Being able to pass relevant information from one person to another has always been part of the evolution of mankind. When there was no technology we used storytelling. People would listen to the oldest, wisest, craziest people in their community to hear about the past or the future. Families used storytelling to teach children their heritage. Slowly drawings were added to this information passing, possibly starting with the earlies cave drawings. Where storytelling was used for 1 to 1 or 1 to a few connections, the ability to draw lead to more persistent information passing. From symbols we went to pictures and written language. Storytelling remained as an important way of sharing information but we added letters and manuscripts to it. Manuscripts were copied by writing them down again. Each manuscript was unique in its own.
With the introduction of printing technology things changed rapidly. Now books could be copied much quicker and at much lower costs. Again, the storytelling remained, but books and newspapers made the information passing process faster and simpler. The technology developments that lead to the telephone lead to the possibility to share information real-time without the need of being at the same location. Much later, the mobile version was created, allowing communication without a fixed position. These different technologies allowed 1 on 1/few/many information passing.
Computer technology gave us the ability to communicate electronically via chat and e-mail. And with the introduction of Internet technology, the possibility to make information accessible to anyone on the net became a reality. The first version of the Internet was a static library of information. Web pages were added and the most important problem to solve was how to find the right information. Information became clustered in web portals, and finding information using search was invented. The cost of information creation/storage dropped to nearly zero and left us with infinite amounts of information, creating the problem of finding the right information.
Web 2.0 provided us technology to tackle this. Partially by clustering people and information into communities. It also gave us user generated content. Instead of companies or professionals, everyone could now create information, video, audio, pictures, and share it with the whole world. the Internet changed from a static library of information into a dynamic world of opportunities. Everyone can now become a storyteller by simply starting a weblog. The subscription to a magazine or newspaper has now been replaced by RSS subscriptions to weblogs. And to structure this world full of dynamic information we need new ways of finding the relevant stuff.
Search engines work to a certain extend but cannot deal with our urge to have instant access to something created right now. the information flow needs to be real-time. The response of web companies is to provide near real-time tools for information flow. With services like Twitter, Jaiku, Pownce, we get real-time many to many conversations. And for our convenience of finding the right information we now have content aggregators that find all relevant content for us. Often specialized for a specific content type and using a computer algorithm (e.g. TechMeme provides us with the latest in Tech news using a special algorithm). Facebook providing us near real-time access to what our friends are doing. Or Friendfeed, a content aggregator that lets people do the content aggregation. By subscribing to people we know, find interesting or trust, Friendfeed provides you with the content those people like.
But the problem of finding the right information is of all times. Just look back into history (not just my short, inaccurate, and incomplete summary😉 ) and we can see that finding the right stuff is a problem of all times. We now have nearly unlimited computer power and storage capabilities, but that leads to nearly unlimited (and often unclassified) amounts of information too.
So the question becomes, what is next? I can’t look any better into the future than you can, but I have a tendency to look at the past and try to see if human nature can provide us with clues for the future. I believe that we haven’t seen the end of content aggregation or search engine algorithms yet. Simply because the web business model drives us there.
All that content aggregation really does is reposition, reclassify or reorganize content that is already out there on the web. Whether it is done by a computer algorithm in the case of TechMeme, or done by people, in the case of Friendfeed. But you can easily spot a few problems with aggregation. First of all, if content aggregation tries to be complete, all it does is try an attempt to get all the content out there back into one place. The more content it aggregates the more difficult it becomes to find the interesting stuff from the pile. The signal to noise ratio drops to the level of the entire web. We quickly need search algorithms and noise filters to get to the good stuff.
If content is aggregated using people, then we get a “democratic” version of the web. It filters out the stuff that the community likes best, leaving the more obscure or less liked stuff behind us. But I’m no so sure that the stuff that comes up this way is always the best stuff. If anything, democracy principles to select information, also leads to predictable and similar content. There isn’t room for obscurity or weird stuff. The people that are in such communities will end up selecting only part of what is out there, governed by themselves and the social community they are part of.
Web 2.0 technology and business models are aiming at the masses, large communities with millions of members, enormous content aggregators with uncountable amounts of content. But I believe that a large part of the Internet population will end up getting lost in this new digital universe. It is like the Star Trek computer that Captain Picard can talk to. It has all the information, but what if we simply don’t know the right question to ask?
Content aggregation is the new thing now. But the problem we should be solving isn’t the many to many flow of information. It is the one to a few, or few to a few that needs to be tackled. I doubt I’ll ever need to know about all the content that is out there. It is just a small part of it that I’m interested in. Content aggregation, no matter what form is used only leads to more content leading to noise, filtering and search. Social networks allowing us to connect to the entire world leave us with too many connections and too much information. It leads to more than we can handle. It leads to so much information, tagged and targeted, that the information itself becomes less valuable.
And when people get lost, they will simply return to their human nature. They will look out for the oldest, wisest, or craziest people out there. I don’t think the world needs more information. We don’t need any more or better content aggregation, search algorithms or noise filters. We need more inspiration. We need storytellers (and that will be the topic of another post).
What do you think? Where do you get your inspiration from? Are there any storytellers out there we should know about?