The Internet is a new frontier. In many ways, the experience of the
Internet today echoes the experience of the American Old West. To
understand why the Internet is the way it is today, one must under-
stand how it got its start and how it has changed over time.
In a frontier environment like the early Internet, the only certain thing
is that everything is subject to change. Frontiers often start with rapid ex-
pansion. In American history, expansion started with the early “Wild
West” days, when land was cheap, there was always something new over
the horizon, and settlement moved rapidly westward. There were no es-
tablished interests that had an incentive to preserve the status quo. And,
like all frontiers, the West had little government regulation—which also
meant little formal law enforcement and a strong need for self-defense
(which often became rough vigilante justice). Innovation and experimen-
tation thrived in the Old West; frontiers are always known for spurring
The Internet Is the
New Wild West
entrepreneurs to create new and useful products and services. And the
West was a place where new forms of social expression were accepted.
But the story of the American West did not end with rapid
growth. Frontiers don’t stay wild forever; eventually, the frontier either
becomes civilized or fades away. Later phases of frontier development
in the West created tensions between new and old, between “civilized”
and “wild,” and between early pioneers and late arrivers. Towns that
were once on the margins of the frontier quickly found themselves be-
coming interior cities. Sturdy buildings replaced canvas tents. Law and
order began to replace frontier violence as the growth of wealth and
stability prompted residents to replace vigilante committees with for-
mal law enforcement. And other changes were forced by late arrivers
who were not accustomed to the frontier way of doing things.
The recent history of the Internet closely echoes this stylized his-
tory of the American West, simply substituting an electronic frontier
for a physical one.
The Internet Is a New Frontier:
Call It Wild West 2.0
Those who cannot remember the past
are condemned to repeat it.
The similarity between the original Wild West and the Internet of
today is striking. Both started as outposts at the edges of civilization
that were known for their lawlessness: gambling, prostitution, and
petty scams dominated both the American West and the early In-
ternet. Both were known for having wide-open societies that toler-
ated behavior previously condemned by “civilized” society. Both
enabled the creation (and loss) of spectacular fortunes, and both
prompted the development of many wondrous new technologies.
The Internet Is the New Wild West 31