8 September 2010

Birth of "Me Web" leads to "We Web"

Today's Internet is all "me, me, me". But counter-intuitively, the technology that creates this personalised web experience may give birth to a web that reinforces a sense of community based on state borders.

At the dawn of Web 1.0, every one of us who "tuned" to a specified URL experienced the same static web page at the other end of the link. Although the page occasionally changed, all of us experienced the same changed page. A bit like television, but with a theoretically infinite number of "channels". We talked about the advent of micro-communities, marketing to the long tail, etc. It was common wisdom that this divergence of content broke down a sense of community based on physical location.

But an infinite number of channels was, it seems, not enough.

Now we are well into the age of Web 2.0, and our experience of the Web as end-users is a function of much more than the URL in our browsers. Various factors influence the content arriving at our screen, including our geo-location.

A single web "page" can present to me a potentially infinite variety of content depending on where I am, what I look at, what I have bought, preferences I express, who is my ISP, etc.

Perhaps this is why we have nearly abandoned the phrase "web page" in describing our experience of Web 2.0. The concept of "page" is static while the content served up to us is dynamic - assembled on the fly. Each screen-full of content is especially created for "me". Say goodbye to "The Web" and say hello to the "Me Web". The concept of "community" begins to recede.

Every person is an island. Or is he?

Obviously I don't know what the future holds, but here's a scenario submitted for your consideration:

I'm watching an entertaining situation comedy in 2025. I watch this on my screen (some future version of a laptop or iPad or perhaps disposable display wallpaper) at home in England. I'm not surprised that one of the female characters appears topless in a few scenes, and I'm not shocked by the sometimes-harsh language.

Meanwhile, a friend of mine who lives in another country with more conservative social values decides to view the same show. Except that the dialogue he hears has been translated automatically into his country's language. And there are no dirty words. And the same female character always appears fully clothed, in a dress that is never shorter than knee-length. He didn't choose any of these settings - they are imposed by some combination of the show's producers (who want a larger audience in, advertising revenue from, and limited hassle by the government regulators in, his country) plus his local network operator (who wants to comply with local laws concerning importation of content).

This enforcement of state borders (by "private" companies at both ends of the network path) has influenced the content we each see. Are we really watching the "same" programme anymore? Will entertainment actually work at this level of fragmentation? I believe that one day we will find out.

But here's the counter-intuitive part: the potentially infinite variety of content presented from a single "source" page has now started to create or to re-inforce geographic communities of people who experience similar content. People who live in my country are more likely to experience content like the content I experience. People who live in my friend's country are more likely to experience content similar to the content that he experiences.

The "Me Web" phenomenon tends to encourage the development of technology needed to enforce Internet Borders. (We want to know where you are so we can serve up content that's specific to you and your location.)  But this user-specific content world may may actually re-energise our self-identity as geographic (which is to say "state") communities.

The Me Web could give birth to a state-identified We Web.

Lesson to carriers/ISP's: start looking for solutions at the network level, so that you can beat the rush of imposed regulation. One day soon your government will tell you this sort of thing is a legal requirement. Put it on your technology road map now, or your competitors will have the market to themselves.

Lesson to product developers: even if governments don't understand all of this yet, the content providers and carriers will beat a path to your doorstep if you can help to develop various pieces of this geo-location / bordering technology.

Lesson to content producers: start thinking now about how you are going to produce content with "culture sensitivity" options, only be sure to label it "location based services".

Lesson to policy makers: the Internet has borders. Act accordingly.