The Web of Intent is a term that’s starting to get tossed around a lot, and I’ve gone from being wary about it to believing strongly in it. I was introduced to the term by Nova Spivack about a year ago and was initially skeptical. Could Web ADD be reversed? Can technology give us a true knob to allow us to tune our engagement anywhere from ‘distracted’ to ‘laser focused’? From knee-jerk reactive to coolly deliberate? Actually that’s how I think of the concept: a technology model that gives users this control knob to manage their online experiences:
The evidence is slowly starting to roll in. This conceptual knob can be created through a generation of “Intent” technologies. What’s more, this knob is what will likely save the publishing and media industries. It will also save our brains from getting fried, and create a new dynamic in the ongoing disruption of all types of information work.
This is where I am placing my bets. Not the 3D Web, not the “Mobile/Touch Web”, not the “Internet of Things” and not the “Semantic Web.” Those are important, but secondary. I am going all-in on the “Web of Intent” as the next main act that will reshape the Internet. As I’ll explain later, it is a gritty, greasy, roll-up-sleeves, fix-it vision, that is emerging in response to actual problems, as opposed to a vision born out of new possibilities (combined with the smoking of illegal substances).
Web 2.0 is a Messaging Bus with Human Switches and Buffers
You may think of Web 2.0 as “social media,” or technology becoming social in the human sense. It may look like it’s all about user-generated content, online communities and rich apps to improve our personal and collective lives. A utopia of sharing and co-creating. It’s all about technology democratizing power and empowering average humans, right?
How conveniently anthropocentric. And wrong.
Social media is not about technology becoming part of human society. It is about humans becoming part of technological society, in a Matrix sense. Power isn’t migrating from the old plutocrats to the new long-tailers as much as it is migrating from humans to technology. Social media isn’t a set of tools to allow humans to communicate with humans. It is a set of embedding mechanisms to allow technologies to use humans to communicate with each other, in an orgy of self-organizing.
Om Malik nailed it when he called Twitter the “messaging bus” of Web 2.0. That’s a raw, lowest-level hardware metaphor, the level with the highest volume of raw bytes. And we’ve plugged ourselves right into the switching circuitry at that level. Think about it, Twitter is a massively parallel stochastic switching circuit built as a global human bus, where more of us are routing bit.ly links than actually reading them. Think about the fact that even the name BIT-ly, which beat out other brands, is a bus-level metaphor. Humans don’t deal in bits, chips do, right? We’ve moved ourselves into the bottom layer of the information work stack.
The Matrix had it wrong. You’re not the battery power in a global, human-enslaving AI, you are slightly more valuable. You are part of the switching circuitry.
“Oh no, I actually read stuff, not just tweet” you say? Well, my friend @amitseshan has a hardware, chip-level metaphor for you too: he classifies people as long-buffer (people like you and me who read and write 2000 word posts), and short-buffer (people who add value primarily by quickly scanning and passing links along strong and well-curated social networks). Feeling dehumanized yet? And you thought social media was going to let you truly express your humanity. And if you want to find the perfect expression of this “embedded humans” architecture, look no further than Mechanical Turk and Demand Media. There is no better illustration of power migrating into the technology, with humans being mere electronic parts. The industrial age had its indelible image of Charlie Chaplin literally becoming caught in in a gear train in Modern Times. That’s what humans as “cogs” meant. The image today is someone furiously RT’ing links on their iPhone. Here’s my bad attempt at capturing history repeating itself:
Here’s the looming extreme Dystopia: writers hired via Mechanical Turk create content that Demand Media believes will sell, and then we shorten those Demand Media article links using bit.ly and busily pass it around on Twitter. And the long buffer types read the most popular of THOSE articles and bid on new Demand Media writing jobs that are automatically generated based on that popularity. Not to pick on those companies (they are all locally-optimizing in good faith), but where the heck is the actual creative thinking and new value in this madness-of-the-crowds churn? We are faced by a downward spiral into the world of the movie Idiocracy.
The fact that the technology matrix is dumb and entirely lacking in goals and intentions actually makes things worse, not better. We are not being enslaved by Skynet. We are being enslaved by an emergent retard whose behavior is basically a viciously randomized reflection of our own collective manias.
Now reconsider the classic symptoms of “social media disruption” within this new framing. What has Web 2.0 actually done to us?
- It has unbundled all sorts of content and driven the center of gravity towards the 140 character tweet
- Appointment Content has started to move to On-Demand Content
- Fixed publisher-subscriber models have been changed to Twitter/Facebook stochastic diffusion
- The temporal horizon has changed from past-present-future to just a narrow present
- We are starting to rely increasingly on analytics, and squeezing out creative intuition
- Polished content and code has given way to perennial beta
- Static search based on content-to-content links is starting to get displaced by dynamic search based on live social filtering
The scary part is that each of these is individually a good thing, but it all adds up to a toxic state of affairs.
That last two points are why we are switches in a messaging bus.
Implication of point 6: trading in incomplete stuff makes us part of the process middleware of some giant machine. The finished product that is finally made out of beta code and content is probably something like the hypothalamus of the emergent beast.
Implication of point 7: instead of linking to articles we like on our slow-changing static content, we are tweeting them live. In Web 1.0, while you slept, somebody could click on a link on your “home page,” find a valuable page, and be grateful to you. Win. Now that person is increasingly likely to ask a question on Twitter instead. And you lose sleep trying to stay in the stream, watching for every “real-time” opportunity to answer questions (or more likely, just flooding the timeline with your own tweets, hoping to intercept random intentions).
The whole thing could be called the “Random, Anxious Simul-Screaming Web!” (RASSW!). The social psychology of the RASSW! is not pretty:
- We are all desperately shouting to be heard above everybody else, anxiously scanning several firehoses, watching for our opportunities, and navigating this chaos using a random soup of tweeted links.
- On-demand content, far from helping us manage our time better, has gotten us into an anxious state of over-demand. We now have the freedom to pack in extra RSS feeds and reading into every spare moment, and we do.
- There is none of that relaxed letting go of the news between broadcasts/newspaper editions. We are like the monkey in that famous experiment that was given a button to stimulate the pleasure centers of its brain. It got into a frantic self-stimulation loop and almost starved I believe. In our case, our competitive status-seeking/money-making instincts have been hooked, rather than our pleasure centers.
- We are being devoured alive by a mindless, formulaic empiricism; SEO aka “writing to the machine” is just the tip of the iceberg
Why are we doing this to ourselves? Are we just masochists with a species-wide death wish?
Actually no, it is a sort of tragedy of the attention commons. To see why ask yourself: why can’t we all agree to just take Sundays entirely off the grid as a planet?
The Tragedy of the Attention Commons
A finance expert once told me that most of the gains in the stock market in the last 50 years happened on just a handful of days. If you’d happened to be out of the market on those days, with your assets in cash, you’d have seen losses instead of the historic 8%. That’s why, he explained, buy-and-hold is best for long-term investing. You won’t miss those unpredictable big-jump days if you’re always in the market.
The same thing applies on the Web. Except that your Web 1.0 “Home page” is no longer your investment in the Web. Your personal live presence is. Imagine having to show up on the NYSE floor everyday and having to shout above the noise, “I am still in!” to keep your investments in the market. Going off the grid is not really an option. Twitter eroding the position of RSS as a blog distribution medium for is the clearest instance. I now have to tweet new posts at optimal times. No more publish-and-forget.
But here’s why it is a tragedy of the commons: everybody is more frantic, but nobody is actually better off. It’s like one guy standing up at the stadium to get a better view, causing a chain reaction leading to everybody standing up. Now nobody has a better view, and everybody is paying the added cost of standing up.
Or to return to my “Sundays off” hypothetical, if there’s just one guy looking to buy something, tweeting on a Sunday, and just one guy willing to get on Twitter to listen on a Sunday, the rest of us are screwed. Now we all have to get on Twitter on Sundays or miss potential big wins. Actually we don’t listen much. We all choose to scream all the time.
There’s probably a nice game theory model here, but I’ll leave that to someone else.
Why this Disrupts Work and Media
Step back and you will see in this complex of effects the reason for both the disruption of the world of work and the world of media. We’ve paid a lot of attention to the coarse lifestyle level effects on work, such as virtual/distributed work and the economics of free agency. We haven’t really thought as much about the minute-to-minute work we are actually doing sitting at home, in our pajamas, working Skype and watching our free-agent earnings trickling into our Paypal accounts.
Yes, there are benefits, and added independence, and I’ve blogged about the positive side. But it isn’t a pleasant reality overall. The real-time Web so far, has created a race to the bottom in the labor force. We have to fight harder, with fewer protections, for every AdSense dime, rather than trusting that our paychecks will see us through our retirement. And a lot of the work is generally much duller. Not just the Mechanical Turk level of mindless drudgery, but also 90% of formulaic “7 ways” list-post blogging drudgery. Hardly a fulfilling creative life for people inspired to write by Shakespeare.
The impact on media is an indirect effect, via the impact on work. Publishing “amateurs” (bloggers and the like) looking to establish free-agent/personal brand voices for the new economy are the prime villains in the disruption of old media. What frustrates Old Media attempts at creating new business models overnight is that people like me are grabbing thin slices of the attention that used to belong exclusively to them, and given the weight of numbers, it adds up. We are simultaneously eroding their attention market-share and disrupting their distribution channels (the blogosphere is like a giant, crowdsourced Walmart where every employee is creating his/her own store microbrands in addition to reselling bigger brands).
There is a solution. I hinted at it in a recent post on VentureBeat, reviewing Nick Carr’s Shallows. I offered the cautiously optimistic argument that technology is just a lever and that there is a powerful “intent” side and a manipulated “passive” side. This post is a refinement of that argument: humans, not technology, are the only truly intentional beings in the picture at the moment. We’re not dealing with Skynet here, but a random, dumb emergent beast.
Greasy, Fix-it, Damage Control
I’ll define the Web of Intent in a very simple way:
A Web architecture that reduces the number and frequency of decisions you have to take, lets you control when you make those decisions, and prunes the number of options among which you need to choose in a trustworthy way. The overall effect of the Web of Intent will be to allow you to get OFF the Web without suffering an anxiety attack.
The Web of Intent isn’t like other big visions for the Internet. It is a trend that is emerging to solve an actual problem as opposed to creating a vision somebody figures is attractive. It isn’t a stimulating “new possibilities” vision like the Semantic Web or the 3D Web. It isn’t an enabling vision like the Mobile Web or the Internet of Things that allow us to do new things. It is also something of a damage control vision: lessons learned in the last 10 years show that our Great Information Overload Hope: filtering and “relevance” technologies, weren’t working well enough to significantly reduce our decision-making and information processing load (that’s why I said “prunes in a trustworthy way.” Most of us still don’t trust the existing relevance/filtration technologies). At the same time automation of decisions and action was also not really working. Most information still needed human judgment. Outside of a few things like email forwarding rules, we do most information handling manually. Information work is still largely manual labor.
The Web of Intent is a roll-up-your-sleeves, grungy, grease-stained “fix-it” vision. A vision that is about fixing the huge problems created by Web 2.0, which we’ve ignored while being distracted by the huge opportunities. We can’t live in the RASSW! for much longer without going collectively crazy. I can just imagine some crazed #iranelection style Twitter phenomenon in a few years creating the brinkmanship conditions for a nuclear war.
The Web of Intent solves these huge problems by amplifying the power of human intent, and taking power back from the (dumb, non-malicious) machines. It attempts to fix Web 2.0 before moving on to some new horizon labeled Web 3.0.
So as a fix-it vision, it starts not with the grand visionary designs of a single genius mind, but the collection of small local solutions that are already emerging, based on existing technology, to fix specific intent (little i) problems. We just need to generalize, grow and integrated these solutions into a coherent architecture. Here’s my list:
- DailyLit and Instapaper allow you to schedule and control your reading
- Trailmeme allows you prune and add intent to your browsing (since defunct)
- Newer Twitter clients like HootSuite allow you to gain some time control over your Twitter account
- Clicker is bringing back some of the benefits of the much-maligned Appointment TV without its costs
- Nova is up to some interesting general scheduling technology with Live Matrix
- Flipboard allows you to step back a bit from the Twitter feeding frenzy and bring some of the old leisurely magazine feel back to your Twitter/Facebook fueled reading
- Meetup is a scheduling, back-to-real-world technology that is the beginning of the “get off the Web” aspect of the Web of Intent.
- As befits a fix-it greasy vision, email, much maligned by the younger technologies, is being redeemed and restored to its position of respect
- In a way, the failure of Google Wave is another piece of evidence in favor of the Web of Intent. It aimed to improve email, but turned it down an anxiety/frenzy increasing path. We said, “No thanks.” Perhaps that’s the big turning point.
- The rise of social gaming on Facebook is very revealing. It may seem like distraction from a work point of view, but it is an example of how you can create intense focus in the middle of the Random Anxious Simul-Screaming Web (RASSW!). It is particularly revealing that kaChing, a stock trading social game on Facebook, has now become an actual stock trading technology.
Note: This post originally had references to SXSW 2011, and to one of my own Xerox projects, Trailmeme, that has since become defunct. There are no substantive changes to the argument though. I left the concluding list of examples unchanged.