The Web’s third frontier
Everyone realizes that the web is entering a new phase in its development.
One indication of this transition is the proliferation of attempts to explain the changes that are occurring. Functional explanations emphasize the real time web, collaborative systems and location-based services. Technical explanations argue that the interconnectivity of data is the most significant current development. They consider the web’s new frontiers to be closely related to the semantic web or the “web of things”.
Although these explanations are both pertinent and intriguing, none of them offers an analytical matrix for assessing the developments that are now underway. Some ideas are too specific. The “real time web,” for example, is one of the clearest and most influential trends right now. But once this observation has been made, it provides no insights into the usefulness and impact of the “real time web,” or, more importantly, how it fits into the web’s overall development.
In contrast, other explanations are far too broad to serve any useful purpose. The “Web 2.0″ concept, despite its limitations, demonstrates the relationship among innovations as varied as Wikipedia, You-Tube and blogs. Web 2.0 serves to summarize a stage in the web’s development. The expression “Web Squared,” sometimes used for the next phase, incorporates a heterogeneous grouping of functionalities and uses. It does not facilitate an understanding of the nature of the changes that are occurring, and thus does not allow us to infer their actual impact.
How can the web’s development be understood?
The web represents a compendium of technical resources, functionalities and usage practices, and it cannot be reduced to just one of these dimensions. The success of technical innovations hinges on the ecosystem of existing products. The development of products is tied to changes in usage patterns. Usage patterns in turn only develop based on technologies and products.
The development of the web thus does not arise from technologies, products or usage patterns alone. Each of these dimensions is inextricably intertwined with the other two, and innovations affecting one can have a decisive effect on the others. The web’s development no longer depends on the isolated efforts of an individual, company or organization. Even the largest industrial groups, as well as still larger government entities, have only a marginal influence when the issue is coordinating the multitude of people and things that constitute the web.
If the development of the web cannot be directly attributed to technologies, products or usage patterns, and if it cannot be reduced to the efforts of a small, identifiable group, how can we hope to understand where it is going? More precisely, how can we establish a simple model that will serve some practical purpose?
In fact, it is the decentralized nature of the web and the infinite diversity of the projects developing on it that allow us to answer this question. The web has no central management or external regulations, and it lacks internal rules – or, more precisely, it operates under numerous rules, none of which is uniformly applied. The only ideas that are truly capable of coordinating the activities of the web are its own founding principles.
The founding principles
These principles are simply the initial objectives that Tim Berners-Lee and Robert Caillau stated for their project. Eliminating technical jargon, these objectives can be broken down into three general, universally applicable propositions:
1- Allow anyone to access any type of document
2- Allow everyone to disseminate their own documents
3- Allow everyone to organize the entire collection of documents
These concepts guided the development of the technologies, functionalities and uses at the origin of the web, which was initially made available to CERN scientists and subsequently to related research communities.
Due to the limited number of initial users, and the very specialized population to which they belonged, the original web had a property that has never recurred since: every user at that time had sufficient technological competence to access and create documents, and, using HTML programming, could participate in the organization of the entire collection of documents. Every user was a reader, creator and organizer, in accordance with the three founding principles.
The web, initially a micro-democracy where everyone had access to all aspects of the medium, charted the course for its own development and established its long-term direction. Its objective as a project was clearly defined: to allow all users to become complete media, i.e., able to read, create and organize the collection of documents they desired.
The objective was both grandiose and straightforward. Grandiose because the goal was the complete democratization of the medium’s activities. Straightforward because the utopia offered to all was actually already a reality for a small group of pioneers. The founding principles were thus the basis for the web’s system of regulation and development.
The web became a universal open source project without an acknowledged leader, comparable to what was to become Wikipedia, although on a different scale. Its founding principles facilitated the integration of innovations into the ecosystem. They naturally fostered innovations that corresponded to those principles, while automatically restricting others, thus providing sustained direction for the development of the entire project.
The two initial phases of growth
Let us now consider the twenty years that have elapsed since the web of those pioneer days; we will see that these founding principles not only assured the cohesiveness of the entire project, but also structured its phases of development.
The principle of “allowing anyone to access any document” established the web’s first frontier and gave direction to its initial stage of development. For the most part, this phase ran from 1994-95 until 2003-2004. It corresponded to the massive development of a pyramidal web, with a small number of players creating, organizing and disseminating content, which was consumed by the majority. Portals and search engines were the key products at this stage; HTML and PHP were the main technologies; accessing information was the primary use. It is worth noting that this model still applies to most current web activity, and it continues to grow at the same pace as the internet.
The second phase of web expansion began in 2000-2002, driven by projects such as Blogger, MySpace and, later, Wikipedia. Soon identified as a major turning point, Web 2.0 simply represents the popularization of the second founding principle: “allowing everyone to disseminate their own documents.” Technologies such as AJAX and RSS will make creation and distribution functionalities, which were formerly reserved only for developers, available to a very broad audience. A vast array of programs allows everyone to post all kinds of content on line. The early web’s success and the strength of the entire project are finally allowing related uses to expand on a massive scale. Blogs, social networks, and wikis are becoming icons of the democratization of speech and open debate.
Today, it is estimated that the participative web community is accessed by 200 to 300 million people daily. In its turn, the web’s second founding principle has also extended beyond the small circle of original pioneers to transform the usage patterns of a broad audience. Technologies, products and functionality modes are now well established so that web participation will gradually become available to everyone. Its continuing development does not require any further radical innovation and will continue naturally over coming years.
The third frontier
As briefly summarized above, the first two phases make it very clear where the web’s next frontier lies. Although an abundance of innovations and new applications are extending already established product types, one of the web project’s three components, “allowing everyone to organize the collection of documents,” is still far from reaching a broad audience.
Has it not been observed that the HTML language, the essential link in the web’s technological fabric, the technical vehicle for the third principle, is both the most significant contributor to the availability of the web and the one that is least changed from its original technical form? That the creation of hyperlinks, which interconnect the web’s actual structure and site architecture and act as the departure point for search engines, remains complex, very remote from day-to-day activities, and ill-adapted to the multitude of uses that could develop from it?
Now that the web allows everyone to read and disseminate everything, it should also allow everyone to do what its first users were always able to do, the feature that lies at the heart of its radical originality: organize everything. The web’s ecosystem should progressively build technologies, invent products, and develop methods of usage that will allow everyone to manipulate content created by others, gather material, edit it, prioritize it and give it meaning. The web should allow everyone to become a complete medium.
Are we talking about a wish? A bet? A hypothetical future? It is really much more. If the practical directions for the future of a system as complex as the web are to be mapped out, they would have to be organized around the only coordinating points possible among players who are too diverse and numerous to coordinate the situation themselves. They must be based on the only elements that are universally shared: the project’s founding principles.
To state that the next step in the web’s development is the democratization of the capacity to organize is simply to state that this is the only one of the web’s three initial DNA strands that has not achieved the level of development achieved by the other two. Thus we can correctly speak of the project’s next frontier.
Toward a complete web
If this is the case, now that the successive developments of the first and second principles are assured, could we not speculate that innovative techniques, products and uses will now converge in the direction of this new frontier we are anticipating? This development is actually occurring before our eyes: the web’s third phase is already underway.
Conditions, needs, and capabilities have aligned so that the web’s third principle is now reaching out beyond the small, original group of professionals and pioneers.
Among users, social networks are now making instantaneous exchange of content possible. Almost 20% of tweets sent contain URLs. Facebook puts sharing links at the top of its hierarchy of functions. For many web enthusiasts, reading content provided by a community is replacing information from automated aggregators.
On the technological front, collaborative systems and the “real time web” allow everyone to coordinate their views with various communities, organizing data as it is received. The trend toward opening up data and semantic technologies is broadening both the web’s basic organizational structure and the means of accessing it. Rich interfaces offer ways to radically simplify editing and organizational activities so that every user can manipulate complex data in a way that is intuitive, entertaining and natural.
In the area of products and functionalities, web giants, as well as the most advanced startups, are gradually pointing toward a user-organized web. What are Google’s latest innovations? A system of open collaboration, Wave; a system for public discussion on the entire content of the web, SideWiki; and the opening of its search engine to explicit opinions and grading from its users.
Furthermore, the organization of the web by its users will soon call into question the hierarchical, automatic model for search engines. Wikia was the first significant attempt to develop a search engine using a collaborative algorithm. Mahalo is now enhancing the human side of search engines by orchestrating questions from user to user. Pearltrees, which is specifically described as a network of interests, allows its community members to organize, connect and easily locate all the content of interest to them. Foursquare, in contrast to earlier localization systems, applies not to people but to things: on this network, players acting together can organize all the places they regularly visit.
The technologies, products and uses originated in the first and second phases will not disappear. On the contrary, the next phase will combine the three principles that are the basis of the web’s history and originality: each user will be a spectator, a creator and an organizer.
The Web will thus become for everyone what it once was for only a happy few: a medium that is complete, democratic and democratized.