Did I Invent the Internet?

I’ll start out by clarifying that I did not invent the Internet (and, as an aside, point out that Al Gore never claimed he did either). On the other hand, I do believe that several things I wrote and said 6 years ago anticipated the rise of the user-generated web from MySpace to Flickr and, more broadly, the emergence of what is now called Web 2.0.

You’re probably asking yourself, “How is he possibly going to back up this outlandish and ludicrously self-aggrandizing claim?” Don’t worry, I asked myself that same question! Here’s what I came up with.

In 2000, I gave a talk in Tokyo called, “Designing the User Experience,” a subject concerning which I was fairly naive, having never designed any user experiences. Undaunted by this trivial lacuna, I proceeded to lecture the attendees on my experiences as a web user. Having read a little bit of Jakob Nielsen, I was fond of repeating his dictum that, “Users spend more time on other sites than on yours.” I added that people spend a lot more time doing things other than being on the web (which may be less true now than it was then). Therefore, when designing web sites, in addition to complying with user expectations as set by the web sites they visited more frequently, it was critical to provide them with a service that met their real-life needs. It wasn’t just a matter of helping users accomplish things on the web, it was essential to help them accomplish things in general.

The site that I thought exemplified my ideal was Amazon.com. Not only did Amazon follow basic, “usable design” principles (which due to its popularity it in turn established for countless other sites), it also provided me with a valuable service: numerous reviews of cd’s and books contributed by users just like me. I call this service valuable because I would use the reviews to find out about cd’s that I would then buy at local used cd shops. Since then, of course, Amazon has expanded their offerings to give me access to an entire cd marketplace. Amazon’s openness to its users, and its reliance on them to create the true “content” of its site, as well as its openness to other merchants, was not only brilliant, it foreshadowed the future of the web as a whole.

My “user experience” talk evolved into a talk I entitled, “Is your website a cathedral or is it a fork?” (An essayistic synopsis of which used to be on DigitalEve LA’s website, but can now be found here). To highlight my far-reaching insightfulness, I’ll point out that this formulation even found its way into the curriculum of Bendigo Senior Secondary College in Victoria, Australia.) Building on my earlier work, I asserted that users shouldn’t “experience” functional websites at all. Just as, when eating, you want to experience the food and not the fork, such websites should be so intuitive they ought to “disappear” in their use.

On the other hand, if you do want to create a meaningful experience for your users, I said then that you should make your site “explorable.” There should be no end to what a user might discover there, as in the contemplation of an intricately wrought Gothic cathedral, for example. (See how the cathedral and fork bit works?) The best way to create this kind of explorability is to invite your users to create and add to the content of the site. Nowadays, the hottest web properties rely on precisely this model. In fact, many of them, like MySpace or YouTube, consist solely of content posted by users. Even “games” like Second Life follow this model, calling on “residents” to create most of the experience themselves.

As I understand it, this approach is also central to “Web 2.0” where the prime movers – Google, Flickr, eBay, even Amazon – are providing services and platforms for users, rather than products and applications. Way back in August 2005, Phil Wainewright wrote on ZDNet that this trend signaled the end of Microsoft’s domination. As he put it then, “Microsoft’s business model depends on everyone upgrading their computing environment every two to three years. Google’s depends on everyone exploring what’s new in their computing environment every day.”

Explorability doesn’t just apply to individual sites; it is essential to the entirety of the contemporary web experience. Oh, if only I had appreciated the prescience of my own thoughts then! I could have been a contender instead of a blogger, which is what I am. (Now go and scour my previous posts for the million dollar ideas buried there.)

Originally published on Aquent’s Talent Blog, December 6, 2006

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