The Live Web

We’re building tools to watch the world change… Doc Searls has a wonderful post on his long-time meme: The Live Web. What I like about Doc is that he knows words matter. So when he talks about the Web he uses specific words and phrases that frame discussion. He says that when people treat their […]

We’re building tools to watch the world change…

Doc Searls has a wonderful post on his long-time meme: The Live Web.

What I like about Doc is that he knows words matter. So when he talks about the Web he uses specific words and phrases that frame discussion.

He says that when people treat their web sites like buildings, when they treat them as something to visit, then they become static and end up not worth visiting. It’s like a museum you’ve been to before…it gets old pretty quick if the exhibits don’t change.

But when people treat web sites like an environment, an ecosystem where human activity occurs, then people come and participate when they need to do the activity, your architecture being a place to do things as opposed to something to look at or experience.

If all you want is people to visit you, you’re not asking for much and will not get much for asking.

The essence of Stewart Brand’s book How Buildings Learn is an observation that the most successful buildings are ones that adapt to the changing activity of their inhabitants. This should be obvious, right? But it’s not, because we treat architecture as unchanging…we’re usually not around long enough (or paying enough attention) to notice the change.

This dichotomy also brings to mind Jesse James Garrett’s original 2000 diagram (PDF) in which he compared the “web as software interface” (task-oriented) with the “web as hypertext system” (information-oriented).

This is the distinction between a web of pages and a web of applications. What’s increasingly clear to me is that applications are becoming primary…even hypertext systems of slowly changing web pages (like Wikipedia, corporate web sites, and Apple support documentation) are now merely repositories of documents for information-organization applications like Del.icio.us, Ma.gnolia, blogs, and even themselves in many cases. Without an application to remember, organize, favorite, share, and filter what you’ve found, hypertext systems are not that useful. This is why directory sites like Yahoo and browser bookmarks were very early features of the Web, as they reduced the need to remember where everything was.

Serendipity, the much admired quality of browsing, is much more successful when you know what someone has already done…give me recommendations based not just on chance, not just on the fact that I’m walking past, but based on what you know about me and where I’ve been. Amazon is the example…not so much a product information space as a souped-up personalized shopping application.

We are building a web of tools. Tools that augment us, tools that help us organize what we’ve done, filter out what we don’t want, allowing us to pay attention to ever-specific topics with greater fidelity. We don’t need to “go somewhere” every time we want to know about something: that’s a constraint of physical space. If we can bring it back with us, or at least save a URL, then we have it with us at all times. This completely changes the game we’re playing. The challenge becomes to comprehend it all, not to remember where or when. Memory is the computer’s job…our brains for making sense.

We can watch the creation, growth, maturity, and death of opinion on Twitter Search. We can watch as we build evidence for something within our Del.icio.us bookmarks. We can watch our own interests change in our Amazon book list. We can watch public opinion sway back and forth at FiveThirtyEight. These applications are not trifles. They are the future.

This is a long way from static architecture. The very value of this ecosystem is that we can observe the only constant is change. We are building tools for watching the world change…

As Doc says:

“The Web isn’t just real estate. It’s a habitat, an environment, an ever-increasingly-connected place where fecundity rules, vivifying business, culture and everything else that thrives there. It is alive.”

Published: September 29th, 2008

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