The Internet and the World Wide Web in general represent a breakthrough in communications on a level that most people rarely consider. We often see history turning on such events—the invention of writing, of books, of the printing press, of the concept of the news corps. The Internet stands high on the list of inflential breakthroughs in human communications
Up until the 1990's, most people had almost no voice in the world. We could talk to our family, our friends, our neighbors, and our co-workers. We could speak to others in our community, or stand atop a box in the park and speak to any passers-by who care to listen.
However, the ability of any citizen to communicate with others was generally limited by the reach of their voice; farther than that, and one could not expect others to hear what one said. If you had exceptional talent and a lot of free time, you might become a speaker and gain a greater audience. However, that was rare.
If you wished to be heard beyond the few hundred people most people can reach, you would have to either spend great amounts of money, or else beg for help from a gatekeeper.
A gatekeeper would be publishers, those who own and control mass media. These people or corporations are usually very wealthy and/or influential.
For example, if you wrote a book, self-publishing was not an option for most people. You would instead have to submit the book to a book publisher, and you would be forced to use an agent to do so. Only a small percent of submitted works are ever accepted, and most of them must submit a work many times; for example, JK Rowling's first Harry Potter novel was rejected a dozen times before a publisher agreed to print it. If a person was able to get a book published, the author would, at best, only see about 5% of the profits from the book's sales.
The publishers and editors would probably accept mostly just those submissions that they felt would be most profitable—but if a publisher so desired, they could refuse to publish based upon personal preferences, or any other reason they chose.
The situation is similar in most other fields; publishing in a magazine, newspaper, or journal; publishing music or audio performances; or in television or film. Very few people gain acceptance, very few artists or writers get published, very few people make money from what they do. Singer Lyle Lovett, for example, has sold 4.6 million music albums—but never made any money from them (his income, like most musicians, comes from live concerts).
Imagine living in a small town. Within the town, you can go anywhere you want. However, leaving town is a different matter; there are ten roads leading out of the town. However, all the roads are privately owned by wealthy people or businesses. If you wish to travel anywhere outside your town, you must use one of the roads.
If you try to use a road, however, the road's owner will stop you. They will ask why you are going, who you will see, what you will talk about, and what you will do. Probably 95% of the time, any request to go anywhere will be rejected no matter how many road owners you ask. And if you are lucky enough to gain use of a road, the road's owner will demand 95% of any moey you make from your business. Many road owners will force you to sign a contract requiring you to work for them, on their conditions, for one or more decades.
Can you imagine living that way? Well, that's what communications were like before the Internet; people had freedom of speech, but were mostly unable to speak beyond the people they knew personally.
When the Internet and the World Wide Web came about, things changed. Once the Internet opened up for general public use, new forms of communication appeared.
The first to come about was the web site. If you knew some basic HTML code, you could create your own web publication. You did not need to see any editor, beg to any publisher, or ask anyone's permission. Many formed their web sites around interests or areas of expertise (I created a web site advising people on how to get teaching jobs in Japan, for example). Some would start professional web sites, publishing resumes, advertising services, or publicisizing small businesses.
As the web advanced, you could use popular sites to host your own personal areas. One of the first such place was GeoCities, which started in 1994. You could choose a "city" (topic or theme) and create your own mini-site within their pages; no coding was necessary.
Around the late 1990's, a new phenomenon arose: the blog. Software was developed to allow anyone to write posts which could be assigned to categories, and create what was, in effect, their own personal magazine or newspaper. Many early writers gained a great deal of success, some becoming famous, with careers built around their blogs. I had a blog that, while not greatly successful, at one point had thousands of readers.
Eventually, all manner of communication opened up, the most notable being social media. Beginning with early sites like Geocities and later MySpace, eventually Facebook emerged as a giant in the field.
Such level of communication had never before been possible. People gained an ability to express themselves and make their work instantly available to the entire world. Exposure and success still depended upon the quality or appeal of the work, and only a few people succeeded in any meaningful way, but for the first time in human history, the gatekeepers were no longer necessary.
This extended to all forms of expression. Musicians found the ability to self-publish on places like YouTube or the iTunes Music Store. Filmmakers published on YouTube or their own web sites. Artists could create their own online galleries. Authors found that self-publishing on sites like Amazon, while not easy, could avoid the trials of begging agents and editors.
In the United States, many people believe that owning a gun is a defense against dictatorship. However, there is much wisdom in the old saying that the pen is mightier than the sword. Communications has always been the most potent weapon against dictators.
The Internet has certainly proved itself in this regard. The Arab Spring, a series of revolutions in the Arab world, were a kind of showcase in this regard.
In 2009 in Iran, there was no successful usurping of the government, but Twitter was used to great effect, causing the government to take notice. The horrifying killing of a young woman, Neda Agha-Soltan, caused a great uproar.
In 2010, the Tunesian government fell after those protesting the government successfully used Twitter, Facebook, and blogs to deliver their messages to a mass audience.
In 2011, Egyptian protesters used social media so successfully that, in a panic, the Egyptian government blacked out the Internet for five days—unsuccessfuly, as it turned out.
To this day, China attempts to crack down on free expression over the Internet, creating its own version of popular search and social media sites so as to maintain control, while forbidding foreign services from being used in China unless they agree to censorship protocols.