One year ago I published Balkanization of the Web - or Just Better Focus? There I expressed concern that the proliferation of specialized search engines — and the indexing to support them — would lead to a more fragmented web. I thought that gaining the benefits of specialization could ultimately reduce the benefits we experience from the nearly universal access to web based contents that we’ve been taking for granted.
I don’t think my fears have been realized. Google Search’s continued popularity hasn’t done away with the need for niche search services, experiments with human-edited services have also advanced (e.g., Mahalo), and the rise of specialized social networks has advanced the cause of collaboration and information sharing among members of specialized groups.
Still, I see signs that the ease of communication we’ve grown to take for granted in the past decade or so is being chipped away.
One problem area is email. Not only are we suffering under a glut of spam, we’re also seeing a proliferation of network-based messaging systems. They’re great for in-communication network messaging, but their numbers and inconsistencies make for klutzy cross-boundary message traffic.
Look at the map I created of the various online networks I belong to. A mailbox icon indicates those networks that have internal messaging capabilities (click here if you can’t see the map):
It’s an awkward system. Even if I can get an emailed indication from a network that I have received a message, I may have to log in to that network to respond.
Note that I’m separating this proliferation of email systems from the issues of dataportability and data ownership. While I understand the technical relationship and importance of standardization, the fact remains that, instead of one or two email systems, I now have a dozen or more that I can conceivably use to communicate with friends and colleagues.
Another issue that is creating greater fragmentation of web based communications is well documented by the ReadWriteWeb post The Conversation Has Left the Blogosphere. Just as email-type messaging is fragmenting, so too are the tools available for searching through, filtering, and keeping track of the various content-based communications and conversations that are now web enabled. Comments and discussions that would formerly have been linked as comments to blogs or web sites are now occurring at a variety of locations throughout the web, including on social networks such as Facebook, on communication services such as Twitter, and within feed aggregation systems such as FriendFeed.
How does one keep up with such widely dispersed discussions? How can you filter and assess what people are saying about the topics that interest you?
When I first read the list of RSS based services provided in The Conversation Has Left the Blogosphere I burst out laughing. The conclusion I reach is that it’s impossible to keep up given not just the variety of tools but also the constantly changing platforms that are becoming available.
In the real, practical world, what does one do to keep up with events that are important to one’s personal or professional life?
What some people are doing is, increasingly, limiting their intake of information to channels that they know, trust, and can manage. But how do they select such channels?
I suspect that what is happening is that many people are going with the “leaders.” Say what you will about the “long tail,” but I think that a rational response to too much information is to look around and get recommendations based on what other people are reading, watching, and listening to. That means that “known names,” “A-listers,” and “media stars” may be garnering a lion’s share of the attention economy. They make it easier for the rest of us to keep up by reducing the channels we need to monitor. An added bonus: the stars know how to manipulate the system to maximize their exposure through intelligent wording, tagging, timing, promotion, and blatant begging for Diggs.
Ironically, the sheer volume and complexity of proliferating “conversation channels” may be pushing us into what we experienced in the heyday of mainstream media — a few channels and opinion leaders having inordinate influence over what the rest of us see and hear.
The ease with which new products, services, and systems can be rushed to market and adopted by a critical mass of early adopters may also be exacerbating this situation. For example, new social networks make it easy to “invite” new members through importation of email address books. Once there, social and professional relationships develop that reinforce group identity and awareness. The value that emerges makes the innovative characteristics of the new system worth the incompatibilities it now has with other networks and systems. And so on and so on.
Is it too late to reverse this “fragmentation” of the web?
I’m not sure how serious the situation really is for non-geeks. One of my hobbies is studying the history of science. I’m also intersted in technology has impacted professional and scientific communication over the centuries, starting with the impacts of moveable type, the proliferation of printing presses, and the rise of scientific societies and the publishing of research.
Each succeeding generation has had to deal with an increasing proliferation of recorded content to remain abreast of what’s happening in a field of science. Advances in knowledge creation have led to specialization and formation of societies and groups that share specialized information among a select few.
Management of steadily increasing volumes of information has always involved a close interrelationship between advances in technology and the evolution of control through personal, social, and professional relationships and educational processes. Even though the pace of creation and dissemination has continued to accelerate, the control that experts, knowledgeable individuals, and other influential has always been exerted over how information is created, disseminated, and used.
Given the incompatibilities and fragmentation I’ve described here, it’s no surprise that someone like a Scoble can maintain influence in geekdom starting with blogs and moving though other channels including conferences and seminars, Twitter, and online video.
But we can’t all be Scoble. And we can’t all make sense of that laughably long list of tools presented in the ReadWriteWeb article.
I think we’re in for some interesting times as our ability to communicate via the web becomes increasingly fragmented and forces people to make — hopefully rational — decisions about what communication and networking channels they use for creating, communicating, and maintaining relationships.
The danger is that what might evolve are two classes of individuals, the haves and have nots. The haves will understand how to traverse the different systems and networks and take advantage of them, while the have nots will restrict — or have restricted for them — their communications and relationships to a much narrower range of options.