April 3, 2002
You don't know what the World Wide Web is.
But that's okay, I don't either. Nobody does. We've all been laboring under the delusion for several years now that we know what this medium is and how it works. We watched the browser wars and the rise and fall of the dotcoms and all along have pretended that it is all proceeding according to some grand plan that we're privy to. And it ain't necessarily so.
I've had a lot of conversations about the web as a medium recently. One recurring motif I keep mentioning is the parallels to the birth of TV. As was noted ad nauseum last week, television was a device whose first "killer app", as it were, was Milton Berle. But it was the better part of two decades later until I Love Lucy defined the sitcom and gave voice to television's natural idiom. It was another two decades until cable television came along and made people remember how much delivery mechanisms influence the content of a medium.
So why the rehash of TV history? Well, it's to reinforce the fact that there were dozens of shows, hundreds of producers and actors, and countless audience members all watching TV for years, convinced that what they saw was the way in which stories ought to be presented. Even when what they were watching was has-been voice actors extending their radio careers into this new technological realm by reading their stories in front of cameras.
That's what we've been doing so far. There are only two types of web pages, really. Stories and tools. Some sites are a blend of both, granted. But that's all that a web site really can be so far. And, structurally, only story pages even really fit within the framework ascribed by the original intentions of the web.
But those original intentions were to mimic the highly-structured academic paper. Published, outlined, and formally formatted. The only slight revision to their print versions was that annotations and footnotes were superceded by hyperlinks. So this, too, was a concession to old media, to the known.
None of this is revelation, of course. It's probably got a decidedly obvious ring to it, if you know even a basic amount of web history. So that's where the challenge is. What is going to define the natural idiom of the web? What will its structure and form be? I'm terribly curious about this.
History has shown that those who invent the tools of a medium are seldom its greatest users. Gutenberg was no great author. Cristofori was no great pianist. Leo Fender couldn't play the electric guitar at all. But George Lucas is a competent, albeit arguably not particularly exceptional, creator in the realm of digital filmmaking. And he is inventing the tools as he goes along, with the help of his teams. So perhaps the people who are creating things in the realm of the web will be involved in the creation of the tools that make its ultimate form. There is an intrinsic idiom to the web which will spring up that is neither a story nor a tool.
This all leaves me wondering. Where will the tools to build the next web spring up? And what will be the raw materials of those tools? Most importantly, why isn't anybody working on the goddamn thing?
Where is it all going? I have some guesses: Microcontent. Collaborative filtering. Collaborative serendipity. Google as a platform. Page information quality. Page construction quality. Payment systems. The vast amount of untapped power on the desktops of every contemporary computer user. The stagnation of browser software for the past 5 years. The stagnation of office software for the past 10 years. Trust systems. Auto-organization. Presence status and away messages. The writeable web. Hardware form factors that don't force us to face away from each other. Omnipresent wireless broadband. Awareness of the value of the public domain. Personally-determined intellectual property licenses. Making a rock star on the web.
What am I forgetting?