aol-logoAh, 1999. TLC and Brittany Spears were topping the charts. Michael Jordan was retiring – though not for long – and you could find anything on the Internet – a topic, a website, a new friend, a chatroom – through AOL, the world’s portal to the Internet.

In the sixteen years since, the Internet has become a much more fragmented – one might say democratized – place for finding and connecting with people, groups, organizations and information. Today, however, the pendulum is shifting rapidly back to a walled garden of central, controlled, simple access. The Internet (and everything that fits underneath that broad term) has simply become too big for many to sort through on their own.

Social networks are much more than just social networks

Today, the leading social networks are increasingly filling that void that AOL left. Facebook, Google, LinkedIn and Twitter in particular have the user base, capital, business acumen and financial incentives to continue building and acquiring apps and functionality to help you find and do everything and anything you want online easier. And they get the added benefit of unprecedented levels of data to crunch in order to make your experience (and that of advertisers) even more personalized.

From messaging with friends (privately or publicly) to sharing stuff you create (from selfies to professional blog posts) to keeping up with news (Facebook Instant Articles and Twitter Moments), to finding information based on reviews and recommendations from connections, it will become increasingly easy to stay within a single walled garden and never have to leave.

Heck, Facebook’s Internet.org initiative is bringing that simplified, organized approach to extending Internet access to the far corners of the world (which has raised concerns about censorship and net neutrality).

It doesn’t look like a walled garden

But people don’t necessarily want to have a gatekeeper to their information – and they don’t necessarily want their friends (especially obscure acquaintances from middle school) to have the same access to their every update as a close friend. That’s why the Facebook, Google, LinkedIn, and Twitter ecosystems have and will continue to incorporate more diverse elements – launching new apps with unique functionality and privacy levels to capture more user time in new ways.

Facebook Messenger, Instagram and WhatsApp – all are completely separate apps but part of the same Facebook ecosystem. LinkedIn (ed note: a Voce client) is continually rolling out new apps to segment out various functionalities – Groups, Elevate, and so on. Twitter of course has Periscope, Vine, etc. And Google’s ambitions are even greater, marked by this year’s Alphabet announcement, which opens the doors on any number of possibilities.

In 2016, I expect to see an increasing amount of back-end integration of these (and more) disparate apps. The back-end will look more and more like Google’s ecosystem, while user experiences will remain completely unique. This provides all of us users with choice, with options.

The walled garden will look more and more like a large arboretum – with the desert, jungle and forest looking and feeling completely different and full of unique flora. But all of those habitats share the same plumbing, the same electricity and the same security.

Will security or privacy concerns spark a backlash?

We’ve seen lots of handwringing about privacy in recent years, but peoples’ expectations of privacy have passed the tipping point. I liken it to driving on a road full of potholes. It’s annoying, and I’m going to complain about it, but as long as that pothole-ridden freeway is the fastest way from Point A to Point B, I’m not going to change my route.

That said, security could be the straw that breaks the camel’s back – or, in the metaphor above, the bridge that collapse and forces me to find a new route. As far as we know, no social networks have been the victim of any Target-scale data breaches, thanks to what I’m sure is an unprecedented investment in keeping their vast troves of data secure (at least secure from hackers).

I wouldn’t be surprised if in 2016 we see a breach of some sort – at least more than the password leaks that have happened in the past – that impacts one of our major Internet gatekeepers. After all, they have exceptionally valuable data on not just our “paper” lives (SSN, DOB, etc), but also our personal lives, our connections, our health, who we may fall in love with and so on. Any such breach would be on the level of the Ashley Madison breach – it’s more than just credit numbers and bank account info, it’s real, personal info and it would fundamentally alter our expectations of privacy and likely our online behavior.

Which brings us back to 1999. In 1999, the big concern looming on the horizon was Y2K. Today it’s cybersecurity. In 1999, we accessed the Internet overwhelmingly through AOL. Today, it’s through newer – but still centralized – gatekeepers. And in 1999 Enrique Iglesias was on the radio. Today, he is once again. Crap.