The Narrowcast Internet

Most new blogs I start reading, I find through blogs and people I follow on Google Reader. And most of these I add while using a computer and not my phone, but I do use Google Reader on both. I almost never look at Google Buzz unless I am using My6Sense, and because 3G coverage is patchy and slow, I watch video over WiFi, either on my mobile or my computer.

The types of content don’t really change from one device to the next, but how I experience, find or explore content, which software, applications, platforms I use, and where and how I connect do. The people I am connected to, how and where I search, the connection stability and speed and the specifics of the device I use all affect how and what I consume online.

There is more than one way to find or do things online. Publication is easier than ever and the Internet has an almost unlimited capacity for content. TV and radio only ever had 24 hours per day to fill, newspapers have a set number of pages, and the market could only sustain a limited number of these entities. Online, these limitations don’t exist; there is always space to publish just about anything. If the content created is good enough for the user, it is attention that matters, not the platform.

Some of the best business models online involve providing a platform (Facebook, Apple App Store), a search engine (Google, YouTube) or some form of aggregator (Flipbook, Netflix). Companies like DemandMedia are the exceptions that prove the rule. Their content production model works, both before and after Google’s Panda Update (an algorithm change targeting ‘low quality’ content, which may or may not be ‘content farms’), because it is integral to their attention and audience building strategy.

What shapes the users experience of the Internet

What shapes the user's experience of the Internet

Many of the things that influence a user’s online experience, how they search and explore, and the information they consume fit into one of these broad categories:

  • Infrastructure
  • Connection Speeds and Stability
  • ISP
  • Application & Address Layer
  • Devices
  • Software
  • Navigation & Discovery

A user’s experience of the Internet is shaped as much by these as by many other factors: how they find new content, the software they use, the device used, how it connects to the internet, the ISP. There are also many other services running in the background, just out of sight, such as the DNS provider, application layer and physical hardware, which also affect the end user experience. Their impact can be as dramatic as an Armenian woman cutting two optic-fibre cables or as subtle as connection speed and stability.

Sites and Portals, Clients and Servers

There is a brillant image on Doc Searls Weblog, from the post A sense of bewronging. It is a photo of a cow and a suckling calf. Doc Searls used it in a slide deck to illustrate the relationship between users and sites on the commercial web:

It’s a calf-cow model. As calves, we request pages and other files from servers, usually getting cookie ingredients mixed in, so the cow can remember where we were the last time we suckled, and also give us better services.

Online search, commercial websites and social and advertising networks now track user behaviour and information better than ever and adjust their content to suit. This trend is neither new nor limited to Google and Bing’s forays into personalised search.

Arguably this is not in the best interest of the users, especially in search. Social signals might be handy for finding a restaurant, but their value declines as the information falls further and further outside of the social network’s aggregated sphere of competence. For example, the sites a creationist might like would be utterly pointless for a query on evolutionary biology, even if the text includes the same terms.

These one-sided relationships are not just limited to the commercial web, but extend to hardware, software, the ISPs we use and ultimately to the digital and physical infrastructure of the Internet. Individual users are being moved away from an objective Internet. Tools like Google, Bing, Twitter, News.me, Facebook, and any other platform or service that serves content person by person are creating a siloed, Narrowcast Internet.

The Why and How

Search is credited with being THE way people find information online. Algorithmically generated lists of links, paid or otherwise, account for a significant amount of traffic on the Internet. Despite indexes full of optimised commercial content and with declining search literacy (Trust Online: Young Adults’ Evaluation of Web Content), arguably no motive for the search engines to provide more than An Adequate Search Result, search is still seen as the best way to find new information.

Search Engine Result Pages (SERP) are not the only place people spend their time or discover new stuff. Hitwise’s ‘Top 20 Sites & Engines’ report for the US datacentre indicates a more nuanced picture of online behaviour. The top five most visited sites for the week ending 23rd April 2010 were:

  1. Facebook
  2. Google
  3. Youtube
  4. Yahoo! Mail
  5. Yahoo!

The top five for Hitwise’s ‘Top 20 Sites & Engines’ (week ending 23rd April 2010) report from their Australia datacentre was not all that different:

  1. Google
  2. Facebook
  3. Youtube
  4. Windows Live Mail
  5. ninemsn

Portals, social media and email sites matter as well as search, either web or video. Other discovery modes such as link sharing via social media, email and outbound links on articles are as important for generating attention and an audience as a listing on a Search Engine Results Page (SERP). The post, New Microsoft Advertising Study on “Living with the Internet”: What’s driving web behaviour? on the Microsoft Advertising Blog makes the point based on their research that users:

…start our sessions in what I would call our intimate zones seeking personal information and contact through email, social networks, blogs etc.

Curation matters, especially online, and curating requires choice. Linking, displaying, referring to content inadvertently prejudices the user against what they don’t see. The link a friend would tweet or email you to answer a question might not be the first one you would find on a Google results page. The product description you see in a company’s iPhone app can vary from the one on their Facebook page. Site content and ads can change depending on the device being used too. What a user finds to answer a question or complete a task does change depending on how they find it.

Search and curation

Search and curation

There are a number of different ways a user can navigate from one place to another online. Non-digital media directs users to new information, so do kinds of feeds delivered through single or multiple source applications like News.me, last.fm and The Australian’s app. Most navigation modes fall into one of the following groups:

  • Search Algorithmic Link
  • Search Paid Link
  • Shared Link/Bookmark Link
  • Non-Search Paid Link
  • Unpaid Link
  • Personally Bookmarked
  • Direct Feed API
  • User Entered Destination

Motives, Devices and Further Fragmentation

User intent plays a huge role in determining which tools they use and how. Microsoft’s ‘Living with the Internet’ report identified six different motives for the majority of online activity:

  • Communication
  • Information
  • Entertainment
  • Surfing
  • Transaction
  • Creation

The report explored the different motives behind Internet use by PC, laptop and netbook compared to smartphone and tablet devices. The smartphone and tablet users from the report focused on fewer motives per session than those using laptops and desktops. Mobile and tablet users were also less likely to cite entertainment and transaction motives for their time spent online.

Differences in the device’s interface, screen size and the user’s concurrent activities all probably contributed to this pattern, at least in the population studied. Ease of managing multiple browser tabs and applications probably plays a role in differentiating behaviour from one device to another. Keyboard versus touch or phone keypad input is another factor.

Mobile Matters

A post called ‘Some Milestones We Will See This Year in Mobile Statistics’ on the Communities Dominate Brands blog bought up some interesting figures on the 4.6 billion actual mobile phone handsets in use last year, along with a few interesting predictions for the coming year.

Last year, of the 4.6 billion mobile phones in use:

  • 96% of all phones in use worldwide have at least a basic browser
  • 71% of all phones in use had a ‘real’ web browser that was HTML compatible
  • 59% can do basic apps via Java or Brew

Mobile devices are becoming an even more significant part of the user’s experience of the Internet. If all you have to use the internet with is a phone, you can’t play EVE online, WOW or run Steam. If you only use a desktop, you don’t get to use augmented reality. Use a dumb phone, and chances are you are restricted to WAP or a seriously impaired experience on non-mobile optimised sites. However, if you are using a smart or feature phone, you can access a different application ecosystem, and use location and augmented reality tools.

Cows all the way down

Our virtual world is a network of inter-dependent nodes hostage to Armenian women cutting cords, governments building walls or flicking switches, unreliable networks, hosting companies cutting cords, domain names taken down, and so much more.

A user’s experience and the information they find is the result of a large number of factors. Online services are diversifying and use more signals and cues for sorting and curating information, creating billions of different user experiences. Each of these experiences is a result of the many layers of dependencies and gatekeepers between the user and the rest of the Internet, from the hardware they use to how the information is placed in front of them.

To borrow that mental image from Doc Searls, it’s cows all the way down.

Works in online marketing, runs on coffee and has a web design background. I maintain a few blogs to collect ideas and interesting stuff about the Internet, marketing online, coffee and technology.
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