Because the Internet developed free of corporate control, it's been a source of innovation, giving rise to new technologies and forums, including some that threaten traditional businesses and values. That's in stark contrast to the “entertainment model” phone and cable companies want to impose on the Internet, which critics say would limit such innovation.
A relative newcomer is Meetup — www.meetup.com— which helps people establish interest groups in their local communities. Founded in 2002, it claims 2 million members, including French-, Italian-, Japanese- and Spanish-speakers' groups, stay-at-home-moms' groups and book clubs.
Social-networking sites, where users post profiles and garner “friend” lists, are booming. MySpace — www.myspace.com— used by young people and celebrities alike, boasts 50 million members, and Friendster — www.friendster.com— 24 million. In South Korea, 15 million people — one-third of the population — belong to CyWorld.
Partisan political networking and blogging sites have flourished over the past few years, but a recent entry, Essembly — www.essembly.com— hopes to exploit the social-networking phenomenon on a non-partisan basis. Essembly members post profiles, blog and list friends, as on MySpace, but they also participate in site-wide political dialogue.
Since Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast in 2005, a volunteer Internet service, the Katrina People Finder Project — www.katrinalist.net— has helped people locate missing loved ones. Along with a team of other computer experts, David Geilhufe developed a new computer tool, People Finder Information Formats, to aggregate data from various sources into one searchable, convenient source.
New kinds of people-to-people links — often for the purpose of bypassing banks and other traditional institutions — pop up continually on the Internet. Several new sites feature people-to-people banking. Kiva — www.kiva.org— enables individuals in the United States to offer micro-financing help to entrepreneurs in developing countries by partnering with local organizations. Lenders can chip in capital in amounts as small as $25 to help people start bakeries, print shops and hair salons. Kiva reports 100 percent of its loans have been repaid or are being repaid.
Prosper — www.prosper.com— links up people who want to borrow money or are willing to lend it, for a return. Would-be borrowers seek cash to attend school, renovate a house, start a business or buy a big present for a 40th anniversary, and Prosper lenders name their own interest rates.
In keeping with the Internet principle that the more people a network links the more value it has, Internet entrepreneurs and activists have long developed applications aimed at bringing more people online, sometimes for free.
For example, FON software — http://en.fon.com/— helps Wi-Fi (Wireless Fidelity) users worldwide get access to wireless Internet wherever they go, in return for registering to share their own wireless access with other FON members who pass by.
Internet services to help users get around government censorship also are under continual development by activists around the world.
Psiphon — developed by researchers at the University of Toronto — and the Free Network Project, or Freenet, developed by Scottish network technologist Ian Clarke, use computer networks in non-censoring countries to help people in information-censoring regimes communicate anonymously and freely.
To many Internet enthusiasts, the Net is first and foremost a publishing medium, and as faster broadband connections become the norm, the range of what's published continually expands. At photo-sharing site Flickr — www.flickr.com— members file, store and share their photos. And, true to the Internet's community-building tradition, Flickr members engage in plenty of two-way conversation about what they see. For example, in several popular ongoing games, Flickr members snap and post mystery photos in a favorite city, like New York, Chicago or London, and fellow urban-enthusiasts try to guess where the photo was taken.
Among the newest wrinkles are sites where users can upload and share videos. The hot, new video site YouTube — www.YouTube.com— started up last year in the garage of two young techies looking to share home videos. Among the current offerings on the site created by Chad Hurley and Steve Chen — a sample guitar lesson posted by a group of music teachers advertising their pay services; a video art installation of a chair that disassembles then reassembles itself to music; performance clips of aspiring comics; and home and travel videos from around the world, from street dancing in Japan to scary driving behavior in India.
And of course, big advertisers also show up on YouTube, counting on the passing traffic — 30 million videos are viewed daily — to drum up interest in everything from new Nike sneakers to upcoming movies like “Superman Returns.”