Newfangled works with independent agencies to lead development web platforms for their clients.

Newfangled works with independent agencies to lead development web platforms for their clients.

In the Future, The Web Will be Mapped by Humans, Not Robots



With shockingly high adoption rates and history-altering uses by massive groups of people, it's clear that the social media paradigm is quite mainstream. Indeed, we are in the midst of what will be looked back upon as a very tumultuous period of social and economic change during which our global society was radically shaped, in both conceptual and concrete ways, by communications technology. (The impact of social media on our society at large is not the focus of this newsletter, but if you're interested in a more academic approach to that topic, I'd like to recommend author Clay Shirky's recent TED talk, How Social Media Can Make History.) As such, it's no surprise that social media has revolutionized businesses in almost every industry, especially ours.

Social Media and Business


Increased online social activity has presented an obvious opportunity for marketing and advertising that has yet to be fully mastered. But for businesses, establishing simple and effective social media outposts can quickly bring local advantages to global operations. What I mean by this is that actual personal relationships are just as valuable to a firm serving clients all over the planet as they are to small, local businesses. Using social networks can foster real relationships that enterprises used to assume only mattered to customers that walked into the local hardware store. But I'm not sure that was ever true. I think that relationships have always mattered—it's just that, for a time, we were able to use advertising to create the illusion of relationships (think about the celebrity endorsement model of commercials). Now that real relationships are possible, the illusion is just not going to cut it anymore.

The more people use social media to speak their mind about experiences with products and services, the more businesses will benefit or suffer from the unsolicited opinions of individuals. The only difference between this and true word-of-mouth is that these opinions persist and can become very sticky. They are posted to blogs, forums, tweeted, texted, etc. and instantly visible to potentially thousands of people. Moreover, this information remains visible until it is buried by the daily onslaught of other commentary- that is, unless it attracts attention. Then it gets sticky and spreads faster than any old-school PR maven could control. With satisfied customers, this is a good thing, but in cases of customer dissatisfaction, it could be disastrous. In last October's newsletter, I discussed how understanding this new system is critical to managing your online reputation and recommended some tools and techniques to make that a part of your routine. I'd recommend reading it for more on how social media is reshaping business public relations. More recently, I wrote A Practical Guide to Social Media to evaluate business use of social networks for marketing.

The Fractalization of the Web


But the shifts I've described above are old news at this point; we already observe and understand them well. What is more interesting to consider is what I like to call the "fractalization" of the web. The connections across the web, whether personal, professional, or other, are growing in number and granularity, making the passage of information faster than we can even begin to comprehend. It used to be that two websites might be connected initially by a single, mutually agreed upon link- "I'll link to you if you link to me." This kind of connection might look like a simple, straight line between two points. Then, portals were manually set up to organize websites by category. If someone working on the portal found your site, she might add it herself, or you could submit your link to the portal to be entered. If the portal was a point, you could now imagine many straight lines radiating out from it and connecting to other points. Once Google innovated an algorithmic approach to indexing the content of the web, the portal became obsolete, and the vast number of connections was made even more clear. This mastery over the web enabled Google to become one of the most quickly expanding and profitable companies in history. But an interesting shift is occurring now as a result of social media. Consider this quote from an article by Fred Vogelstein in this month's issue of Wired, entitled The Great Wall of Facebook: The Social Network's Plan to Dominate the Internet

:

"In the eight months ending in April, Facebook has doubled in size to 200 million members, who contribute 4 billion pieces of info, 850 million photos, and 8 million videos every month. The result: a second Internet, one that includes users' most personal data and resides entirely on Facebook's servers."

What Vogelstein is hinting at here is that a massive amount of data and connections, potentially larger than the web itself, is growing outside of the reach of Google's spiders. As long as that remains true- both the exponential growth of data and its exclusivity to social networks- Google's dominance over the web and how we use it is at serious risk (probably even despite their upcoming "social" offering, Google Wave). Because Facebook, for example, keeps its data from being indexed by Google, the most numerous and granular connections, those which manifest the detailed tips of the fractal image I'm using, are not visible or navigable without participation in social media. This is a significant paradigm shift from the robotic to the personal, which could ultimately render search engine optimization obsolete, especially if Facebook gets its way. A bit more from Vogelstein:

"Today, the Google-Facebook rivalry isn't just going strong, it has evolved into a full-blown battle over the future of the Internet—its structure, design, and utility. For the last decade or so, the Web has been defined by Google's algorithms—rigorous and efficient equations that parse practically every byte of online activity to build a dispassionate atlas of the online world. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg envisions a more personalized, humanized Web, where our network of friends, colleagues, peers, and family is our primary source of information, just as it is offline. In Zuckerberg's vision, users will query this "social graph" to find a doctor, the best camera, or someone to hire—rather than tapping the cold mathematics of a Google search. It is a complete rethinking of how we navigate the online world, one that places Facebook right at the center. In other words, right where Google is now."

Vogelstein goes on to cover the struggle between Google and Facebook comprehensively, addressing not only the companies' attempts to monetize user patterns and data accumulation, but also the ways that each has significantly directed the trajectory of how the web is used. About Google, Vogelstein writes, "It was only after it had made itself an essential part of everyone's online life that its business path became clear—and it quickly grew to become one of the world's most powerful and wealthy companies," implicitly suggesting that Facebook, too, having made itself an essential part of many people's lives, could discover a viable business plan.

Facebook's prospective business plan depends completely upon the fractalization of the web, an increasingly tight-knit network that is an organically created mesh of the connections between individuals and the data they willingly share within the context of a trusted social network. Whether this is preferable to the more sterile and "objective" algorithmic approach of Google is a matter of opinion at the moment, which means that, for now, the choice between robots and humans is yours. However, if future users do turn en masse to social networks for the answers they currently get from Google, that will righly turn a focus on search engine optimization (SEO) to social media optimization (SMO).







Comments

Ryan | June 30, 2009 10:40 AM
Chris, great newsletter and a welcome change of pace for Newfangled. So futurey. Very cool. Oh, and hot off the presses - Firefox 3.5 just came out today (good timing- did you plan that??)! Here's a link: http://www.downloadsquad.com/2009/06/30/firefox-3-5-is-out-adds-private-browsing-tab-tearing-and-more/
Russ | June 30, 2009 10:54 AM
Great post. One thought I had was that bandwidth is never going to be an issue. Our internet connection will increase dramatically so that it will be like TV. This will open up a host of applications that simply wont rely on your connection speed.

I agree with your Google Analytics is one of the coolest apps going and I think will only improve over time. I use them on every website I build.

Websites won't be overtaken by social media, but will complement it. People are looking for solutions and if your website can deliver, it will be your biggest asset.

A website can and should be your biggest sales tool for business. A website doesn't work 9 to 5 and requires no sleep and you can access potential customers anywhere in a flash. Your website works for you 24 hours per day 365 days per week.

It is truly a great time to be a web developer with all the cool things going on with the internet...
Christopher Butler | June 30, 2009 10:56 AM
Ryan,

Thanks, I figured that the last year or so of Newsletters had mostly been practical, nuts and bolts kind of material, so we were due for something a bit more conceptual...

I didn't realize that Firefox 3.5 would be out today- that's a nice, but uncoordinated coincidence. Thanks for sending the link along- I'm guessing Firefox will announce it on their site later today.

Chris
Nolan | June 30, 2009 11:22 AM
After you grab Firefox 3.5, you can try out this demo (http://htmlfive.appspot.com/static/tracker1.html) showing off a few of the more advanced features of what web browsers are capable of, and that more websites will use when the market share of the older ones goes does down. This particular example does real-time motion tracking.

The demo linked above shows off a feature called web workers which allows you to offload more intensive computations to the background, so that the browser interaction itself stays snappy. It also exhibits use of the "canvas" HTML tag which lets draw and interact with images on a page in real-time. The motion-detection software as well as the graphics showing the motion are all being created dynamically.

Features like these mean that software that could only have been run on the desktop or with Flash, now can run in your browser, like any other webpage without the need to install extra plugins or download and install anything to your machine. Exciting times ahead for web development...
Christopher Butler | June 30, 2009 11:31 AM
@Russ,

I'm not sure that I'm as confident as you that bandwidth will never be an issue. That just seems unlikely, especially after all the Michael Jackson interest clogged up the internet pretty significantly last week. I don't mean to be a naysayer but when it comes to physical resources, I just don't think we'll ever have enough to keep up with demand. This could be an interesting thread though- I'm planning on discussing the environmental impact of the web in Part 2 next month, part of which is the resource consumption of the web. For a hint of these ideas, check out some of my blog posts on digital conservation.

Thanks for reading,

Chris
Allison | June 30, 2009 11:43 AM
I agree with @ryan- very cool subject and definitely a welcome read in my inbox this morning. Also, I'm glad to be seeing some interesting imagery in the newsletters now. Keep that stuff coming!

I'm a little confused about the section on social media, though. I get the fractalization concept just fine- makes sense to me and we can all see it happening as we speak. But the idea of social media optimization is odd- how would we optimize our sites for social media? Alos, isn't the whole point of the Google algorithm to ensure that no website gets overlooked? That seems much more Democratic to me, and so much more preferable. Pitting it as humans vs. robots seems a bit weighted, like you want people to prefer the social graph just because it's human. But humans end up doing things for terrible reasons- like popularity! Maybe I'm just not getting the message?
Nolan | June 30, 2009 11:49 AM
I agree with Russ that plentiful bandwidth will be a reality in the US, and already is for several countries like Japan, South Korea, and certain EU countries, where they pay roughly the same as Americans but for much, much fatter pipes.

In the Michael Jackson meltdown last week, bandwidth wasn't really the constraining factor. Most major data centers sit right on the main pipes that are the fattest and the fastest (highest throughput). The issue with the sites that went down is that they weren't ready for that level of traffic, from a site architecture standpoint. A server can only handle so many requests per second, and there are ways to make this number go up, but if the structure of the site is not ready for that impact, where they can quickly provision new servers (assuming their site scales out in that manner), you see sites go down

Most major sites say designed to be fine for the 99 percentile cases -- it's that one lightning bolt of an event that can cripple a site. Even Google thought its own site was under attack (http://www.wired.com/epicenter/2009/06/google-michael-jackson-search-spike-seemed-like-an-attack/), and they probably have more bandwidth than anyone else in the world and have PhDs designing everything from their datacenters to their custom-engineered servers to accommodate high-traffic situations.

In the future, though, as the demands of the web rise with its importance to society, these crashes and slow-downs may be come less acceptable, even in these once in a blue moon events.
Christopher Butler | June 30, 2009 11:53 AM
Nolan,

That's a helpful explanation. I guess I conflate bandwidth with the site's server capacity pretty often. Good to have it cleared up.

Chris
Christopher Butler | June 30, 2009 12:07 PM
@Allison,

I think the idea of social media optimization is probably pretty ambiguous at this point, especially in comparison to the fairly procedural approach to SEO. Beyond participating and enabling on-site social media use, I suppose that the particulars of optimization will depend greatly upon the ever expanding functionality of social networks. We'll just have to wait and see how things develop.

Your other point about Google's "democratic" approach is definitely compelling. One counterpoint that I think is pretty important to consider is that aspects of Google's algorithmic approach could certainly be construed as popularity-oriented. A significant factor is "authority," which is measured based upon many factors, significantly among them the number of incoming links specific to keywords. For example, if ChrisButler.com was available, I might try to set up a personal website using that domain. However, it would take a long time before Google considered me as the most authoritative on the subject of "chris butler." Currently, the top page that appears for a Google query of "chris butler" is not me; this Chris Butler runs a music site. I've only just recently surpassed the Chris Butler who makes space art! These other Chris Butlers have been online longer than I and creating content associated with their name longer than I have. Those factors, plus the fact that they probably have more incoming links associated with the words "chris butler" give them authority. Follow me so far? Now, it's only recently that Google has enabled user profiles to appear among search results. This is a move in the "social" direction. In any case, I wrote a blog post in January, 2008 about this called Is that Really You?, though I expect some of these concepts around authority to change over time, mostly as a result of how social media is impacting how people share and find content online. Google doesn't want to be left out!

Anyway, you are a little right about the title of that section of the newsletter. I had about three other alternative titles that I was considering, but I chose this one precisely because I hoped it would elicit some emotional response. Plus, it referenced robots- who doesn't like that ;-)

Thanks for reading, and for your insightful comment. I hope this discussion continues,

Chris
Vance | June 30, 2009 1:38 PM
This is one of the densest newsletters you've put out yet- here is a ton of information here that I'll probably have to read through a second or third time. My first impression: very intrigued by the various phrases you seem to be coining: "fractalization of the web," "holistic browsing," and "conversational synthesis." How do you come up with this stuff? Considering a career in brand naming? But yeah I agree with @ryan and @allison that this was a welcome change of pace for me, too.
Ted | June 30, 2009 1:45 PM
Warning! Useless utopian technobabble ahead!
Christopher Butler | June 30, 2009 1:48 PM
Warning! Classic useless Ted comment!
Christopher Butler | June 30, 2009 1:56 PM
@Vance,

Thanks- I'll take "dense" as a good thing ;-) As for the phrase coining, I guess I have a bit of a Bucky Fuller complex going... Did you know that one of Bucky's classic words, "dymaxion" was actually coined by an advertising executive named Waldo Warren? He spent days with Bucky listening and noting all the different words he used most frequently and observed that "dynamic," "maximum," and "tension" came up so often that he decided to merge them into this one word (more on this here). But no, I have no plans to pursue a career like Warren's.

Thanks for reading!

Chris
Geoff | June 30, 2009 3:17 PM
When you integrate with Google Analytics and merge its data with data local to the site, does that data actually get copied over? Do we "own" that data in a way that would let us export it in some text format and create our own reports?
Nolan | June 30, 2009 3:27 PM
Geoff,

The CMS is not actually copying the data over, but just pulling in the data more-or-less on demand when it is viewed. We've decided on some preset reports that deliver a lot of information, and our developers will be able to customize these reports in a coming version on a per-client basis.
Anonymous | June 30, 2009 3:37 PM
Fractalization is probably not the best description- nothing online is that uniform.
jj | June 30, 2009 4:04 PM
I think the analogy works because it seems like what the article is getting at is the scale of it all, not necessarily the uniformity. Fractals are defined as "a rough or fragmented geometric shape that can be split into parts, each of which is (at least approximately) a reduced-size copy of the whole," so the idea here is the exponential growth of information now that so many people are sharing and linking to content.
Christopher Butler | June 30, 2009 5:28 PM
@anonymous, @jj,

@jj is right on. I couldn't have said it better myself- I was thinking much more about matters of growth and scale than uniformity. I suppose I could have just said something more plain, like the "exponentially growing web," but come on, "fractalization" is much more interesting!

Thanks for reading,

Chris
Judy Trolley | June 30, 2009 6:21 PM
I can think of some other trends that you might want to cover, either in the next installment or a part 3 (?)- gaming (yes, gaming), education, government/political influence (maybe you'll mention this in the privacy segment), advertising, and perhaps controversial (but definitely influential)- porn.
Allison | June 30, 2009 6:48 PM
Ok, I see what you're getting at now- especially in how Google is making decisions to model after social networks. I still prefer a more objective method, but maybe Google isn't going to provide that after all.
Ken | June 30, 2009 10:20 PM
Ahh, the perfect summer newsletter subject- the future! I really enjoyed this one. I'm inspired now and very much anticipating Part 2! I watched the 2057: The City video and loved it. They say that the kid's grandfather was born at the dawn of the internet age so he must have been born sometime around 1994- making him around 60 or so. Man, that means I'll be lucky to be alive then. But it's hilarious how he is still portrayed as a cyberpunk hacker, though I was surprised at how mean he was to his robot.

But here's the point I wanted to make about the video. If this guy was born sometime around 1994, why would he still be attached to a laptop from that time period? He'd be all over changing technology. Especially if he's a hacker. That is, unless all people settle in to an age and just stick with it. But if so, what a cliche... Oh, one other thing- how is it that this "ancient" laptop can connect to the city-wide internet? Seems to convenient. Oh right, and it can also create holographic shark companions. Suuuure.

But lots of fun! You guys at Newfangled are right on. I'm linking to another video that you might want to add to the last page.
Christopher Butler | July 1, 2009 9:34 AM
@Judy Trolley, these are some good suggestions for sure. While I agree with you that both the gaming and pornography industries are significantly driving web-based technological advance, I'm pretty hesitant to discuss them in this context. For the moment, I think games are still closer to end-products than what our typical web projects tend to be, so they are going to operate differently and in a more isolated manner, especially in regard to how they are marketed and engage with advertising. In general, I'm more interested in the big picture of the web and how it's being shaped, so I've tried to select topics that are primarily oriented toward human/web interaction and communication of information in general. I will keep an eye on gaming and perhaps cover it at another point.

In regard to pornography, I think it's sufficient to acknowledge that, sadly, the industry wields significant influence over technological progress. This was true when BETA and VHS were in a video format war, when DVD really became popular, and will be true for advances in immersive physical interfaces, too (think Second Life that you can feel). All that said, I probably won't be including this in any newsletters anytime soon ;-)

@Ken, Glad you liked it. Ok, ok, the video has some anachronistic issues. I noticed the issue you mentioned about how the outdated laptop somehow connects to the contemporary internet, but the grandfather and kid have to go to the city's holographic crystal archive to look at data from the same time as when the laptop was built. That definitely doesn't make sense. BUT, the video does do a great job of integrating displays of hypothetical technology within a narrative that is meant to show how that technology shapes future society.

Chris
Anonymous | July 1, 2009 9:53 AM
I don't know maybe Ted has a point. Posts like this seem a little self-indulgent to me.
Not Ted | July 1, 2009 4:32 PM
1 post out of 12 in a year being a bit "self indulgent" isn't that bad.
Christopher Butler | July 2, 2009 10:22 AM
I think it's fair to say that this newsletter was a bit self-indulgent. It's pretty plain from the content I write for our blog that thinking about these issues is a personal interest of mine, and I generally enjoy writing and discussing them. So, in that sense, yes, I wanted to write this newsletter out of personal interest just as much as out of a duty to inform our readers.

But as I wrote in the introductory paragraphs, "futuring" is an essential discipline in any business setting and ultimately engages with immanent and practical issues. While it may appear overly abstract, it would be wrong to assume that this kind of thinking is not valuable.

In any case, apparently @Ted has become a dedicated reader. I can always count on his comments shaking things up a bit.

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