Facebook broke Google's lead last week for most visits to their site. Facebook had been getting a little over 2% of all visits on the world wide web a year ago, and topped off last week with 7.07% of the market share – beating Google's lead by 4 hundredths of a percentage point. What this means is that out of the estimated 200 million websites and services on the internet, 14% of all traffic was directed at two of them last week. One of them a (diversified) search engine, and the other a social media tool.
These tools obviously fill fundamental human needs. The steep increase in the use of social media, and Facebook in particular, speaks to the degree to which these tools have captured and reflect a somewhat rudimentary but fundamental map of the human psychology. If the global number of logged hours on a computer per capita continues to increase at the rate that it is, and the market share of social media and networking tools continues to grow at that they have, some form of social media will be logging more hours of human attention than virtually any other single form of technology. The importance of being intentional about the design of these tools cannot be underestimated.
A brief history of Internet Technologies
Imagine that the internet is a collection of tools that has evolved (and will continue to evolve) over time. As it evolves, there are 'generations' of software that are developed and can be distinguished from one another.
The earlier generations of internet technologies were used exclusively for the transfer of written information (emails/news/etc) and files. The only object of these first iterations of software was to communicate directly over distance using written language.
Eventually, markup languages were developed that enabled the formatting of writing and the incorporation of non-text files into those communications, and the world wide web was born. Because markup languages constitute a layer of abstraction (the markup language is never actually read by the person viewing the page), software is required to interpret the code. We call this class of software a 'browser'. Browsers interpret the markup language and incorporate different kinds of files into a designed virtual space. Although they have become more sophisticated and specialized, a browser's main purposes are to take text files, images, and other media, present them to us as web pages, and allow us to 'surf' these pages.
In the first generation of internet software (retrospectively referred to as Web1.0), authoring content on the internet was solely in the hands of a relatively small population (programmers). This hearkens a time just before the invention of the printing press when writing itself was literally in the hands of a small population of educated 'scribes'.
At some point in the evolution of these technologies, someone had the brilliant idea to bring databases into the mix. Databases, coupled with programming languages that enable the user to interact with them, constitute another layer of abstraction. Now in addition to using a browser to view content on the internet, these new tools provide users with a Guided User Interface (GUI) for actually creating that content. These tools enable people to author content on the internet without having to know any coding languages, and have enabled E-commerce, Social Networking tools, and other interactive virtual spaces.
In the same way that the primary purpose of a browser is essentially to translate markup languages and files into (sometimes) beautifully designed web pages that people can 'browse', the primary purpose of the software employed in the second layer of abstraction (database-driven websites) is to enable a much broader section of the population to create/author content on the internet. Web1.0 gave people the ability to communicate visual information virtually, and Web2.0 gave people the ability to interact with one another in that virtual space. In the former, browsers and search engines (like Google) were the tools du jour. In the present generation of internet technology, browsers and search engines have taken a backseat, as interactive tools assume the spotlight. In the middle of that spotlight right now is Facebook.
The fabric of each new generation of internet technology has effectively been built on progressive layers of programming abstraction. As this happens, the tools are able to meet new categories of human needs. Web1.0 fulfilled a human desire to creatively represent and express information virtually. Web2.0 satisfied the need people had to author their own content and, as a result, connect directly with one another in that virtual space. In the generation of software that is fast approaching, users will be given creative agency over their experience of the web itself.
Imagine having the ability as a user to assemble your virtual communities into one space using a collection of plugins and filters. In effect, users will have the ability to assemble their very own 'sub-webs', a collection of information, profile preferences, and communications with others. These sub-webs will replace individual user 'profiles' with comprehensive assembled 'identities'.
Specific social media and networking tools will fade into the background, as a new generation of software is developed to read, process, and display the information within a user's different virtual communities, and assemble them into a larger system that the user has creative agency over. The assembled information would still have a reference to it's source for branding, but the assemblies of these 'profiles' from different social media communities would be packaged and filtered according to a particular users desires, as would their favorite webpages, and items that they have marked as important. Their preferences will be used also to funnel other information that might be of interest to them, as compiled by statistics and information from other profiles. In a much needed response to the glut of information (and venues of information) that virtually overwhelms the modern user, the new generation of tools will enable the user to filter and assemble/display selective information and virtually create microcosmic sub-systems of networks and web content. Users will interact with one another from within these private 'sub-webs', as well as have the ability to enter one another's.
The core value and capital that is being offered by tools like Facebook or LinkedIn will no longer be the 'environments' that they control, but the data they already have and continue to accumulate. The mobilization of that capital will depend on the degree to which (and ways in which) these social media venues expose and exchange information with the next generation of software.
The design of a tool will determine the way it is used.
We are at a critical moment between the increasingly well-worn infrastructure of social media and a new kind of technology that is as of yet undeveloped. If we can seize this moment, we have the opportunity to consciously design this new generation of web-applications in a way that activates collective intelligence to regenerate our communities and our world. As we begin to imagine and develop the technology that will enable a user to 'localize' their virtual communities, we might in the same gesture develop tools that will activate users in their 'local' communities.
In my next blog, I will begin to look at the specific opportunities that exist for this body of work, and explore how this new technology will function at the level of local communities, and activate people within those communities.