Ka-boom! Scientists believe that our moon is the result of a cataclysmic collision between a prehistoric planet the size of Mars called Theia and a young Planet Earth. This planetary car crash some four billion years ago led to fragments of the Earth and Theia splintering off into space, which later recombined to form today’s Moon. If you look at a globe or map of the world, have you ever noticed how there’s a huge hole in the middle? The deep Pacific Ocean, lined with its rim of volcanoes on either side, is the Earth trying to ‘heal’ itself from this ancient punch-up.
But why did the planetary fragments join together? Why does the Moon continue to orbit the Earth without flying off into space? Why does our solar system have one sun and only eight planets, rather than hundreds or even thousands? The answer is the invisible, almost magical, force of gravity.
It is this physical force that gave me the central idea for this book. In 2013, when reading an amazing book by family friend Professor Ross Taylor about how our solar system was formed, I was also juggling questions I’d been pondering for 20 years in my private research about what works online and what doesn’t.
Why do some enterprises, such as Google, Facebook and LinkedIn, meet with spectacular success while their once-dominant competitors, such as AltaVista, Myspace and Spoke, struggle for survival?
It is clear to me, and to many other people who work in technology, that the web operates via a set of rules that tends to favour certain outcomes. And then it dawned on me: it’s like gravity! Both the physical and the online worlds are shaped by laws that favour the creation of planet-like superstructures with lots of space in between. Just as we have physical gravity, we have Online Gravity.
As traditional industries – such as media, travel, photography and music – are steadily consumed and transformed by what I call ‘gravity giants’, more and more of the world is coming under the spell of Online Gravity, and new ‘planets’ are added to the system. Examples include Planet Search (Google), Planet Buy and Sell (eBay), Planet Reference (Wikipedia), Planet Social Media (Facebook), Planet Customer-Relationship Management (Salesforce) and Planet Retail (Amazon).
This book summarises my two decades of research into this phenomenon. It provides distinctive and original insights into the new set of rules that are reshaping the worlds of business, education, health and work. Using clear and simple examples, it explains how you can use these insights to harness the unseen forces of the web, in order to improve your wealth, your health and even your children’s education.
Like all writers, I’m indebted to the great theorists who have informed my thinking, and along the way I’ll introduce you to their amazing work. But this book draws most heavily upon my own experience as a technology executive, entrepreneur and investor. For nearly a decade in the 1990s, I worked at IBM, where I helped lead the company’s early efforts to capitalise on the power of the web and uncover what it was beginning to mean for its clients in banking, entertainment and health.
In 1995, I visited a company in Los Angeles called Digital Domain, in which IBM had made a large investment. Digital Domain is one of the world’s leading digital-animation and visual-effects companies for film and TV. I met with its founding CEO, Scott Ross, to create a joint venture in Australia ahead of the soon-to-be launched Fox Studios in Sydney, and I remember being struck by how interested he was in the work we were doing on the web and how uninterested he was in our plans around movies! How right he was.
In the late 1990s, I left IBM to lead a venture-capital-funded tech start-up that I co-founded with a schoolfriend. Our flagship product was EquityCafé – a pioneering social-media service for over 30,000 stock-market investors. The helm of your own start-up is a great place to learn things that you tend not to forget. It’s the closest thing to being on stage in a live production, but 24/7. And many of the lessons from EquityCafé have been baked into the concept of Online Gravity. When you build and run a large-scale online service with tens of thousands of individual customers, you get to see behind the scenes of what works and what doesn’t, how people behave online and what they really love.
After selling my interest in this start-up, I worked in Sydney as an adviser and consultant to the New South Wales Government. This allowed me to see the widespread changes that the web was effecting in public services such as education, health and the arts. For example, state-owned galleries, libraries and museums were being completely reinvented and transformed in the light of Online Gravity.
As part of my research in the past five years, I have worked in the technology research sector with three of Australia’s top science and technology research organisations: the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO), National Information and Communications Technology Australia (NICTA), and the Securities Industry Research Centre of Asia-Pacific (SIRCA). From these experiences, I’ve learnt about how some new technologies that will be central to the web over the next decade, such as mobile broadband, machine learning and big data, are contributing to the dynamics of Online Gravity.
I have also studied in detail many of the world’s foremost web-borne companies, including Google, Amazon and Atlassian, and how they are using the net in new and fascinating ways, including as a tool to predict and respond to future customer demand, as a platform to create spin-off enterprises and as a low-cost direct-distribution channel to market.
Fortunately for us, I’ve discovered that Online Gravity follows a series of clear and easily grasped laws that can lead to interesting and sometimes surprising results. By understanding these laws, we can better position ourselves, our businesses and our families to take advantage of the seismic shifts being brought about in employment and education, and tune the awesome power of the web to our advantage.
Many of the smartest people, companies and investors already understand the principles of Online Gravity, and they are putting this understanding into practice. They have front row seats at the unfolding of a new era of global change. My hope for this book is that it puts you, the reader, in a similarly privileged position.
While the web has been around for over two decades, only in the past few years is it realising its full potential, owing to two main things. First, most people in the Western world are now online. Second, the system that connects us is always on, always with us (via mobile broadband) and operates a hundred times faster than it did a decade ago. Once everyone has a very high-speed internet connection, different things become possible. Online video, which requires a high-speed connection to upload the large files and for smooth replay in real-time, was only available to a few people a decade ago. Now most people have one, YouTube starts to make a lot more sense; and look at its meteoric rise over the past five years– it is absolutely remarkable. So too do video calls through services such as Skype.
And right now a whole army of person-to-person, video-based services is emerging online that would not have worked five years ago, such as a coaching service for Chinese students wanting to get into top-tier international universities (ChaseFuture), apps that enable you to visit your family doctor online (Doctor on Demand), and websites that match start-ups with computer programmers anywhere in the world to work in teams across the internet via video (AirPair).
All these new online services offer incredible benefits, but many of us are concerned that technology and the web are moving too quickly to keep up with. We all worry about change, and the global changes being brought about by the unseen forces of Online Gravity are profound. Do you know someone who has lost his or her job in the last five years working in IT, media, finance or retail? These industries and many others are already feeling the pinch. Online Gravity is unstoppable and its reach continues to grow. Over the next decade, it will dominate the global economy.
What I have written is a guidebook to help you navigate the digital decade ahead. I hope you will find it both useful and entertaining.
Paul X. McCarthy
Online Gravity is now available to buy from bookstores in Australia, India, New Zealand and the UK. You can also now borrow it from many public libraries. If you've already got a copy, please like and share the Online Gravity Facebook page with your friends.