When the internet was first invented in the 70s it was used to connect military personal and emergency workers in a time of crisis. It was purely utilitarian: used to convey facts and events from one point to another.
However as time went on, and researches in academia recognized the internet's utility, they started using it to share research between colleagues. Initially it was largely used to send data from one point to another but later became a place where ideas could be shared.
In the mid to late 80s the internet evolved further. No longer was it limited to well funded researchers in big universities. Any technologically apt person with a couple hundred dollars could get on the internet and talk to users across the world. This is where the social web really began: the old BBSs' and newsgroups of the early internet. Instead of communicating purely in ideas, jokes and stories were being told. People became "friends" online. This concept continued throughout the 90s. AOL helped bring chartrooms to the masses and all of a sudden millions of people were meeting online.
However for years the internet was really limited to the computer literate. Many didn't understand why or how to use computers. The internet was mostly a domain for nerds and businesses who knew how to gain an edge. It took another ten years, a whole generation, for everyone to catch on. In the late nineties we saw the beginning of the information revolution. Even if many did not know how to use the internet, nearly everyone realized its utility.
Now ten years later so much is happening its harder to pin down exactly where we are or where we're going. Nearly all of the major websites today have some social component to them. Most grandparents know how to get on the internet to read and write email. Anyone living on one side of the world can get immediate and personal access to others living on the other side.
The notion of the internet cloud has emerged. Instead of a clear-cut way to send information from one point to another, we have something as complex and nuanced as our own society. We submit information which can be read, commented, tagged, or even altered by anyone, but mostly by our own friends and connections. Instead of interacting with anonymous people across the world we have now started interacting with our own friends over the inernet.
I have a couple of predictions. As more and more people start jumping on the web and interact socially on it, we'll start to see the technology content and "nerd" sites lose market share to more common interests sites. A big milestone will be when Huffington Post beats TechCrunch as the #1 blog on the internet. Keep updated here.
However the web will go much further than blogs and social networks. All sorts of new technology is bringing locality onto the web. Instead of connecting people across the world, I think we'll start seeing the web connect people next door. Craigslist is a good example but I think we'll start seeing much more sophisticated. You can already peer into other people's houses with amazing detail. Its only a matter of time before all of your neighbors are indexed, tagged, and shared.
I'm not quite sure what the implications for the new local internet will be. Obviously there are privacy issues. There are plenty of avenues for spammers and stalkers alike to take advantage of the technology. But I think there is much good that come out of it too. It will connect and organize local communities. It will bring these communities closer together and make them feel more like home.
Honestly I'm pretty excited about whats coming out on the internet. The dot-com bubble didn't burst, it just deflated for a couple years. But now its back, albeit a bit less obnoxious and we're going to see loads of new changes.