If you are of a certain age, you may remember when the internet was very different. There was more free content, fewer ads and no one asking you to “hit that subscribe button.”
People communicated online with email, there was one main social media platform – MySpace, that you accessed from a computer – and it was fairly easy to find things using a search engine.
So what happened? Well, there could be many reasons the internet evolved. But one tipping point may have occurred in early 2007 when Apple CEO Steve Jobs introduced the iPhone, the first real smartphone. Jobs said the iPhone was "a revolutionary product that changes everything." And he wasn't kidding.
The good and the bad
The smartphone resulted in millions more people accessing the internet. A recent study by Statista found that 93% of people say they access the internet using their phone while only 63% still use a computer.
But has that wrecked the internet? That's a matter of opinion. The media and technology experts we consulted acknowledge that some aspects of the internet are worse today but argue that some are better.
Joe Karasin, social media marketing strategist and owner of Karasin PPC, simply says smartphones have made the internet “different.”
“Having immediate access to information is usually considered a good thing,” Karasin told ConsumerAffairs. “But the fact that advertisers can use your smartphone to track you and showcase 'personalized' advertising is usually considered bad. Google's shift to mobile-first indexing has made page speed very important, so if you prefer faster page load times, then you have the smartphone to thank for that.”
Dominic Chorafakis, principal at technology firm Akouto, also sees the good and the bad. Mostly good.
“Thanks to smartphones, the internet has moved beyond being a repository of static pages and images, to a live and dynamic environment where individuals are able to share high-quality audio and video and communicate what is going on around them from almost anywhere to virtually everyone on the planet,” he told us.
But before the invention of the smartphone, you generally had to be sitting in front of a PC in order to access the internet. Now, people walk around with the internet in their pocket and many access it constantly.
“There are several instances where smartphones have made the internet worse,” said Ryan Doser,” vice president of Inbound Marketing at Empathy First Media.
“These cases include phone addiction, mental health issues, cyberbullying, social isolation, less sleep and distractions, especially while driving.”
Mark Ainsworth, creative director of Maxweb, a digital marketing agency that offers web marketing and SEO services, says the invention of the smartphone has meant easier access to the internet and a huge segment of the population, especially young people, take advantage of it.
“Mobile phones have meant that internet use has skyrocketed and there is a lot of opportunity to advertise, sell and make money through the internet,” he told us.
And some might see that as a problem. Twenty years ago the web was less about money and more about the free flow of information. But because of the migration of eyeballs from traditional media to the internet – a migration that began with the smartphone – money has followed. That’s had a disruptive effect on a number of industries -- especially print media.
Before the smartphone, there were no paywalls requiring subscriptions to access the New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal and other publications’ websites. Now, even small-town newspapers have erected paywalls in an effort to stay afloat.
Chorafakis says that in the early days of the internet, the promise of increased revenue from online ads led many publications to make their content publicly available, foregoing subscription revenue in favor of what was expected to be significantly more advertising revenue.
“That promise failed to materialize, with the majority of digital ad revenue ending up in the hands of a small number of companies,” he said. “In this new reality, not only did print publications overestimate ad revenue, but they also lost the direct relationship with their subscribers, a valuable source of demographic information and audience size.”
“I’ve always questioned the business model behind paywalls,” Doser said. “Not only are there several ways around them, but ‘old school’ print publications don’t fully understand how to monetize content on the Internet. Forcing people to pay $10-20 per month can alienate visitors, negatively impact SEO with high bounce rates and sacrifice other forms of monetization.”
The smartphone also led to the explosive growth of social media, a trend that our experts say has its positives and negatives. But all agree that social media would not exist unless there were smartphones.
“If we didn't have smartphones, then social media would probably have gone by the wayside a long time ago, as it would be seen as a giant waste of time,” Karasin said. “Having to go home to log in on your desktop or laptop? No one would have time for that.”
Chorafakis points to a Pew research study that found that 85% of people surveyed across 18 advanced economies reported owning a smartphone, with more than eight in 10 young adults reporting that they use social media.
“With video becoming the favored format for social media, mobile-first platforms like TikTok, Snapchat and WeChat are clear examples of how smartphones have paved the way for a new generation of social media platforms that would not exist without them,” Chorafakis said.
According to our experts, it all depends on how you use the internet and what you expect from it that determines whether you think it's gotten better or worse. Ainsworth says the user experience may not be the same for everyone.
“The internet today offers endless sources of information and services which makes it an invaluable resource for learning, communication, and entertainment,” he said. “However, there is a noticeable increase in advertising, marketing, and subscription-based models which may not match the search intent of the user, especially for people who only want information rather than a service.”
And chances are, you're reading this article on a smartphone.