Remember when people used to “surf the web”? Now it is said that typical daily browsing behavior consists of five websites. William Gibson’s age-old summary of web experience, “I went a lot of places, and I never went back” has become, “I go a few places, and I stay there all the time.” We don’t surf as much as we sit back and watch the waves. I started this post several months ago when I noticed that the lively conversations that used to happen on my website had all but ceased (and eventually ceased altogether). Though the number of visitors continued to increase, the comments had moved elsewhere. A link to a post here on Facebook garners comments galore on Facebook, but none on the actual post. I doubt that I’m alone in experiencing this phenomenon.
I Tweeted (that still sounds silly, doesn’t it?) sometime last year “Facebook 2009 = AOL 1999.” I was being snarky at the time, but there are good reasons that the analogy holds. As Dave Allen of North pointed out recently, search engine optimization (SEO) and search engine management (SEM) are shams for users. For those that don’t know, SEO and SEM are strategies for gaming Google’s search algorithms, thereby attaining higher page-rank in search results. That’s great if the optimized site actually has what you’re looking for, but unfortunately this is becoming less and less the case (Dave was looking for some bamboo poles from a local source for his backyard in Portland. I challenge you to find one using Google).
Enter closed communities like AOL and Facebook: These social networks help filter the glut by bringing the human element back into the process. So-called “social search” or “social filtering” helps when Google fails. So, even as Facebook has become the new “training wheels” of the Web (as AOL was before it), it also serves as a new organizing principle for all of the stuff out there.
Once I read the Wired cover story on the death of the web, I knew this idea had to be revisited. The claim that the web is dead is more than a ploy to sell magazines and less than a statement of truth. Yes, we’ve used the terms “web” and “internet” interchangeably (even jokingly combining them in the portmanteau “interwebs”) when they’re not the same thing, but don’t get it twisted: The web is not dead. It’s changing, growing, reorganizing, yes. But it’s far from dead.
Organizing principles are just filters; they include, they exclude, they make sense of would-be chaos. Good examples include books, solar systems, and city grids. As an organizing principle, the web is lacking at best, but it’s not lacking enough to wither and die just yet. Sure, the “app-led” (i.e., Appled) future, with its smart phones, iPhones, iPads, and other gadgets is forming closed silos using the internet’s backbone, but you aren’t likely to be sitting at your desk using anything other than the web for a while to come yet.
That brings us back to the shift from outlying sites (like this one) to filtering sites (like Facebook). As long as web search is run by algorithms that can be gamed (thereby rendering them all but useless), then the closed silos will stack — on and off the web proper. Where will that leave sites like mine? I don’t know, but no one is interested in The Roy Christopher App just yet.