A whole lot of tubes
Most apparent behaviour on the Internet is a result of people attempting to complete a task using a distributed network of connections and tools. Not all of this takes place on the World Wide Web. There are a lot of different tools that use the Internet to locate, collate and move information, such as Kindle, iTunes, Steam and BitTorrent clients.
Even through the web, the methods used to locate and consume information are diverse. From search to portals to socially generated recommendations, there is a huge range of navigational nodes online that shape the user’s experience. Focusing on what information is consumed and where, rather than on what the user is trying to do, can be very myopic.
For example, what if the user wants to listen to music? With access to a computer and a browser they may go to YouTube, or the site of a band recommended in an email from a friend. With P2P software like a BitTorrent client they may use inbuilt search tools and download it via a peer network. They could also use iTunes to find, choose and purchase a song without touching a browser. Ultimately all these methods use the Internet, but only one is dependent on the World Wide Web. This does not even start to consider devices other than a traditional computer.
Nodes and Friction
Each mode of content location and acquisition uses a different set of nodes and they can range from invisible to obstructive. Each one is another opportunity for the gatekeeper of the node to create friction and shape experience. Search and social sites have contextual advertising, Internet Explorer treats incorrect URLs as search queries, DNS services can redirect mistyped or incorrect URLs and the iPad does not support Flash.
Nodes such as portal sites, search engines, social networks and applications such as Steam control and direct attention in different ways. Each gives the user different tools to discover content, with different levels of friction placed between the user and what they wish to do.
Some sites use a disruptive model and place ads in front of the user, using available data to tailor their ads. Applications like iTunes and Steam operate as shopfronts and work to minimalise frictions between the user and the buy button. They help the user find, acquire and consume the media with the least effort, and generate sales in the process.
Why attention matters more
The internet is an environment where there is almost limitless content and space to display it in. The scarcity is with attention. The limits on the size of the audience and the amount of time they spend online are far more immediate than potential advertising inventory. Unlike traditional media, the Internet does not have a page limit, nor is it restricted by spectrum or the number of hours in a day. The low cost of storing and moving data, the asynchronous nature of most content and the ability to generate more content automatically or through user activity changes its value. There is no value in just existing; there is no ‘only two papers in town’ or ‘only three TV networks’ online. Online, the value of a node is in how much attention it affects. Each one is an opportunity to distribute attention among the next group of nodes in the chain.
Why the Task Model
How most people use and access the Internet has changed over the last few years. The ubiquity of Internet capable devices is as significant a factor as the prevalence of fast and wireless home connections. While the Internet on a phone in some form is not new, large numbers of people with fast and easy access is. A proliferation of applications designed to give access to content independent of the World Wide Web is significant too.
Social networks, both formalised like forums and Facebook, and ad hoc such as email, will remain a factor, as well as portal sites like Yahoo! and search engines. These tools for content distribution and discovery are not being replaced, they are just being supplemented.
The user’s aims and knowledge determine their actions online. The channels they use do have an impact on the kinds of information they access, how they access it and how they locate new material. As the Internet becomes richer in content and tools, it will also continue to fragment and change. We have gone a long way from the Internet being tied to a desktop computer through just a browser or email client, but the user will always have a want or desire that they wish to meet, and they will use whatever tools are available to do it.