20 Years

This weekend, TNL.net turns 20.

Two decades, 1040 weeks, 7300 days.

Over those two decades, TNL.net has added up to thousands of web pages. Over the past few weeks, I’ve gone back and trimmed it. Starting from a fresh page, I decided to refocus TNL.net on what it’s been best known for: its content.

An evolving infrastructure, an evolution of process

The story this site is a story of evolution further and further away from the “metal”. The first version ran on a computer I had physically assembled out of parts, picking the memory, processor, network card, and hard drive carefully for optimal performance. I compiled the operating system myself, wrote the web server on which the site was running and developed every single pages manually.

The site has since gone through many iteration, running on Windows, Linux, and later CentOS; going from a web server I wrote to one I haven’t even configured myself. And with this 20th anniversary, I’m actually moving to a design with most of the CSS, HTML, and JavaScript written by others with the focus now being squarely on the thing that has truly differentiated this place: thoughts turned to words.

A marathon, not a sprint

I’ve tried to find something I have done for as long as I’ve run this site.It was the first step in a decades long journey: TNL.net was my 6th presence on the internet, with earlier personal pages hanging from other websites dating back to 1992. TNL.net maps the realization of my journey to the web. While I started hanging online in the 1980s, I went to the web in 1992 after I learned that you could read the source code of a web page. My first web page was mostly a rip-off of one of Tim Berners-Lee’s. I copied his page and slowly replaced text, then links. But getting my own domain was a major jump: it was a commitment I was making to the medium.

Some have asked me why it’s TNL.net and not TNL.com. When I created TNL.net, there was a logic to domain names: .com was commercial and was supposedly only available to US companies. .net was an international domain and could be used for purposes other than commercial. While domains were free, those considerations seemed more significant then so .net it was, the result of my looking at this site as a personal one instead of a commercial enterprise, a place to hang my shingle, while I worked on the site building other .com sites. It was an acknowledgment that this was not intended as a commercial enterprise but an experimental workshop.

Subsequently, the internet became a hot thing, then it wasn’t, and later it came back. But along the way, I learned a few lessons:

1. The future is easy to predict if you watch technology closely enough: Details and omissions often are where the stories hide. Whether it is predicting that Apple would move to Intel processors, the rise of something like Bitcoin, or that Nokia would end up leaving mobile, one thing has been consistent. Whenever I make such calls on the internet, a number of articles/blog posts get written calling me a total idiot.. and within 12-24 months, the prediction turns out to be mostly correct. Why is that? Because I spend a lot of time doing pattern matching around our industry and trying to understand how similar issues fit in an historical context: it is that history, combined with interviews of people at the companies concerned, that give me a better sense of where things are headed.

2. Beware of the blind spots: I totally missed the growth of Twitter. While I was an early member, I could not figure it out nor did I understand its utility for a long time. Long-form writing blinded me to the utility of 140 characters. In fact, I advised an angel friend of mine to not invest in the company when he asked me for advice (Sorry!) So while I have a decent track record of predicting things, I must humbly recognize my own biases and realize that there is still much I need to learn.

3. The internet as we know it is in danger: The 1990s and early 2000s were a golden age of the internet because it was largely dismissed as a toy. Now that it’s a core infrastructure of our world, the powers that be want some form of control around it: whether it is the NSA trying to turn it into a surveillance network, large telcos trying to provide preferential treatment to specific forms of content, or large companies trying to wall users in into their own ecosystem, we, as users, have to stand up and fight for our right to a free and open internet. If we do not protect it, people will look at the 1990s as an aberration and the internet of the future will be undistinguishable from today’s cable television.

4. Question the party line: TNL.net has been syndicated to traditional media publications around the world and I’ve learned that the more controversial pieces, whether it was my early support for Wikileaks, or my observations on Occupy Wall Street, are generally frowned upon. If a story does not conform to the mainstream story line, few publications have the courage to publish it. I’ve been thankful to have understanding editors over the years but cumulative experience highlights a bit of black and white thinking going around storylines (eg. Apple is innovative; Microsoft is evil.) Either story lines fit a pre-established narrative or are frowned upon. So an organization like Occupy is not one that most are willing to learn from; or looking at Wikileaks in the context of the Pentagon papers is a bad idea. I hope that the new organizations like the one coming soon from Pierre Omidyar and Glenn Grenwald will help rectify this issue and restore a higher level of critical thinking in more of our media.

5. Leaders are not infallible gods: Over two decades, I’ve been called a tool of Microsoft, Apple, Google, Facebook, Twitter, and Netflix; I’ve been told I don’t understand Microsoft, Apple, Google, Facebook, Twitter, and Netflix; I’ve been accused of trying to pump up (or down) the stocks of Microsoft, Apple, Google, Facebook, Twitter, and Netflix. I often worry that there is an unhealthy worship of those companies: I wish that more people were looking at them with a more critical eye and I’d encourage other influencers to do so. I do like products and offerings from many of them but I also realize that little of their efforts are purely altruistic: at the end of the day, they are businesses with specific goals and often, collateral damage happens.

6. A marathon is run one step at a time: There are now 2732 entries on TNL.net. The average page on this site clocks in at over 1,000 words. That means almost 3 million words make up the content on this site. I didn’t know I was signing up for a marathon when I got started but I’ve been thankful for every step in the journey. It’s an astounding amount of time I’ve spent here but it pales in comparison to the amount of time TNL.net readers have generously given me in exchange: every comment, every mention has allowed me to more clearly understand the topics I’ve written about. All of this from one entry at a time, one foot in front of the other. Along the way, I’ve experienced joy and happiness, pain and suffering (the more brutal pieces to write are the ones about 9/11), and sheer exhaustion. This year I’m giving up writing my weekly column on Forbes so I can pace myself better as I felt that trying to do too much had degraded the quality of my writing. Expect pieces but not necessarily weekly.

7. Plan, Research, Write, Promote: TNL.net follows a simple formula: Plan the story and see if someone else has already written it (if yes, don’t rewrite it); Research the material and provide new insights; Write and edit multiple times before pressing publish; Promote the material on social media as an unseen idea is a dead idea. Repeat with the next story. Many of my readers have received emails, IMs or phone calls as a result and I’m thankful for all the help I’ve gotten in my attempt to create original content.

8. Community is the lifeblood of good writing: I owe a debt of gratitude to so many, whether it is readers of the site, readers of the newsletter, or fellow bloggers and journalists. From Philip Elmer-Dewitt to Bruce Upbin, the content you see on this site would not exist or not be of the quality you see without so many. Here, I’d like to also put in a shout-out to my friends at the IPG, who have been a great source of support all those years, quietly helping in the background by helping me steer difficult stories to completion.

9. 20 years is long; it doesn’t make 30 years look any easier: I often sit down at the keyboard with a sense of dread, worried that what I’m going to publish is not going to be good enough for my readers (and if you’ve read this far, you’re one of my readers). Creating original material on a regular basis is not something that comes easily: just like the marathon runner wakes up to train every morning, writing this site has been an exercise in self-discipline. When I look at people like Fred Wilson, who has sustained a daily rhythm on his site for years, I am in awe. Many bloggers have come and gone over the years but the ones we now know as successful are the ones who have shown up on a consistent basis, regularly updating content and making things interesting for their readers.

10. If a written piece isn’t read, is it a written piece? TNL.net has been called a set of pages, an online magazine, a newsletter, a blog, a thought journal but one thing has been consistent: my writing highlights the digital revolution, packaged up with the intent to refine my thinking, often provoking discussion in the broader community. You, like so many others, have come along for the ride and I’d like to thank you for that. Without readers, this place would be pretty useless but because it has a vibrant community, it is a great starting point for many conversations. So thank you for being here and let’s look forward to the 25th anniversary in a few years.

So on to that next milestone. The last 20 years have been an amazing time in our history and I suspect the next 20 will be as interesting.

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