Saturday, July 30, 2005

Wired 13.08: We Are the Web

Wired 13.08: We Are the Web:

"2005
The scope of the Web today is hard to fathom. The total number of Web pages, including those that are dynamically created upon request and document files available through links, exceeds 600 billion. That's 100 pages per person alive.

How could we create so much, so fast, so well? In fewer than 4,000 days, we have encoded half a trillion versions of our collective story and put them in front of 1 billion people, or one-sixth of the world's population. That remarkable achievement was not in anyone's 10-year plan.

The accretion of tiny marvels can numb us to the arrival of the stupendous. Today, at any Net terminal, you can get: an amazing variety of music and video, an evolving encyclopedia, weather forecasts, help wanted ads, satellite images of anyplace on Earth, up-to-the-minute news from around the globe, tax forms, TV guides, road maps with driving directions, real-time stock quotes, telephone numbers, real estate listings with virtual walk-throughs, pictures of just about anything, sports scores, places to buy almost anything, records of political contributions, library catalogs, appliance manuals, live traffic reports, archives to major newspapers - all wrapped up in an interactive index that really works.

This view is spookily godlike. You can switch your gaze of a spot in the world from map to satellite to 3-D just by clicking. Recall the past? It's there. Or listen to the daily complaints and travails of almost anyone who blogs (and doesn't everyone?). I doubt angels have a better view of humanity.

Why aren't we more amazed by this fullness? Kings of old would have gone to war to win such abilities. Only small children would have dreamed such a magic window could be real. I have reviewed the expectations of waking adults and wise experts, and I can affirm that this comprehensive wealth of material, available on demand and free of charge, was not in anyone's scenario. Ten years ago, anyone silly enough to trumpet the above list as a vision of the near future would have been confronted by the evidence: There wasn't enough money in all the investment firms in the entire world to fund such a cornucopia. The success of the Web at this scale was impossible.

But if we have learned anything in the past decade, it is the plausibility of the impossible.

Take eBay. In some 4,000 days, eBay has gone from marginal Bay Area experiment in community markets to the most profitable spinoff of hypertext. At any one moment, 50 million auctions race through the site. An estimated half a million folks make their living selling through Internet auctions. Ten years ago I heard skeptics swear nobody would ever buy a car on the Web. Last year eBay Motors sold $11 billion worth of vehicles. EBay's 2001 auction of a $4.9 million private jet would have shocked anyone in 1995 - and still smells implausible today.

Nowhere in Ted Nelson's convoluted sketches of hypertext transclusion did the fantasy of a global flea market appear. Especially as the ultimate business model! He hoped to franchise his Xanadu hypertext systems in the physical world at the scale of a copy shop or café - you would go to a store to do your hypertexting. Xanadu would take a cut of the action.

Instead, we have an open global flea market that handles 1.4 billion auctions every year and operates from your bedroom. Users do most of the work; they photograph, catalog, post, and manage their own auctions. And they police themselves; while eBay and other auction sites do call in the authorities to arrest serial abusers, the chief method of ensuring fairness is a system of user-generated ratings. Three billion feedback comments can work wonders.

What we all failed to see was how much of this new world would be manufactured by users, not corporate interests. Amazon.com customers rushed with surprising speed and intelligence to write the reviews that made the site's long-tail selection usable. Owners of Adobe, Apple, and most major software products offer help and advice on the developer's forum Web pages, serving as high-quality customer support for new buyers. And in the greatest leverage of the common user, Google turns traffic and link patterns generated by 2 billion searches a month into the organizing intelligence for a new economy. This bottom-up takeover was not in anyone's 10-year vision.

No Web phenomenon is more confounding than blogging. Everything media experts knew about audiences - and they knew a lot - confirmed the focus group belief that audiences would never get off their butts and start making their own entertainment. Everyone knew writing and reading were dead; music was too much trouble to make when you could sit back and listen; video production was simply out of reach of amateurs. Blogs and other participant media would never happen, or if they happened they would not draw an audience, or if they drew an audience they would not matter. What a shock, then, to witness the near-instantaneous rise of 50 million blogs, with a new one appearing every two seconds. There - another new blog! One more person doing what AOL and ABC - and almost everyone else - expected only AOL and ABC to be doing. These user-created channels make no sense economically. Where are the time, energy, and resources coming from?

The audience.

I run a blog about cool tools. I write it for my own delight and for the benefit of friends. The Web extends my passion to a far wider group for no extra cost or effort. In this way, my site is part of a vast and growing gift economy, a visible underground of valuable creations - text, music, film, software, tools, and services - all given away for free. This gift economy fuels an abundance of choices. It spurs the grateful to reciprocate. It permits easy modification and reuse, and thus promotes consumers into producers.

The open source software movement is another example. Key ingredients of collaborative programming - swapping code, updating instantly, recruiting globally - didn't work on a large scale until the Web was woven. Then software became something you could join, either as a beta tester or as a coder on an open source project. The clever "view source" browser option let the average Web surfer in on the act. And anyone could rustle up a link - which, it turns out, is the most powerful invention of the decade.

Linking unleashes involvement and interactivity at levels once thought unfashionable or impossible. It transforms reading into navigating and enlarges small actions into powerful forces. For instance, hyperlinks made it much easier to create a seamless, scrolling street map of every town. They made it easier for people to refer to those maps. And hyperlinks made it possible for almost anyone to annotate, amend, and improve any map embedded in the Web. Cartography has gone from spectator art to participatory democracy.

The electricity of participation nudges ordinary folks to invest huge hunks of energy and time into making free encyclopedias, creating public tutorials for changing a flat tire, or cataloging the votes in the Senate. More and more of the Web runs in this mode. One study found that only 40 percent of the Web is commercial. The rest runs on duty or passion.

Coming out of the industrial age, when mass-produced goods outclassed anything you could make yourself, this sudden tilt toward consumer involvement is a complete Lazarus move: "We thought that died long ago." The deep enthusiasm for making things, for interacting more deeply than just choosing options, is the great force not reckoned 10 years ago. This impulse for participation has upended the economy and is steadily turning the sphere of social networking - smart mobs, hive minds, and collaborative action - into the main event.

When a company opens its databases to users, as Amazon, Google, and eBay have done with their Web services, it is encouraging participation at new levels. The corporation's data becomes part of the commons and an invitation to participate. People who take advantage of these capabilities are no longer customers; they're the company's developers, vendors, skunk works, and fan base. "

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