Thursday, July 15, 2004

The dynamic web: the web of human attention

There seems to be little doubt that blogging will be the next step in the evolution of the internet. The question is where is it going.

seems to have the right idea. Their slogan is "Search the World Live WebTM"

Blogs, really feed readers, let anyone be a publisher, converting the web from a collection of destinations to a collections of broadcasters. (Push technology is back.) With feeds, there are now two webs: the traditional, relatively static web of destination URL's and the dynamic web of continually updated broadcasts.

Like the old web, the new dynamic web (almost certainly) has a scale-free link structure. Some broadcasters have orders of magnitude more in-links than most others. This is similar to the scale-free structure of the static web in which sites like Yahoo are linked to orders of magnitude more often than most others. (See, for example, What is a Scale-free network? for a discussion of scale-free networks.)  But in the dynamic web, links are weighted by age.  A link more than a couple of days old, doesn't count for very much.  So the link structure of the dynamic web is constantly shifting.
In some sense the dynamic web floats above the static web, consisting of newly created (within the past couple of days) content.  As such it is to the static web as a motion picture is to a photograph.  (It's actually amazing to realize that I'm talking about the traditional web as old and static!)
The dynamic web includes not just bloggers; it also includes traditional news sources such as the web feeds of traditional news outlets. In many ways, these form much of the basis of the new web. To a great extent, bloggers talk about items they see on traditional news outlets. Often bloggers give these items a different emphasis, but the originating sources are frequently paid reporters.
In trying to think of what it is about the dynamic web that differentiates it from the static web, the answer I come up with is human attention. The static web has lots of information, but for the most part, no one knows who is looking at what information now.  The dynamic web is exactly about who is talking about what now. The range of subjects. although probably not as broad as that covered by the static web (how could it be; the subjects on the static web are a superset of those on the dynamic web) is still quite broad. But what is important about those subjects is that they reflect what people are thinking about in the present.
It would be interesting if one could monitor the static web for page hits and publish lists of sites that were receiving the most page hits weighted by time, the most recent the most important.  That would be another picture of what people are paying attention to now.  But we have no technology to do that.  Many sites don't keep track of hits, and many that do don't make that information public.
With feeds we see what people are thinking about.  Although this is not the same as the hits they generated when writing their feeds, it is probably a good reflection of the content of the pages they visited when writing their feeds. 
Of course people don't write feeds every time they visit a site.  And some people wouldn't want their journeys across the web to be known.  So we never can generate a fully accurate picture of what is on people's minds.  But feeds are probably as good a proxy for that as we are likely to get.

One question many people are asking themselves is what services does the dynamic web demand.  (Of course, the reason for asking this question is to offer those services and make a lot of money.)  Here are three answers.  The first two are obvious and are already becoming commodities. The third is still developing.

  1. Blog broadcasters and generators. A commodity. But the fact that these services are commodities doesn't mean that some people won't get rich. seems to be the host with the most. and its hosting service are also giants in the field.

  2. Feed aggregators and readers. A commodity but can be built-upon. seems to be the leader. But there is a problem. The more feeds there are (and the number is growing so fast that one just can't keep up) the harder it is follow them all.  One can't subscribe to everything, but one would like to have access to postings of interest.  This is a very difficult problem.

    One would like to be able to subscribe to an abstract feed, something like a clipping service. Some feeds actually provide such a service., for example is a clipping service for "interesting" items. It relies on links sent in by readers, which is probably more reliable than relying on crawlers. Crawlers are subject to spam, which is one of the reasons feeds are nice: one subscribes to the ones one wants. 

    Blogs themselves are, in effect, clipping services. Word spreads about an interesting item because bloggers write about it.  So in one sense the entire world of blogs is a self-referential clipping service.  But there is a growing need for something better. Whoever comes up with a spam resistant clipping service for high quality postings in areas users can specify will do very well.  But that is a very difficult challenge. I would bet that manual clipping services will do well for a while.

  3. Feed analysis and search services. Open country. Here we have companies like Technorati, mentioned above,, and The big question is what useful new services can people in this area think of. The primary service these organizations provide are: search (where can you find recent feed entries about a particular subject?) and link analysis (who is linking to whom now?) This is the Google service for the dynamic web.

    To try out a search service I looked for "Billboard Project" this afternoon to see if there was any news on the conflict between that organization and Clear Channel. Indeed there was, and I created a post as a result, see Russ Abbott's Adventures in Blogland: Project Billboard and Clear Channel reach a settlement

    No existing search services are not similar enough to the clipping service discussed above to serve as a preliminary version of such a service. Google's News alerts already allow users to subscribe to a notification service for news items based on a search.  (They are not feeds, though; they are email messages. How retro!) If one has a narrow enough search, that's fine.  But normally not only are one's interests generally broader than what one asks for in a search, one's interests change from day to day.  I don't do the same search every day.

I regret that the preceding was not as complete and coherent as I would have liked it to be.  But the dynamic web itself is neither complete or coherent, and we just don't know in which directions it will grow.

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