USS Clueless -- The future of the web

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The future of the web

Each time a new mass medium appears, companies who were successes in older media move into it and try to use it as if it were a version of some older medium. And this rarely works well. Then people in the new medium begin to think about what they have, and about how to use its unique properties. The content on that medium changes to adapt to its particular characteristics, and it becomes something completely new. That's about to happen to the web. We're just finishing the "treat it like something it ain't" stage and about to move into the "Well, then, what is it?" stage.

Consider television. In the 1940's, radio was king. Television came along, and for the first few years, they tried to treat it like radio-with-pictures. Successful shows from radio were moved to TV, with mixed success. That's because TV isn't radio-with-pictures; it's more than that. Modern television programming and modern radio programming bear little resemblance to each other.

So it is with the web. The problem here is that existing large companies are trying to treat the web as if it were something they already know, so they're trying to treat it like publishing without paper. You can see that attitude everywhere. (I'm typing this with FrontPage, a name derived from newspapers.) You could take a web site like Salon, and simply dump its pages to paper and sell it weekly with little change to its content. (You'd have to remove the embedded links and the linking sidebars. Aside from that, you'd never notice.)

And the companies trying to do this are failing commercially. It's not that they're not getting visited and read, it's that they're not commercially viable. But the real problem is that they are only taking small advantage of the unique character of the web compared to other media. (The characteristic they're taking advantage of is quick transmission to the readership, permitting them to update more often. Instead of updating monthly, or weekly, or even daily, these sites update multiple times per day.) That's a great waste.

Of course, the problem with this all is that it is addicted to huge budgets and the money isn't there. VC's are no longer willing to pump billions of dollars down the toilet in search of "eyeballs" and the web-based advertising model has collapsed. And there is much wailing and gnashing of teeth about how the web has somehow failed.

Only it hasn't. Traffic on the Internet has been rising monotonically for more than ten years (indeed, since before the invention of the word "internet"). There's no sign of this leveling off any time soon. Someone out there is doing a lot of reading of something.

So what are the unique characteristics of the web which will drive its future and differentiate it from the other media?

  • Bidirectionality. This is the first medium in history where information can pass just as easily from the consumers to the producers as it does from producers to consumers.
  • Speed and responsiveness. No other medium responds to the needs and desires of its users as well. I can't make a magazine change subjects while I hold it in my hand, but I can alter what's on my screen.
  • Pull, not push. This is the first medium in history which is completely controlled by its consumers. You cannot send anything to your reader that he doesn't want to receive.
  • Privacy. If I buy a magazine or book, I have to carry it to a counter and watch while someone rings it into a cash register. Even if I order a book through the mail, someone out there knows who I am. But I can view anything on the web leaving only my IP as a trail.
  • Economy. No medium in history has had such a low barrier to entry. There has never been a medium where ants could actively participate and prosper. It's always taken elephants before.
  • Point to point. The communication channel runs directly between the producer of the material and the consumer of it, without middlemen like magazine distribution syndicates or television networks who are capable of blocking, delaying or altering the material.
  • The Global Village. On the web, everything is within arm's reach.

Some of these combine to create derivative differences. Combine bidirectionality and speed and you get interactivity. No mass medium before this has ever had the ability to create interactive experiences such as are possible on the internet (e.g. Everquest). This also gives you collaboration, where the active readers of a site produce some (or even all!) of its material.

All existing media can best be characterized as fifty ten-million-acre farms. The future of the web is ten million fifty-acre farms. To the big media companies, this is disaster. "What? You mean we can't dominate this medium like we do all the others?" I'm afraid not. There's a place for big media companies on the web, but they're not going to dominate it, because the unique virtue of the web is that no single model is going to dominate it. There will be no concentration of power, as has happened with all prior media. There is room for everything on the web.

So the big media companies are now running articles analyzing the "failure of the web" (which really means our failure to dominate the web). But the web hasn't failed. What's failed is the attempt to treat it like something it isn't: a magazine without paper. What's needed is to figure out what it is and treat it like something completely new.

All the other periodical distribution media (radio, television, magazines, newspapers) are "push". The customer's only choice is to consume or not consume, by either tuning-in/buying or not doing so, and this is an all-or-nothing choice. (Not quite, of course; you don't have to read a magazine all the way through, and you can change the channels. Still, as long as you are reading or watching, you view what the producers of the medium want you to view.) This gives the producers of that medium the ability to force on you things they want you to see whether you want to see them or not. (In other words, advertising.) That concept doesn't work on the web, because the user of the web can selectively choose exactly what to download.

This is why the web advertising model collapsed: a web consumer only receives and consumes what they want to. The old model won't work; they're going to have to try something new. Advertising has, for a hundred years, been based on a push model, on the assumption that the readers will consume it even if they don't want to. The web is the first mass medium where that assumption is incorrect.

Publishers on the web have to accept that everything which gets read will only be read because the reader wants to read it. It is not possible to make a web user look at something they don't want to see. If you want to make your reader consume advertising, then for the first time in a hundred years you're going to have to make your advertising entertaining. Advertisers don't really know how to do that, though there's been experimental work in that regard in the past. But the vast majority of advertising has been, in a word, rude. Intrusive, obnoxious, self-serving and boring. That works on billboards. It works for magazine ads. It works for television. It's not going to work on the web.

Some kinds of advertising is never going to work on the web. There are categories of products where all the offerings are essentially the same. It matters to the producers which one you buy, but in practice it doesn't matter to you. Those producers use advertising to try to create an artificial product differentiation where no real one exists. They want you to select their product over others even when there's no good reason for you to do so.

All kinds of gasoline are essentially identical. All kinds of laundry detergent are essentially identical. It doesn't matter which you buy -- to you -- but it matters enormously to the producers. So they use obnoxious advertising to imprint you on their brand and make you choose their brand. That's the kind of advertising which isn't going to work on the web.

The kind of advertising which will work is the kind that the readers actively want to see. Yes, Virginia...

There are magazines where the readers actively seek and read the ads. Indeed, in some magazines the readers value the ads more than the content. These are specialist magazines, concentrating on a very narrow subject matter, where the customers are trying to find out what products are available because the customers actively want to buy. Many of them serve hobbies. My best example of that is "Sky and Telescope", which is read by astronomy hobbyists who want to buy what is offered.

Sky and Telescope doesn't have a big circulation, but it gets particularly good ad rates because its advertising is particularly effective. And its material is such that the magazine can be produced by a particularly small staff.

And that epitomizes the commercial future of the web. There will probably always be a few big web sites, but the most successful web sites will be small. That's because material production doesn't scale well; to double your material you need to spend more than twice as much money and have more than twice as much staff.

A single organization with 500 employees will produce far less material than a hundred organizations consisting of five people each. But they will both require the same amount of revenue to survive. More to the point, those hundred tiny organizations will have disjoint readerships, who are there because the material they produce is particularly interesting to them. This opens the opportunity for targeted advertising without violation of the privacy of the viewers.

But the the future of the web isn't necessarily commercial in the sense of traditional magazines: concentrated production of material, distributed widely, supported by advertising. There's plenty of room for other things.

There's a lot of other material for which the web is uniquely suited which doesn't fit this model. For instance, in politics it is a great way for a candidate or party to deliver their message in greater depth than any other medium permits. The web has already changed the politics of the industrialized democracies and the change has only begun. (I'm waiting for ICANN to create a special domain precisely for political messages, such as candidates and political parties.)

The web also makes possible the most convenient catalog conceivable. As an example of that I present Crucial, the sales arm for Micron Semiconductor. Crucial sells RAM, and their online catalog is a dream to use. They are taking perfect advantage of the speed and interactivity of the web to make your purchasing experience as fast and convenient as possible. I recently purchased my own web server, which came with 64M of RAM. With RAM prices being what they are now it makes no sense to not stuff every computer you own with as much RAM as it can hold, so after I ordered the server I got onto Crucial's site. They sell a huge variety of memory, most of which is incompatible with my server. But that wasn't a problem. On the first page was a pull-down where I entered the server manufacturer (Cobalt). That brought up a second page with a pull-down page where I entered the specific product (Qube 3). That in turn brought up a page listing only those memory products Crucial sells which are compatible with my server. On that page I selected the one I wanted, entered the quantity (2), pressed a "buy" button and was taken to a screen where I entered my shipping address and credit card information.

I was able to find and buy the memory I wanted in 2 minutes. That is the power of the web.

There is a lot of reference material out there put up by universities and science institutes. There are government web sites. There are hobbyists. There's even the odd vanity publisher, who owns his own server and pays for his own bandwidth just because he wants to.

But the real power of the web is precisely that it will always be dominated by a huge number of small voices. The web is not a forest filled with huge trees, it is and always will be a savannah, filled with millions of blades of grass. Now in a savannah, grass gets eaten. There are droughts. There are brush fires. Not every blade of grass survives, and sometimes they die in droves. But more will spring up to replace those that die, and these small events do not directly damage the overall health of the savannah. (But it can seem that way if it is your particular blade of grass which is burning.)

From the point of view of the big media companies, this means that the web has failed. From my point of view, their failure merely means that we're starting to realize the true potential of this medium.

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