. RSS hit the mainstream hard. The wiki attracted mainstream attention, with Wikipedia making headline news. But though desperate for community, people never really found it.

There was personalization - in Orkut, in Bloglines - but nothing people really wanted. The best, and only, place to express yourself is your blog.

We haven't seen the end of this story. Change is so slow sometimes.

So what else then?

One tenth of one percent of the people write publicly. Well, OK, I can't validate this figure, but it has been a rule of thumb for me for about a decade. If you have a thousand readers on your website, one person will post regularly to the discussion board. If you have a thousand mailing list subscribers, one person will post the bulk of the messages. If you have a thousand internet users, one person will create (and maintain) a blog (people may observe that two percent of internet users currently blog, but I see this as an indication of the scale of the coming shrinkage of the blog community).

A billion people on the web means a million blogs. I still think it will stabilize around that number. Within an order of magnitude, anyway.

Most people, therefore, will not write, thus robbing the internet community of a valuable resource. The views and opinions of these people constitute font of information. We have only been able to capture that information indirectly: we track the number of hits on a web page, we track individual browsers with cookies and web bugs. Tools like the Google bar and Alexa try to capture and report personal internet usage.

Right now, spyware has a bad reputation, and deservedly so, as the results disappear into some corporate vault, only to later haunt you in the form of vaguely targeted spam. But if the results didn't disappear? What if you could control these results, wearing different profiles for different browsing routines, clicking on an evaluation as you read, adding a comment or annotation if you felt like it, capturing and collecting your own personal library as you went along? Not a blog, because a blog is about writing, but a way of communicating what you think is important.

Or Blogdex or Daypop. There were some 'rate as you go' services launched that flew mostly below the radar. Scott Mitchell's content rater, for example. And a few others. Also, sites like Furl and continue to evidence this trend. This prediction was correct - it just didn't make the front pages. Stay tuned.

The early indications are already out there, and in the next twelve months we should be watching for some form of non-blog blogging to emerge.

I suppose if I had said the word 'podcast' here i would have been seen as a genius. Failure of imagination. But see, how tantilizingly close I was?

I'm not sure I even want to read the section on personalization...

2004 could be the year personalization of the web finally succeeds (it will definitely make a mark, but it could be a few years before it reaches the mainstream). By combining the information provided by non-blog blogging with tailored feeds drawing resources from hundreds or thousands of sources, readers will be able to be presented exactly what they want. Into this same environment will be piped whatever replaces email, so that all a person's essential web reading (and very little non-essential web reading) will be available through a single application.

Well, you have to look to find this. But it's there, in nascent form, in services like Blogdigger. Personally, 2004 was the year people took notice of Edu_RSS. But - still no single appliance, still no mass personalization.

This isn't, of course, personalization the way it was pushed in the late 90s, where the idea was that advertisers would be able to push exactly the content you wanted - or they wanted (this was never clear). It's something very different, and commercialization will be a greater challenge - but offer, when it finally succeeds, much greater payoff.

I still think this is true. We might be only weeks away - or maybe years.

Now onto learning objects...

Much has been made, in some circles at least, of the potential of learning objects. Vast sums of money have been spent on learning management systems that emulate the functionality of those great (and now extinct) e-commerce systems of the nineties. The next result has been e-learning largely regarded as irrelevant and boring, and while it may be true that students in an authoritarian environment may be forced to learn this way, there is no great enthusiasm, at least, not after the initial pleasure of escaping even more boring lectures has worn off.

For all that, learning objects will come to the for in 2004 or shortly thereafter, but not as cogs in a centrally packaged learning design. Learning objects - or, as some will start calling them, learning resources - will begin to reach their potential outside the mainstream. When people who use informal learning - as much as 90 percent of learning, according to some estimates - the demand, and therefore the production, of learning objects will increase dramatically.

Just as I said, outside the mainstream. They're there, but you have to know where to look. EdNA Online passes 1.6M milestone. Oracle and Microsoft have about a million tagged objects, Cisco 1.4 million. This is the tip of the iceberg - and with informal learning hitting its stride - see here and here it seems as though there is definitely something afoot. I'm calling this one a hit.

Much to the displeasure of those who invested in such content technologies, the vast majority of learning resources will be free...

This could be true, but I sure couldn't prove it. One thing for sure: there's a lot of commercial content out there (or 'in there' because it's mostly locked from view). The alternative? Well, we need many more repositories like this - and they're out there too, but scattered.

...and the internet will be an increasingly viable alternative to a traditional education.

Pretty easy prediction, and pretty correct.

Good thing, because funding patterns for traditional education will not change: tuitions will rise, classes will be cut, and the minute independent certification becomes widespread (could be 2004, but probably later) the educational system will enter a full scale crisis from which it will not recover.

Funding patterns did not change, things got a bit tighter, and independent certification didn't happen.

My prediction for the next hype was simulations. I may have been too early:

Simulations, therefore, will be hyped like crazy for the next couple of years - just long enough to the aforementioned 16 year old to get his hands on sophisticated simulation authoring tools and, with his enthusiasm, imagination and lack of restraint, put the content publishers to shame.

There was some good stuff on simulation out there this year - things like the Virtual Trader and Aldrich's six criteria, some other examples - all the ingredients are there for a hyper-meme, it just hasn't hit yet. It will. I've got another year on this one.

I then turned my attention to open content, calling it the defining issue of 2004. Was it? If not, close.

The defining issue of 2004 will be open content, and more importantly, the launch of the most aggressive attacks yet on the emergence of open content. The real threat facing the content industry (and this includes music, video, text, software and education) is not content piracy, it is the availability of high quality free content being distributed in competition with the commercial product.

This prediction was dead on. Stupid lawsuits continued unabated. Microsoft claimed ownership of key internet protocols. And claimed that open source violates more than 200 patents. Real Media and Apple fought over music formats. Swap-blocking systems became pervasive. The ContentGuard saga continued. Even open WiFi took a hit.

I continued:

The best evidence of this is in the news media, mostly because newspapers offer the most technically low-end product. Even newspapers that are not being pirated on the web (and that's most of them) are suffering from the impact of online competition. MIT's Open CourseWare project instantly vaporized dozens of business plans. Wikipedia has more readers - and, these days, more clout - than Britannica. Linux is being seen more widely as an alternative to Windows. Open access journals are forcing publishers to retrench. The list goes on.

And probably the best example of this is Firefox, which pushed Internet Explorer below 90 percent in years and amassed more than 10 million downloads in its first month. Thunderbird, the open source email client, hit one million downloads today. The saga of Encyclopedia Britannia is self-evident. In the news media, columnist Dan Gillmor had a big hit with his book We the Media - written online in a wiki and about the rise of citizen journalism - and then quit the newspaper to start a venture-backed citizen journalism project.

The attack on open content is intended to drive it from the marketplace. Part of this is legislative - with a widening copyright and patent regime, some open content is simply being declared illegal (which is why we see corporate support for even the most absurd patents). Part of this is promotional - a system-wide advertising campaign aimed at executives is stressing the risks of open content, both in terms of legality and reliability. And part of this is strategic - corporate alliances are forming to create closed content markets on the desktop, for example.

We saw examples of all three types of attack in 2004 - and I expect the intensity to increase in 2005.

This is a last desperate gasp before the bottom falls out of the content industry completely. Wise investors are already noting the acquisitions of publishers and music labels. Content is well on its way to being a value-add, something that you might attach to a product, but not something that is the product. Apple uses music to sell iPods, not iPods to sell music.

I covered a variety of instances of this over the year - content being used to sell hamburgers, for example. The rise of non-commercial internet radio is just beginning. Stay tuned to this one.

Finally, I thought IP communications would be big.

Finally, a little out of left field, comes another revolution sweeping the web: IP communications. This may sound odd, as the internet just is IP (Internet Protocol) communication, but in fact we have been using alternative systems - such as the telephone, television, and even the post office - much more frequently. That's all about to change.

The biggest fuss will be made about voice over IP (VOIP), but this is just one aspect of the consolidation of communications technologies. Television - especially live television, such as sports coverage - is on the verge of being replaced (and just in time, too, as systems like TiVo kill the advertising market). 2004 is the hype year for this technology - 2005 is the year consumers rebel, as they realize they are bing charged analog prices for digital technologies, and that cheaper (or free) alternatives are available.

There was hype, and more hype, though not as much as I thought. There was adoption. The next couple of years will be big. I also noticed that this year I did more live online presentations than in years past. Net*Working 2004 was almost entirely in the form of live online presentations - which didn't really work for me.

The dark horse in all of this is the resurgence of videoconferencing. The old, unreliable (and expensive) systems will be phased out over the next few years in favour of IP videoconferencing. Combine this with large flat screen displays (still too expensive to justify the hype they will get, but looming large in the corporate market) and you have a much more compelling experience than you can imagine.

Well, it's still a dark horse. But if you look a little bit below the radar - it's there.

So to wrap up...

2004 will be looked on as the year in which everything changed, but nothing changed. We will cross some significant barriers in 2004, but the changes that emerge from this turbulent, uncertain year will take several more years to mature. When we look back, we will see that 2004 was a lot like, say, 1996 - the new infrastructure will be in place, but the massive discovery will not yet have taken hold, and the sceptics more often than not will appear to be holding the ground. Don't be fooled by this.

So, was it? In a word - yes.

So many barriers were crossed - alternatives to email, the rise of online community, personalized services, the attack on open source, and at the same time, the movement's first real inroads, massive production of learning resources, simulations, voice over the internet... there were significant advances in each of these areas, and while from the outside everything still looks pretty much the same, the foundations have shifted. 2004 was indeed a turning point.

And my predictions? Well I missed the mark here and there, mostly in terms of quantity rather than trend. But more importantly, I think, I had my finger on all ther areas where the action was in 2004. Even if things came out a little bit differently than I thought, it seems pretty clear to me that I was looking in the right place, and calling pretty much the right trends. So, yeah, I feel pretty vindicated by 2004. And - if I may be bolder still - 2005 will show just how right some of these predictions were.

Stephen Downes Stephen Downes, Casselman, Canada

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