Results tagged “web20”

New York City is the Future of the Web

November 17, 2009

I'm here at the Web 2.0 Expo in NYC today, my first big tech industry conference in a long time, where I'm also excitedly getting ready for my keynote tomorrow.

But one of the things I'm most proud of is that has something of a valedictory feel to it, as we note that many of the best, most interesting, most subversive and disruptive startups in the world are based here. From Foursquare to Hunch, Kickstarter to Square, Etsy to the newly-funded 20×200 (they're hiring!). That's not counting the dozens of tech-based media businesses that have spring up in the wake of Gawker and Huffington Post. And best of all, I think many of them have been influenced by the seminal NYC Web 2.0 startup, Meetup, which not only helps knit our startup community together, but introduced many of the elements of social responsibility and an old-fashioned We Make Money business model that distinguish New York startups from those in Silicon Valley and elsewhere.

(Update: To my chagrin, I forgot Outside.in, another great NYC startup that I've found inspiring. I'm sure there are more omissions, too, but I'll add 'em as they come to me.)

New York City startups are as likely to be focused on the arts and crafts as on the bits and bytes, to be influenced by our unparalleled culture as by the latest browser features, and informed by the dynamic interaction of different social groups and classes that's unavoidable in our city, but uncommon in Silicon Valley. Best of all, the support for these efforts can come from investors and supporters that are outside of the groupthink that many West Coast VC firms suffer from. When I lived in San Francisco, it was easy to spend days at a time only interacting with other web geeks; In New York, fortunately, that's impossible.

Am I biased? Sure. But are there half a dozen startups anywhere in the world as interesting and full of potential as these new NYC efforts? Isn't it exciting that these are all built around the full potential of the open web, instead of merely trying to be land grabs within the walled gardens of closed platforms? I'm more optimistic about the environment and opportunity for starting new ventures than I've been in ages, and for me the fundamental reasons why are demonstrated best by startups that could only happen in New York City.

Plus, we have bagels. Delicious bagels.

Thanks for the Add!

October 23, 2007

I added this thing to my site (the HTML version, which most of you never see) a while back, and it's gotten some interesting responses. I'll reproduce it here in a post for your convenience.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but this is stupid. Now, I like being on lots of social networks -- much of my job, and many of the opportunities that I've been able to take advantage of, are based on the relationships that I'm able to maintain online. But this process of hoping people manually recreate these networks over and over isn't just an annoyance for really geeky people like me; It also acts as a barrier to people creating new, useful services, because it's just cruel to ask people to clear this social networking hurdle yet again.

That's why I've really been enjoying watching the work on the Relationship Update Stream. I wrote an explanatory blog post, but David Recordon probably says it best since he's actually been the guy hacking on this stuff.

The thing is, this isn't new. The relationships that are being shared between social networking sites that use these technologies have been around since well before we started calling things "Web 2.0". For example, four and a half years ago, when Ben Hammersley wrote the first review of TypePad, as positive as he was in the Guardian, the part that he was clearly most excited about was TypePad's support of FOAF, the Friend-of-a-Friend spec that would let people reuse this sort of relationship data. That support found its way into TypeKey (and LiveJournal independently implemented it too), and just a few months later folks like Marc Canter were expectantly awaiting the arrival of open social networks. ("Anyone can come to this page and 'Add me as a Friend'. We don't need no stinking Friendster!")

I think we were hopeful then, too. A full six months earlier, Ben Trott wrote about what you could do with open social network data. I knew at the time that he was talking about TypePad's FOAF support, but TypePad hadn't yet been launched (or even named TypePad yet), so it was hard to give people context for what we were trying to do. Always the thinker, Tim Appnel took the conversation and ran with it, ruminating about TrackBack being FOAF-enabled.

But I find it heartening that so many people have been so effusive about the idea of opening up the social graph. I'm saddened how many people have prefaced their excitement with "Well, I can't say this publicly..." but I'll take endorsements where I can get 'em, even if that means they're private. Add that to the people who appreciated my penchant for boring history lessons about the web, and those who've put even more thought into the ideas here, and it's enough to make even a cynic like me get excited.

The thing is, I don't think the then-young blogging community as a whole was good at launching industry-wide efforts when we started talking about this stuff years ago. All of us who were around then remember all too well how viciously people could argue over things like XML formats, but it seems like we actually have learned a little bit since then. The nofollow initiative was a nice trial run to see how people could just work together, and Dave Winer's successes with things like enclosures/podcasting for RSS emerged fairly quickly, too, showing the power of simply shipping a good idea. I think for me, OpenID was the first time that I saw a really new technology, one of these things we'd been talking about forever, finally get shipped and adopted. And even though it came from the hacking community, some of the biggest companies in the world got behind it. Astounding.

So, though it's taken almost half a decade, I have some hope that these pieces will start to come together. And maybe that's why it took so long -- it couldn't have happened any sooner than now. I think it's only appropriate that the true test of whether open social networking will take off is whether those who make the social networks themselves are able to, you know, add each other as friends.

And "Will It Blend?" Is Considered Introspection

July 19, 2007

John Scalzi shares a gem and kicks off a predictably stupid comment thread, based on an overheard coversation: “The problem with using the Web as a model for what’s really going on is that on the Web, Ron Paul is a presidential front runner and Serenity is the greatest science fiction movie ever made.”

Sustainability Is A Feature

April 6, 2007

A little while ago, my friend Michael Sippey, whom I had the pleasure of interviewing the other day, sent me a link to the new Google Voice Local Search.

Now, this new services seems like a good product, and I know I'm supposed to say "Wow, cool! Nice work, Google!" But because I work with Michael, we are often each other's toughest critics -- we want the stuff we do to not suck, and try to structure as much of our work as possible in a way that prevents the sucking. So my initial response wasn't positive. My gut feeling was "Why the hell aren't they charging for this? That sucks!"

Here's the thing -- I don't care about whether Google makes money on 411 services or not. They're going to do billions of dollars worth of AdWords sales regardless, and even if this new service becomes a huge hit, the revenues would just be a drop in the bucket. Certainly not enough to affect the overall direction of the company.

But having paying customers (or the equivalent -- something to indicate users were invested) would help focus the product team. This is Google, which means you've got enormous resources behind you if you're launching a product, both financially and intellectually. If your product "may not be available at all times and may not work for all users" (as it says on the product's homepage), then either fix it or get yelled at by angry users. Either one is a good option. Don't hide behind a "well, shucks, we said it was beta, and it's free..." excuse. Being accountable to your users makes your product better.

What's worse is the uncritical evaluations of new technologies. I don't care if an individual product or feature seems cool if it's just going to go away in a few months when the company folds. See The starting line is not the finish line:

I am, frankly, tired of reading reviews of new technology that omit the commitment of the team, that don't mention how the success of the product almost feels like life-or-death to the people making it, or ones that ignore the people who make the damn thing happen.

If we aspire to making meaningful technology (and if you don't, then please, just quit now), then it's irresponsible to let users become connected to, and perhaps even emotionally invested in, a tool that isn't going to be around for the long haul. If nothing else, it's a waste of someone's precious time to use a small company's tool that's evaporates because a big company found it trivial to clone, or because a big company decided it was too hard to charge what a product was worth. I don't believe AdWords will subsidize Voice Local Search indefinitely any more than I believed Windows 95 would subsidize MSN Sidewalk indefinitely, even though that was a fantastic online local guide product as well.

And connecting people via VOIP or sending them an SMS, two of the key features of the new service, cost money. At Google volumes, they cost a lot of money. I want to have a service I can rely on -- which again means I need to invest in it. I understand that the idea here is for this product team to use a beta test as a starting point to make the service more reliable, but the sad reality is that a line has been crossed where there's no sense of urgency or expectation that those actual launch days ever arrive.

Google's made the leap here before, by starting to charge for Google Apps. Even people who use the service for free were reassured by the fact there was a paid version. So there is still the opportunity to be brave enough again to assert that a product is worth paying for, even paying a premium for. Millions of iPod users are willing to listen to the argument.

This, I think, is the crux of the problem that David Galbraith highlighted on his site. David's is one of my few must-read blogs; I don't always share his tone of righteous indignation, but I love that a person who's often so reserved in person can be so passionate online. David mentions that new efforts by Google or Yahoo (see Google My Maps vs. Plazes, or Yahoo Alpha vs. Rollyo) can kneecap some Web 2.0 startups en passant, and posits that this is the death knell for Web 2.0. Leaving aside whether that's oversimplifying the efforts of those startups, it's an attractive argument just for the sheer audacity of his phrasing.

But that sort of reckoning is not the death of Web 2.0, that's it's promise. It's very possible to build a successful business and thrive while competing with Google and Yahoo, even in an established market. (Oh hey, that's my day job.) What's not possible is to make a business without adding significant value to the platforms provided by existing companies. This is, roughly, exactly what distinguishes current successful business models from Web 1.0.

Or, put more succinctly, I like paying for Flickr Pro. Like us at Six Apart, the Flickr team was lucky enough to start working on their company, and on Game Neverending, back before there really was AdSense to run on your site, and when virtually the only small startup charging money for a consumer web service was Oddpost. I'd argue those sorts of innovations are as important as all the Ajax work that either of those companies ever did, even though I admire and respect both teams tremendously.

This refrain never goes away, but it bears repeating. Those of us who love technology and believe in its potential owe it to our communities, our audiences, and our customers to make our efforts sustainable and accountable. I'm not an unabashed, uncritical capitalist, but I do recognize that one of the most positive effects that a classic charge-a-fair-market-value-for-your-goods business model offers is the opportunity to create an accountable and sustainable relationship with a customer.

I pay for a lot of products because it gives me the potential opportunity (though I almost never use it) to yell at someone when it breaks. I pay for a lot of other services because I want to make sure they don't go away, or they're not forced to make ugly choices about privacy or ethics in order to keep the lights on. And I am glad to use services or sites that are ad-supported when it's made explicit that the advertising is supporting a useful good or service.

If you believe in what you're doing, in technology or anything else in your life, make a commitment that it's here to stay. Do what it takes to prove it. Do what it takes to sustain it. And if it's the kind of service that you think is okay to just give up on, or that you don't want to bother to figure out a way to keep running, then why are you doing it in the first place?

The Essentials of Web 2.0 Your Event Doesn't Cover

February 23, 2007

Do you want to learn about the future of web applications? If so, when choosing an event, you might want to make sure it's one that cares about including speakers based on merit, instead of based on arbitrary gender qualifications. I judge merit to be those who meet these criteria:

1. They've already been successful
2. They have done something innovative and unique
3. They are well-known names who will draw an audience and make the event compelling
4. Their work impacts a large audience, or has great influence on the space

Caveats: This list took about 15 minutes for me to make, and I had a little bit of help from Caterina. It's also skewed towards women whom I know well or whom I have already seen speak. But in 15 minutes, I was able to construct a set of theoretical sessions that you won't see at events that specifically exclude women, or that make sure not to reach out to them.

  • danah boyd: The younger generation of web users have different definitions of "public" and "private" than you do.
  • Mitchell Baker: How to take something from being an interesting technology to being a mainstream tool
  • Caterina Fake: How to get things done even within the constraints of a big company
  • Mena Trott: How to design an application that delights its users, instead of confounding them
  • Liza Sabater: Your project won't succeed unless you reach people who are different from you
  • Amy Jo Kim: How best practices from game design can make your web applications like crack
  • Linda Stone:What we will be paying attention to in the future
  • Kathy Sierra: How to design products that make your users smarter, sexier and hungry for more
  • Heather Armstrong, Meg Frost, and Gina Trapani: One person can be a successful media outlet
  • Lynne Johnson: How to credibly bring new media to an old-media company
  • Jane Pinckard: Anybody with half a brain could have seen that the Wii was going to win, but you were busy bickering about the Cell processor
  • Meg Hourihan: A real mashup: How to combine technology with something you love
  • Heather Champ: How to manage a web community shitstorm with grace and tact
  • Susannah Fox: You talk about "accessibility", but what do you know about people who are sick, old, or disabled?
  • LeeAnn Prescott: Everybody talks about traffic and stats -- what about someone with actual data?
  • Charlene Li: What are the criteria by which real-world analysts create their make-or-break analyses?

I could go on and on, but I know the obvious question: Where are the men? Well, don't worry -- the door is open to them. As soon as one of you has done something with the impact of Flickr, something that has the number of users of Firefox, made something that's used by the elderly or the young or by someone different than you, you can participate. Hell, if you make something that makes half as many people smile as Heather, Meg, and Gina's work does, you can send along a proposal to our imaginary event.

To conference organizers: If you haven't heard of these people or their work, or you think that Yet Another Bookmarking To-Do List Guy is more important, perhaps you owe some refunds. At this event, nobody would even notice if the wifi went out.

The Old Boys Club is for Losers

February 23, 2007

A few months ago, I spent a lot of time trying to show the tech community I belong to that diversity is essential to our survival. Not just to the Web 2.0 world being healthy and thriving, but as a matter of life and death.

Unfortunately, my diatribe on the topic was boring and thus unpersuasive. Jason Kottke kicked off another conversation about the paucity of female participants in some of the higher-profile technology conferences. I agree with Jason's point, but am disappointed that his preference for rationality and logic led to him using numbers and statistics to justify the idea: The responses quickly devolved into the expected defensive numbers game.

One bright spot is that at least some of the people on the defense are smart guys whom I respect and like. Because, while they're wrong, at least I can debate them in good conscience without feeling bad. I would have felt bad if I only linked to defensive rationales foisted by those who I think are malicious and idiotic.

So, the good guys on the wrong side of this debate include, first Eric Meyer:

In my personal view, diversity is not of itself important, and I don't feel that I have anything to address next time around. What's important is technical expertise, speaking skills, professional stature, brand appropriateness, and marketability. That's it. That's always been the alpha and omega of my thinking, and it will continue to be so the next time, and time after that, and the time after that.

You'll note that nowhere in that list do you find gender, race, creed, or any other such parameter. Those things are completely unimportant to me when organizing a conference. (Or, really, when I'm doing almost anything.)

In a similar vein, John Gruber:

It's not because of a lack of opportunity or aptitude; it's a lack of interest.

So the issue here isn't why there aren't more women speaking at web conferences, but why there aren't more women interested in web nerdery.

Eric and John are both good guys who mean well, but that two people who are smart, forward-thinking, and open minded are still unaware of the limits and constraints imposed by their own shortsightedness is disappointing. Eric: Are you saying that it's your explicit desire to only make a conference that's marketable to the audience you already have? Because that seems so boring and unambitious that it feels like you're saying "we're only in it for the money".

Unless I'm going strictly out of obligation, I go to events to learn things, to have my mindset challenged. Being presented with familiar, unchallenging ideas just so someone can make a buck is the equivalent of junk food. Don't get me wrong -- I'm a fan of pop music, so junk food has its place. But I expect better of those who are seen as leaders.

And John, to fall into the laziest, least persuasive argument of all leads me to believe you're being almost willfully naive. "Women aren't in these disciplines because they aren't interested?" Really? There's a simpler explanation, which falls under the heading of "I know where I'm not welcome." This kind of bias isn't new; Guys are almost always unable to see the barriers they construct.

Let me put this into terms your respective audiences can better understand:

  • Limiting the speaker list of an event to those that appeal to your existing audience will yield diminishing returns as your attendees tire of seeing the same voices over and over. And in the meantime you will make less and less money.
  • Saying that you want to design an event to appeal to the audience that you already reach is like making a web page to work with only the browsers that can already see your site. Do you believe in open standards and accessibility when it matters, and when it's not easy, and when it's not merely a technological problem?
  • It's foolish to think that the feedback loop of a strong network effect doesn't act as an enormous barrier to new audiences. If you are an Apple fan, do you think that merely touting one's own technological superiority is sufficient? Or does it make sense to accommodate those who aren't yet part of the community by being able to run their applications, get the same economies of scale from processors and peripherals, and improving distribution and retailing? If you do, then you're saying it takes more than opening up the door -- it requires welcoming the audience you haven't yet reached.

And in passing, I am not surprised that those who advocate yelling at their customers tend to get very defensive about their lack of ambition. It is a fitting punishment that the web of some people's "future" only includes more boys like themselves, progressing further and further into a rounded-corner of irrelevance.

That brings me to my final point, which I'll explain more in my next post: Those of you who are defending this status quo are defending a culture of failure.

And that's the most important thing to remember: Those who are reaching out to include all members of their community, who are seeking out new ideas and voices, are not only winning, they're the only ones who will continue to win. You may succeed in defending the boys-only nature of your treehouse. But you'll be dooming yourselves to irrelevance.

Debating a Bubble

January 4, 2007

Another great Wall Street Journal online debate: Is 'Web 2.0' Another Bubble? David Hornik and Todd Dagres' excellent back-and-forth was unfortunately overshadowed by the dead week between Christmas and New Year's, but it's well worth the read.

Predictably, I think they're both right. David's strongest point was towards the middle:

I think that you aren't giving Web 2.0 entrepreneurs enough credit. Sure, there are some "me too" sites out there. There always are. But the amount of rapid innovation in online services has been staggering -- from Skype to Digg to Six Apart to YouTube to Flickr to Facebook... The list goes on. They aren't microprocessor companies with years of patent-protected intellectual property. On the other hand, they are innovating around things that matter to consumers today. And I believe they are being appropriately valued, not just by potential acquirers but by the consumers themselves.

Monoculture Mania!

December 21, 2006

Okay, I've been mumbling about the threat of monoculture for months now, but what's really gratifying is how much attention the idea has gotten in many of the year-end roundups that are saturating the press. Even better, the people who've been thinking about this a lot longer than me are doing a great job of explaining the ideas.

The New York Times Magazine's "Year In Ideas" issue had a few nods to the importance of cultural diversity online; Homophily is a great piece from Aaron Retica, pegged to Nat's post on O'Reilly Radar from back in October.

This year, other academics have cited homophily in elucidating everything from why teenagers choose friends who smoke and drink the same amount that they do to “the strong isolation of lower-class blacks from the interracial- marriage market.” Researchers at M.I.T. even published “Homophily in Online Dating: When Do You Like Someone Like Yourself?” which showed that you like someone like yourself most of the time, online or off. So much for “opposites attract.”

In the same issue of the Times Magazine, Steven Johnson covered Digital Maoism, Jaron Lanier's long-time meme (first introduced in his Edge essay) which shows the dangers of a tyrannical majority in many situations. (Steven also contributes a cogent assessment of Web 2.0 for Time.) Jaron's argument is summarized succinctly:

But all the hype over the powers of the so-called hive mind was bound to provoke a reaction, and in May of this year, it arrived in the form of a thoughtful — though controversial — essay by the artist and computer scientist Jaron Lanier. “What we are witnessing today,” Lanier wrote on Edge.org, “is the alarming rise of the fallacy of the infallible collective. Numerous elite organizations have been swept off their feet by the idea. They are inspired by the rise of the Wikipedia, by the wealth of Google and by the rush of entrepreneurs to be the most Meta. Government agencies, top corporate planning departments and major universities have all gotten the bug.” Lanier dubbed this newthink “digital Maoism.” Against this collectivist mythos, Lanier tried to carve out a crucial space for the insight and creativity of the individual mind.

Jaron shows up in Time's year-end YouTube lovefest, too. "Beware the Online Collective, he exhorts:

One of the most wonderful things about the rise of the Web and other Internet-based communication schemes is how anti-mob they have been. I was in heaven 10 years ago watching millions of people build web sites for the first time as a form of expression. I'm just as excited today when I run across a creative web page, MySpace site, YouTube video or whatever. There are zillions of people out there who are developing themselves, reaching out to others, becoming more creative, better educated, and richer than they otherwise would have been.

...

So what's wrong with this pretty picture? All too many entrepreneurs seem to think that if you reduce the human element, the scheme will become more efficient. Instead of asking people to create videos or avatars, which require creativity and commitment, just watch their clicks, have them take surveys, have them tweak collective works, add anonymous, unconsidered remarks, etc. This trend is lousy, in my opinion, because it encourages people to lose themselves into groupthink.

All well worth the read. Now we just have to see which meme naming will win, "homophily", "digital maoism", or "monoculture". Because all that's missing so far is a Long Tail-style name for the idea for it to really take off.

The Starting Line is not the Finish Line

November 27, 2006

There weren't a whole lot of really new things announced at the Web 2.0 conference, mostly large companies saying what you'd expect. But one of the launches that stood out was stikkit. There are plenty of reviews of the service; I'm not here to talk about that.

I got a chance to talk to the folks behind Stikkit a bit at the event, and I've been friends with them for years. So instead of "hey, what does it do, what are the features?" we ended up talking a little more generally about what starting a business, and launching a product, actually means.

Running

Michael sums it up well on his blog:

Talking to Anil at the conference, I realize something now that I only sort of had at the back of mind before. He described how he just got back from watching the NYC Marathon, and how gruelling it can be just to arrive at the starting line. You need to fly there, take taxis, ferries, subways, then register, warm up, and finally start running. He said "You've just now arrived at the starting line, and your marathon has just begun."

And there's no doubt he's right. I see much more clearly now that we've launched that a lot of attention has to be paid to pacing ourselves, and making sure we're tapping into the collective intelligence of our rapidly growing user base. Some of those little things we put off prior to the launch are now beginning to take center stage, and we're spending good quality time getting things right.

Too often, I see people, especially in the new wave of startups, treating their launch as the finish line. Or putting all their eggs in a single basket -- a big press story or coverage on a prominent blog. Maybe a partnership or endorsement from some company. Any of these things are great (hell, I work on that kind of stuff every day) but none of them, on their own are enough.

Launching something meaningful is about every day, every minute, that happens after that start. Honestly, it makes me feel a lot like when I was talking about getting married: "If you tell people you're engaged, they start talking to you about that one day, and almost never about the other half century you're signing up for."

I am, frankly, tired of reading reviews of new technology that omit the commitment of the team, that don't mention how the success of the product almost feels like life-or-death to the people making it, or ones that ignore the people who make the damn thing happen. I'd settle for one product review that said, "we're not sure which direction this service is going, but the people behind it have a history of making magic happen". The technologies I use most every day were almost all conceived as something else entirely, and evolved into their current, indispensable forms through the dedication of people who were interested in running the marathon, not just entering the race.

(Thanks to David for the photo.)

I'm Just Making Stuff Up

November 10, 2006

Features that didn't make the cut for Windows Vista. For those of you who already think I'm too much of a Microsoft fanboy, check out the list. My favorite is "Safe Delete":

Clicking this button would instantly delete all of the files shown in the window permanently from the system, overriding every confirmation, bypassing the recycle bin, and also zeroing out the space on the disk that the files used to occupy (hence the "safe" name).

  • Still not sick of my months-long rant about monoculture? Witness Ryan Naraine's insightful look at the One Laptop Left Behind program:

If the plan is perfectly executed, Nicholas Negroponte's One Laptop Per Child project will deploy 100 million laptops in the first year. In one fell swoop, the nonprofit organization will create the largest computing monoculture in history.

Wary of the security risks associated with a computing monoculture—millions of machines with hardware and software of identical design—OLPC foundation officials are seeking help from the world's best hackers to review the full specifications of the $100 laptop's security model.

  • On a completely un related note, from one year ago, What it's like at Web 2.0. It's like that, but more so, now. I think the event was a success, and have nothing but respect for the people behind it, but the standout panel was the one where they ask kids how they use technology. I think it's called something like "Talking to Teens", and I'm always shocked how out of touch the audience is with young people -- they treat 15 year olds like they're from the moon. Interestingly, this panel could also have been called "Talking to People of Color", and been used for the same poke-them-with-a-stick anthropological purposes. Good thing cultural diversity isn't a life-or-death issue for our industry. Oh, whoops.

Darwin: I Think

  • This is a segue about natural selection. It's Safe Delete for bad ideas.

Life or Death for Web 2.0

October 16, 2006

A month ago, I began a series of posts outlining some common themes:

  • Any system faces danger when it becomes a monoculture
  • Diversity offers many broad-ranging and sometimes unexpected benefits
  • There are many parallels between biological systems and technological networks like social software on the Internet.

In this context, "Web 2.0" isn't an overhyped and under-defined buzzword, but rather an umbrella term describing all of these kinds of social software that make use of Ajax-style design patterns to serve a useful, meaningful purpose.

Today, most individuals and companies making social web applications are existing in a monoculture that robs them of the broad perspectives, influences, and understanding necessary to create a community that's sustainable over the long term. In short:

The lack of diversity in Web 2.0 poses a life-or-death threat to its viability.

Petri DishIf the success and influence of the social web is to continue, we must make it a priority to include the cultures and communities that we've been ignoring, overlooking, or excluding. A failure to broaden our view will ultimately be fatal if uncorrected. How could this be true? To start, let's look at some of the ideas that inform this view, taken from a variety of disciplines including astronomy, biology, sociology and even cooking.

Some Background

No community can thrive without the perspectives of outsiders, especially if it's trying to serve those outsiders. The key to getting good results is understanding the importance of the variety of cultures available. We've all seen that communicating using all the tools of social media can make people's lives better. The reality is, those benefits can apply just as much to one's professional life as to one's personal life.

But the thing that strikes me as equally important is remembering that even the most powerful, influential, or pervasive lines of business are always in a tenuous position. You can have the power of the legal system at your hands, or the ability to talk to almost everyone in the country at home or in their cars, and still end up in a defensive position if you're not able to have a dialogue with your community.

PizzaIn the real world outside of Silicon Valley, people are busy solving problems that we often overlook, trivialize, or deliberately ignore. It's instructive to be immersed in a culture outside of the one where we create new technologies. For us, encouraging everyone to take advantage of social media is a fundamental necessity.

Hundreds or thousands of years ago, the greatest danger that faced societies was the introduction of a foreign culture's physical threats... the greatest threat to cultures today comes from not intermingling. Whether it's expressed in agriculture ("hybrid vigor"), or in the context of a cocktail party (being a "social butterfly"), making an effort to avoid cultural isolation is rewarded by making an individual or a society more healthy. That's not to mention the bonus potential of additional opportunities, higher potential for recognition, a larger market for trade or commercial interests, and a broader audience for communication of messages.

In biology, species with little genetic variation -- or "monocultures" -- are the most vulnerable to catastrophic epidemics. Species that share a single fatal flaw could be wiped out by a virus that can exploit that flaw. Genetic diversity increases the chances that at least some of the species will survive every attack. Building an industry around a monoculture places the entire economy in danger from unanticipated threats. And it's only the adoption and embrace of a broader range of cultures that can help an industry protect itself from that danger, or sustain itself when facing a downturn.

Planet EarthIt leaves me struck that something as big as, well, the whole world can look fragile if you step back far enough to really look at it. And a work that took enormous resources to support, unbelievable imagination to create, and true courage to execute can seem downright ordinary once it becomes ubiquitous.

The Good News

So, are we doomed? I don't think so. It turns out, this kind of groupthink or myopia is actually pretty common, or at least common enough that it can make the news today. From this morning's Washington Post, Shankar Vedantam's article says:

While the instinct for homophily in politics and other areas seems hard-wired, technology may be fueling our nature. Cable television and the Internet have allowed enormous numbers of people in distant areas to form virtual groups that are very similar to what you see in the office cafeteria.

...While there is nothing wrong with being around others who are similar to yourself, both Smith-Lovin and Small said that people and organizations pay a price for homogeneity. In politics, for example, the fact that people rarely have friends with different views makes it difficult to seek common ground or to examine one's positions closely.

So why all these words? Is a post with pics of a petri dish, a pizza pie, and a planet going to help? Well, the truth is, telling people to be more inclusive just because it's the right thing to do just plain doesn't work. I'm hoping that explaining that our self-absorption presents a mortal danger is enough to get people to do the right thing out of enlightened self interest. Fortunately, some people have already made some great steps forward.

When I wrote about what it's like at the Web 2.0 conference last year, I had despaired somewhat, thinking things could never change. Today, they still mostly haven't. But while I was complaining again, some other conversations popped up that started to give me a little bit of hope. "Be the fucking role models the situation calls for." "monocultures produce monotonous culture." "We should be learning from it and improving ourselves, not using the rhetoric of the past to brush off criticisms we're just too lazy or unwilling to deal with."

The people who are most likely to be threatened or insecure about the embrace of diversity are recognizing not just the opportunity of a broader view, but the necessity of it. Sometimes good ideas do rise to the top. All of us who've been in groups that were outside the monoculture have been aware of this danger, but now those on the inside are aware as well. That's real progress, and real cause for optimism.

The truth is, we need to fight monoculture for the same reason many of us abhor DRM, or fight sterile GMO crops, or argue in favor of Creative Commons licenses. The tools of expression, of communication, must be able to reach everyone, they must be able to bear fruit for those who would reuse or recontextualize them, and they must be available for anyone to expand on or build on.

The people in our communities who are most likely to make an unexpected leap, or to add value that we didn't anticipate, are the people who we aren't even making part of our communities. And it's not too late to include them. But if we keep thinking that diversity or rejection of monoculture can wait for version 3.0, we're dooming all of Web 2.0 to fail.

Resources

Most of the content for this post came from my own earlier posts on these topics over the past few weeks. See:

  • A Very Small Planet: Covers Jack Schmitt's remarkable "Blue Marble" photo of the Earth, also seen in this post.
  • Pizza Requires Culture talks of Jeff Varasanos' amazing, obsessive pizza recipe, from which the pizza photo above is taken. A key to his success is in understanding various yeast cultures.
  • Lawyers, Broadcasters, and Bloggers ... Oh My! Talks about some of the audiences outside of the tech world that I've been trying to talk to.
  • Hit the Road is about creating events for non-technical professionals to learn about social media online.
  • The Threat of Extinction previews Steven Johnson's Ghost Map, as well as a host of other books about plague and epidemics. This also inspired me to include Jack Mottram's petri dish photo, which is Creative Commons licensed.
  • Revising the Software Monoculture gives an update on Dan Geer's seminal look at software monoculture.
  • Monoculture Considered Harmful gives some background on the boll weevil infestation that devastated the cotton monoculture of the American South.

A Review: Long Tail in the House!

July 10, 2006

The Long TailI'd started reading The Long Tail (You've read the blog, now buy the book!) by surprising myself with how excited I was to read the book; After all, I'd read the original article in Wired when it came out, and have been following Chris' blog since it started. Was there really anything new left? How could I still be interested in a topic that long ago became part of the scenery for the Web 2.0 and VC crowd?

In short, it's just plain good writing. My enjoyment of the book probably centers around the extensive amount of hard data used to gird the book's examples, as well as the pleasingly broad set of cultural influences and examples used to illustrate the effects of the Long Tail. I've criticized the technology industry often for its unrepentant insularity; The breadth of culture in The Long Tail amply evidences the fact that the phenomenon extends well past the confines of the traditional definition of "technology" as an industry.

Above all else, using a wider range of source material than even the seminal Wired article, along with the phenomenal amount of primary research into sales data, makes the book something very impressive and unique. The Long Tail is profoundly intellectually honest.

I'm on the record as a genuine admirer of Malcolm Gladwell, but I have to say that one of the most accurate of the persistent criticisms of his work is that it often substitutes qualitative anecdotes for qualitative evidence. Given that this is, to some degree, what Blink is about, I don't find this a particularly egregious habit. But it is nevertheless a valid point to raise, and The Long Tail is a stronger book for the near-scientific rigor of much of its analysis. (Informing this discipline, no doubt, is Chris's stints at Nature and Science.)

But here's an example of how the breadth of the narrative really got my gears turning. If you read this site back when I used to do my Daily Links, you might remember the history of house music I linked to. It's an encyclopedic and comprehensive resource that, along with the dictionary of samples, was one of my favorite links ever. Interestingly, house music comes up near the end of The Long Tail.

Now, I believe that, without hip hop and remix culture (of which house music is firmly a part), there would be no blogging. "Rip, Mix, and Burn" isn't merely a tenet of digital culture, it's among the fundamental principles of post-disco black music, which has consistently shaped contemporary culture. And that's important to note because The Long Tail isn't a book about business, or the Internet, or even economics. At least, it isn't merely about economics; It's a book about a change in culture.

Of course, The Tipping Point reached its, well... you know, after somehow morphing from being a book about cultural trends into being perceived as a business guide. So I'm not surprised that The Long Tail is packaged that way; The same audience might well purchase it for the same reasons. Indeed, Reed Hastings' back-cover blurb suggests that The Long Tail will sit on your shelf between The Tipping Point and Freakonomics. Presumably these books are all also bad and good for you.

But I digress. House music, you say? Let's go to the tape:

What was notable about the rise of house was that it was both a reaction to the bankruptcy of blockbuster culture and a vibrant culture of its own. DJs and clubs created a music industry that was radically different from pop music. Clubbing is really about surfing the Long Tail of dance music, and this ecosystem has seen the evolution of new models of innovation around it.

Naturally, there's a lengthier explanation of why this is so in the book, along with an acknowledgement of Umair Haque for contributions to the analysis. But what struck me as noteworthy in this, admittedly minor, part of the book was the pleasantly catholic set of influences. There's a lot of commonalities between the various long tail-based media that media hackers and culture jammers tend to gravitate towards.

I think it's no coincidence that many early bloggers (and, especially, many people who made blog-related tools) have been influenced by hip hop's remix culture, or by the multifaceted beat-matching culture of DJing. It's not just the methods of distribution that are similar; It's the aesthetic of mix-and-match, more lately referred to as Rip, Mix, and Burn.

Have I mentioned that, in addition to being an early investor in Six Apart and a skilled blogger, Joi Ito used to be a house DJ in Chicago? It's true.

Making Something Meaningful

July 5, 2006

I've been told that sometimes I seem frustrated or cynical lately about new web things or Web 2.0 hype, and that's probably because I have been. I grew up with technology and with loving software, and part of the reason why I loved it was because it felt like the people who were creating this stuff when I was a child were convinced that technology was going to change the world, permanently and for the better.

My early experience with blogging was exactly as they pictured it. It had a lasting positive impact on everything for me, from building a career to getting married to starting a whole new life for myself. Almost all of my closest friends are people I met through sharing my ideas or thoughts on my blog, and letting people respond with their own thoughts and ideas.

Five or six or seven years ago, my experiences in blogging were meaningful more often than not. Reading new posts from friends or discovering people who shared my interests felt a lot like the most profound experiences in any media. Being part of blogging felt like seeing one of those few great movies that I can watch over and over without getting tired of, or like a book that I can re-read and always find something new in, or like any of the songs that I can listen to that take me back to the first time that I heard them.

The good old days

But a lot of bloggers who've been doing it for years start to lose that connection. That's why you see people burn out or flame out. And for the most part, I understand how it happens. Despite the fact that my blog is still fun and rewarding, I've had to develop a thicker skin, and that means it's harder to let new people in. After you've been blogging for a number of years, and been through the blog cycle, you might belong to a community, but you've probably stopped being really open to at least some of those meaningful experiences. I think it's somewhat similar to how most people's musical tastes are defined by their early 20s, and seldom change after that point.

So, even though I spend all my time online, I don't have many websites that I care about in the same way I care about the great films, books, and songs that move me. There are some web communitities that I participate in where there's a real emotional connection, but it's almost always in a smaller, private setting. Honestly, I was reticent to share the story of my marriage on my public blog because I was afraid of the reaction from people who didn't care. I'm not surprised that total strangers wouldn't care about my wedding, mind you, but rather I was unwilling to have something so important to me be dismissed by people who were (understandably) uninterested.

Experiencing something important helped me realize that I wanted to share the most important thing in my life with people who had enough connection to me to find it meaningful.

And connecting, communicating, creating, and sharing the things that matter should be a meaningful experience whether it's in old or new media. We seem to have lost a lot of our bigger ambitions for the web, instead settling for doing things simply because we can. I spend all my time being an advocate for blogging and the medium in the best way I know how to make those connections. But it's not my vocation (and avocation) because I think everybody needs more software. It's what I do because it's made my life better and I think this medium can do that for other people too, and I want it to. I want us all to still be that ambitious.

The great parts of blogging still happen every day, but if you've been doing this for a while, it almost seems like it's despite the technology, not because of it. People who are familiar with blogging really seem to think that, from a technology standpoint at least, it's a solved problem. Blogging is not a solved problem.

But when I have met people in person at conferences or events over the last half year, the one post they most often mention that they remember reading on my blog is the one I wrote on the day of my wedding. And on some of the private community sites where I feel like I know everyone who's participating, someone can do something as simple as posting a photo of a loved one along with a story and it can be profound and beautiful expression. It's especially true because in these environments, most people are respectful. The sad truth is, though, that it's hard to elicit that kind of response when I'm not seeing someone face-to-face, because on this site, I've got a different kind of forum. It's one I'm very happy and privileged to have, and I will always try to do justice to that, but sometimes I just want to hang out with my friends. Or even make new friends. But either way, it's about having a real connection.

Making Something Meaningful

If you believe that tools influence content, and I absolutely do, then the most important thing we can do with all this technology is to try to build tools that encourage meaningful expression. In fact, I'd say it's even stronger than that; One of our obligations is to build tools that help people connect with their friends and family in a meaningful way.

That's not to say there isn't room for all the other more practical and prosaic uses for these tools, but rather that it's important to articulate that this is a goal. In thinking about this, I realize it's always kind of been in the back of my mind. It's something that has been with me since I started trying to make this the thing that i do with my life.

The vocabulary I'm using for the idea, describing this as being "meaningful", comes from Linda Stone. She's long had the ability to articulate trends or concepts that we are all living with but don't necessarily have names for. One of the signs of true genius is people who can identify something so profound that it seems obvious in retrospect.

I saw her most recently at Mark Hurst's Gel Conference, but the topic of her talk was very similar to the ETech talk transcribed here. The key point to me is towards the end of Linda's presentation:

Does this product, service, feature, or message enhance and improve our quality of life? Does it help us protect, filter, create a meaningful connection?

It's a simple statement, but it's important. Is this damn thing making my life better? That question's been bouncing around in my head, in one form or another, for a while. I stopped reading feeds. I stopped having my IM client log on automatically when I start my computer in the morning. I've tried to eliminate many of the parts of my day that Lane would describe as making things un-bold.

That's a pretty low bar, though, just getting rid of the stressful things. What about the stuff that I can't wait to do? What are the sites that I'd like to curl up with like they're a good book? There are some things that just feel good to use, like I'm spending my time in a worthwhile way instead of just killing time by clicking.

So, I'm talking about Vox, of course, to some degree. It's the biggest new thing that's being built where I work, so it naturally commands my attention. But as that's still a work in progress, I'm more interested in what we can do with these ideas in general.

The sense of fun, of discovery, or even of explicitly being "meaningful" in the way that Linda has described was referenced implicitly or explicitly by the first posts about Vox from Andre, Mike, Nat, Matt, Heather and others.

But more important than the testaments from the technologically savvy is what I felt in just the first week that people began testing Vox. I found out that the friend that introduced me to my wife went to high school with one of my co-workers I see everyday. I discovered something as simple as a friend whom I don't get to talk to enough likes the same remix of a song (and the same bit) as I do. Later on, I found out that some of the last people I'd ever expect to talk about books with have great recommendations about what I should be reading.

Well, So What?

The (valid) criticism of these kinds of discoveries is that they're trivial, the kind of boring or banal memes that "serious" bloggers like to mock as being the domain of teenagers or stupid people. But the most important things are the things that we arrogantly want to dismiss as trivia. In every aspect of life, the most profound things are so common that if they don't affect someone you love or care about, they can seem meaningless.

What I'd like to see is technology being used in service of helping me share and record those moments. And I'd like to see technology be used to help create those moments. Perhaps even more, though, I'd like to see that measure of being "meaningful" as a metric that's used when evaluating new technologies, instead of just better/faster/cheaper or whatever else we fall back on.

Of course we aren't there yet. This is a starting point for Vox, and it's a nascent idea for most people who work with technology. It's tough to try to articulate a goal that I can't even do justice to. But I do like the idea of aspiring to make people's lives better, and of promoting that goal explicitly instead of just assuming everyone's on the same page. There have been tremendous advances in usability ever since people started articulating the need for addressing user experience explicitly, and this is really just an obvious extension of that work.

Instead of being exhausted spending our days unbodling things, what if there we made places online that we could be excited about? Sites that we'd make the time to remember to go and visit, instead of having to check them off of a list of things to do?

The new checklist

I guess the bottom line is that my own solution for Web 2.0 malaise or New Bubble Backlash is to try to remind myself to evaluate all the novel new sites and gizmos that I see based on a simple measure. It's been less than a year since the Web 2.0 checklist was created. Now, mercifully, the list has gotten much shorter:

Is this meaningful?

YHBT HAND 2.0

May 31, 2006

Ha, ha, I could have sworn I went away for a week and while I was gone the biggest thing that happened in the tech blogosphere was that people were arguing over lawyers talking about rights to a buzzword that everyone had already agreed was so far past its prime that it was only used ironically. This is the best you can do?

Want to know why the tech blogosphere is rapidly decreasing in influence, importance, and prominence among blogs overall? Want to know why Cute Overload, Go Fug Yourself, and Post Secret are more important blogs than yours? It's because of these silly little incestuous locker-room ego-stroking flamewars that the boys are prone to. A few years from now, when you're bitterly protesting that you're no longer seen as relevant, you can look to stupid cross-blog flamewars like this and remember why.

In the meantime, I'm very proud that I'd get quoted for trying to encourage people to be constructive with their conversations. If my blogging legacy is that I wore a funny t-shirt and ranted ineffectively against the unkindness of the blogosphere, I'll be more than happy. I'm not saying everyone has to be nice, just that they shouldn't be proactively stupid. Calm down or shut up!

If I were writing Tim's post, it might be more like this:

Sorry a small number of vocal people were offended that our company tried to protect a brand that they don't even like. Sometimes our lawyers treat our publishing business like they would any other company, not considering that our community expects a referendum on any business dealings having to do with intellectual property. Next time they'll check with us first, but really it's not that big a deal. To those of you who are upset you can't take advantage of the value of the name, I'd suggest you probably want your own name so you can build your own brand equity. To those of you who've just been enjoying the drama and the pile-on, I'd suggest you direct your energies to something useful. To the sane people who were bored by this whole thing, here's hoping there's something productive being discussed soon.

See? Easy. As always, my wife said it first, more succinctly and eloquently than me.

Update: Great post on the same topic from Dave Winer, who's seen firsthand just how pleasant a blog pile-on can be. Also, I'm glad that people who know little about new web technologies can find a New York Times article on this stupidity where we can proudly reveal that our community yields such attractive artifacts as "[Added 27 May 2006 by Marc:] I deleted a comment that insinuated Tim is a child molester." This type of conversation really makes us all look great.

The Interesting Economy

October 25, 2005

Like many great social software applications, Flickr began its life as something else. Flickr was built on a platform for a game called Game Neverending, which had a lot of great features including an in-game economy based on exchanging various totems that had different relative values. There was really only a barter economy, which left the "innate" value of any individual item to be pretty opaque.

Today, Flickr has interestingness, which is a measure of some combination of how many times a picture has been viewed, how many comments it has, how many times it's been tagged or marked as a favorite, and some other special sauce. I suppose revealing the exact mix would encourage even more people to game the system, but the fact that it's not disclosed has led to a number of attempts to reverse-engineer the system. I doubt any of them are/will be successful (Flickr can update/evolve fast enough to change the algorithm if they figure it out) but that's probably going to be an ongoing dialogue.

When I think of things getting gamed, I think of Clay Shirky saying "social software is stuff that gets spammed". So maybe economies are things that get gamed.

What I'm wondering is, how is Flickr's interestingness different than the economy in Game Neverending? Than Second Life? (Or in Evercrack or Neverwinter or any of the other gaming platforms.) Is interestingness its own reward? Why don't I get to level up or power up when I create something interesting?

More to the point, the in-game economies of these games translate pretty cleanly into real-world cash, with eBay amplifying the efficiency of the currency conversion. And interestingness in other online media (like blogs) is rewarded by cash in a pretty straightforward way; I can sign up for TypePad, check a box to enable text ads, and pay for my account or point the proceeds to my PayPal account when I start getting lots of visitors.

But interestingness in Flickr doesn't pay. At least not yet. Non-pro users are seeing ads around my photos, but Yahoo's not sharing the wealth with me, even though I've created a draw. Flickr's plenty open, they're doing the right thing by any measure of the web as we saw it a year ago, or two years ago. Today, though, openness around value exchange is as important as openness around data exchange.

So does that mean the right answer for cashing in on my interesting work is to ask for a penny from Yahoo? Or does it mean I should just make an automated script that grabs my interesting photos and posts them to my TypePad blog so that I can put ads on them?

The Flip 2K5

October 17, 2005

Or, "Yahoo bought everyone on my buddy list, and all I got was this t-shirt".

Following up on the discussion about Web 2.0 from last week, the only thing as glaring as who was missing from the room was the talk of a new bubble. I can't even count how many blog posts and skeptical articles I read referring to Bubble 2.0.

I don't really have an opinion either way if there's another bubble inflating right now, but I think it's interesting to take a look at the companies that have already flipped and to compare them to the acquisitions after the deflation of the Web 1.0 bubble. Keep in mind, during the pre-Y2K bubble, the goal was to IPO and become fabulously wealthy; Indeed, being "built to flip" was a near-epithet five years ago. (Whatever happened to that Pyra company, anyway?)

Continue reading The Flip 2K5.

What it's like at Web 2.0

October 13, 2005

A couple years ago, when I was on the other side of the continent from all the Silicon Valley/San Francisco events, I wanted to know what it was like to attend the West Coast conferences. Now that I've been to a bunch, I figured it might be a good chance to fill everybody else in. The good news is the news that everybody reads about, new products and ideas and people meeting each other and connecting. The other parts don't get talked about are interesting, too, though.

It's especially important to note some of these things because most attendees seem to forget that the overwhelming majority of people who are interested in the topics discussed aren't present at these events. What's more, there's no reasonable way they could attend, due to expense and geography and family/work obligations.

Last week, I got a chance to swing by the Web 2.0 conference. Lots has been written about the product launches, acquisitions, and the perpetual "how do you define Web 2.0?" question, but I thought, now that a lot of roundups of the event have been written, it might make sense to talk about some things that are invisible unless you actually attend the conference.

Continue reading What it's like at Web 2.0.

How Do We Judge Our Tools?

July 27, 2005

Just to be a little bit contrary, I'm gonna share some thoughts on products and services and companies I actually like but that I have some skeptical (cynical?) questions about. Consider this a disclaimer: Just because I'm asking a question doesn't mean I'm not a big fan of their work.

First, Blinksale. They're getting lots of links and attention the past few days for making a simple invoicing service, apparently targetted at independent consultants or small shops. I've already weighed in on my feelings on billing one's clients, so I've got strong opinions here, but I'm sure Blinksale meets anyone's standard set of needs.

What I'm concerned about is a little bit of kool-aid drinking, not on the part of the team behind the app (In a refreshing change, I don't know who built the service, I just know people are talking about it.) but rather on the part of those who are writing about it and linking to it.

A lot of the links to the service say things like "full of AJAXy goodness!" or "guess how small the dev team was?" or "it's Ruby on Rails!". People, this is a tool for helping your business make more money. The criteria for success include things like "It made my client pay faster.", "It reminded me to collect from someone that hadn't paid." or "It reduced overhead in creating an invoice.". I'm disheartened that so many people, especially those in the design community who are (ideally) focused on creating a good experience for users, don't judge an application by the goals it's supposed to accomplish.

google's first mistake

February 16, 2003

So, yeah, everybody's gonna be buzzing about Google buying Pyra, but my take is that it's not really that great a fit.

Of course, Google bought Deja, which is the closest parallel as far as their acquisitions go. But Deja archived everything in Usenet, and Blogger only encompasses a part of the blogosphere. Granted, it's probably close to half, but relegating the incredibly intricate network of LiveJournal users and the aggregator-powered Radio users and the thought leaders who use Movable Type (including, amusingly, Gillmor himself, who broke the story) to second-class citizens seems like a critical misstep for Google's path so far.

More to the point, Google's consistent marketing message so far has been, "We do search, and we don't want to be a portal". My relationship with Pyra and Blogger goes back a long, long way and their tool has always seemed to be about creation of content.

Also, on a slight tangent, Google's never run a service that requires users to pay. Blogger Pro and all of the variations of BlogSpot Plus, not to mention BloggerDomains and whatever other auxiliary services Pyra offers, are all for-pay services, and though it's possible that Google is going to try to turn those users into people who pay for additional features from Google in the future, the reality is that it puts Google into a far different role than they've had so far.

The most relevant quote by Gillmor, to me is when he says, "The buyout is a huge boost to an enormously diverse genre of online publishing that has begun to change the equations of online news and information." I think competitors like LiveJournal, Nick Denton's Lafayette Project, Userland and Movable Type could be bigger winners long-term, or at least could be as big winners from this.

In all though, a very impressive deal. Congrats to Ev and the gang for pulling it off, and for broadening Google's vision. It'll be interesting to note what effect it has on Blogger's reliability and scalability. Back when Blogger was hacked, Steve sent me an indignant refutation of my assertion that the problem was with the development of weblog tools. His defense, which is entirely valid, is that the vulnerabilities tend to be in the platform software itself, and that it was to blame for most of the problems. It seemed kind of like he was saying "blame Rudy, not me!" while being too polite to actually say that out loud.

Now that the platform is moving to a presumably much more robust infrastructure, it'll be interesting to see what effect that has on the services they offer in the future. My sense is that weblogs as a whole are more valuable than any one platform, tool, or community of weblogs. Once Google's plan becomes clearer, it'll be possible to see whether Google's adoption of part of the blogosphere is prescient or unfortunately incomplete.

Stories and Tools

April 9, 2002

The current world wide web consists almost entirely of pages that are either stories or tools. A few ambitious sites combine these two types of web pages in varying ratios, with results that range from unsatisfying to disastrous. But I asserted a few days ago that the next stage of the web is going to come from the native form that evolves from, and incorporates elements of, these two existing structures. Even after this form emerges, however, the web will still be populated with plenty of stories and tools, of course, just as television retained the idiom of an anchor at a desk authoritatively reading us the news, even after the invention of the situation comedy and the game show.

If you take a look at the pages we have today, one thing becomes clear: Stories on the web just plain work. The obvious, and so far ultimate, display of this is The Fray, of course, which sets out in its very mission to tell stories. It's the definitive example. But less obvious examples are abundant and instructive. Every news item proffered on whatever portal or provider you prefer is presenting a story. The content presented in web interfaces to Usenet and email are largely story-oriented. In a medium originally designed to present structured documents, the natural divisions and regular formatting of stories was destined to be a good fit, even if they technically fell outside the precise realm envisioned by the web's creator.

This brings us to the other kind of web page, the kind that just plain doesn't fit into how the web was envisioned: tools. Web pages that aren't stories are tools that you use to perform a task. You've probably seen these. Amazon is one. Your bank's online payment system is another. You probably use a web email tool like Hotmail. This site's been using Blogger for a few years now. Hell, Yahoo, MSN, Netscape, and most other common start pages are more tools than story already. And none of them work right.

That's not surprising; they're not supposed to.

Think of Hotmail. It's designed to give you a place to write emails, read them, and move them into folders. These kinds of functions in a desktop program like the Mac Finder or the Windows Explorer are automatic. You just drag and drop. But to enable that kind of ability in a web page, programmers have to jump through hoops, trying to make a story act like a tool.

And notice who has to do that? Programmers. But HTML isn't a programming language. And it's designed to be written by authors, not programmers. There are tags to describe the parts of a structured story. There's in fact a formal Document Type Description for hierarchially structured documents, that's what XHTML is. Curiously absent, unfortunately, is a description for a Web Tool Document.

Look at Oddpost, as it's been making the rounds lately. It solves most of the problem. It's beautiful, useful, powerful. And, much to the chagrin of Mac partisans and Unix enthusiasts, it only works on recent Microsoft browsers on Windows. That's not the bad part about Oddpost, though, that's just smart use of limited development resources. What's truly bad is that Oddpost's HTML doesn't make any sense outside of a very limited context, and it's incredibly hard to debug or reuse or make useful on a PDA or a non-standard web platform.

It was this opening that Flash MX stepped into. With a cry of anguish from standards and open-source advocates, and amidst shouts of glee from newly-empowered Flash developers, Macromedia recognized the enormous opportunity to make tools easy to build. And if it just so happens that most of the money in the web development business comes from helping businesses build tools, not from helping businesses tell stories, well that's just plain old good luck for Macromedia. And it was an inevitable opportunity because the web was always, and only, designed to be stories. All else is kludge.

A Way Out?

What was needed was a formal DTD for describing elements of a web-based application. Common GUI widgets like a tree control, a select or combo list, a spinner control, some drop-down menu controls, toolbar buttons, scrollbars, and all the other usual trappings of a modern GUI application. And some basic logic for loops and form processing. This Application Markup Language would just be a specific XML implementation, with the unique part being that all of the controls would be rendered as GUI-native, state-aware real widgets. But these HTML applications would still have all the benefits of web applications, as benefits like CSS styling, device-neutral rendering, and simple data sourcing would be preserved.

Thus was born AppML. It's beautiful, really. But nobody's using it. And it requires server-side logic to execute. And it only exists in theory; I couldn't build Oddpost with it in any reasonable amount of time or under any reasonable budget.

Does that mean we have to give up? The choice is shitty apps or an extension of Microsoft's hegemony? (For the record, I don't think that idea's nearly as evil as an extension of the tyranny of desktop applications and humongous computer form factors.) Well, no. I think there's a third way.

A widely-distributed, standards-compliant, browser and platform-independent library of functions that would perform the basic user interface functions for a web-based tool, relying on the server side only for the logic and data sourcing. Well, whadaya know? We've got one. Yeah, it's still a work in progress, and it doesn't support nearly enough platforms yet. But DOMAPI is spectacular already. And it'll evolve, and it'll be good enough a year from now to be the basis of a large, stable array of applications, guaranteeing its future development and viability.

So what does all this mean? It means that we've finally got something that works for the two main uses of today's web. We can stop fretting and take these two essential pillars of the future web for granted. Stories we've got beat. Applications we've got a little distance to travel yet. But now... now, we're ready to figure out what the web will actually be used for.

Have we really almost finished writing the first chapter of the web's history?

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