Monday, October 20, 2008

The Centripetal Web - working for me

Nick Carr has some concerns about the status of the Web. He's worried that, as opposed to the good old wide-open, anything-goes days of the 90's, more and more of us are sticking to what we know:

for most of us, most of the time, the World Wide Web has become a small and comfortable place. Indeed, statistics indicate that web traffic is becoming more concentrated at the largest sites, even as the overall number of sites continues to increase, and one recent study found that as people's use of the web increases, they become "more likely to concentrate most of their online activities on a small set of core, anchoring Websites."
It's a legitimate concern - the days when I would just surf and surf and surf to see what came up are long gone. It was a great deal of fun finding new Web sites just to see what they were about. I remember checking out the "Cool Site Of The Day." Wow, you can actually BUY BOOKS at Amazon? How cool is that?!? At the time, it was a thrill. Now, not so much. I distinctly remember a conservation, around 1997, when someone told me something to the effect of "I don't just surf for fun anymore." I rarely do that anymore. Except on YouTube.

Looking back is looking backwards. Those good old days were sort of like the good old days of getting your driver's license, or going off to college, or moving to a new city. You spend some time exploring just for the thrill of experiencing the new. But eventually the new isn't new anymore, and you settle down and start being more productive.

I surf differently these days because the Web is structured very differently, but it's also structured much more according to my needs. I use four blogs on a regular basis: Andrew Sullivan, Talking Points Memo, Daily Kos, and Huffington Post. I use two newspaper sites:, and I use those sites for two reasons. 1, I trust the analysis, and 2, they are great aggregators of content from around the Web. They surf so I don't have to. Andrew Sullivan posts constantly, and on a wide variety of topics, not just politics. He's a one-man aggregator. I also surf to some of his compadres at The Atlantic, like Marc Ambinder and Megan McArdle, because I am already at TPM, Daily Kos, and HuffPost aggregate a fair chunk of content within their own sites. The NY Times and Washington Post are old-fashioned aggregators, with their people out in the field.

One reason I am concentrating on those sites right now is that I am, like most of the rest of the country, not to mention large slices of the rest of the world, focusing on the very big picture of who will be the next president. There are lots of issues that I would like to following in greater depth, but for the next couple of weeks, I am going to ignore them. Partially because I know they will be there when I come back to them.

Carr's cynicism runs throughout his post. One negative development of the conglomeration that we are witnessing, according to him, is that

people began to demonstrate their innate laziness, retreating from the wilds and following the increasingly well-worn paths of least resistance.
Reading Daily Kos is about the farthest thing from "the path of least resistance" I can imagine. We're talking about a Web site which practically screams at its readers about donating to and working for the latest great progressive candidates, and generates far more content in one day than any single person can read in their spare time. Some people are naturally lazy and will make very little effort to go outside their comfort zone. I would argue the opposite of Carr: on the Web, it's almost absurdly easy to go outside your comfort zone. On the Web, you can be both lazy and ridiculously well-informed at the same time. Whether or not any one person goes outside their comfort zone says far more about them than it does about the Web.

One thing Carr ignores is that it's not just the amount of information that is categorically different these days, but the kind. Outside of politics, I follow the movie industry. I play the Hollywood Stock Exchange. I am currently following about 1,400 different movies. Talk about content aggregation. That would not have been physically possible for someone outside of a movie studio to do before the Web. HSX has also inspired a number of fan sites that provide additional content. Project Genome follows every single movie on HSX. That's my favorite starting place for doing movie research. Once again, they are doing the aggregating for me, and I trust them to keep doing it.

Carr uses Wikipedia as an example of a content aggregator that fails to inspire, because it is usually "good enough." I would agree with that, but I would disagree about whether or not it is a problem. I use Wikipedia all the time, even though I know it's not necessarily the best site for any particular given topic. But I don't necessarily want the best site for any given topic. For many topics, I want a brief overview, a quick synopsis. This is because there are many things that I have a passing, but not deep, interest in. I don't have the time or inclination to study in great detail everything that I am curious about. Wikipedia works for me because I would like to know a little bit about a wide range of topics, and a great deal about a few. Wikipedia is absurdly good for five-minute conversations with a coworker about something that both of you have heard of, and that you would like to know a little more about. But not a lot.

Speaking of curiosity, Carr bemoans the impact making searches much easier:
When convenience meets curiosity, convenience usually wins.
I could not disagree more. Convenience and curiosity are, if anything, complementary, rather than contradictory. If it's much easier to find satisfy an intellectual itch, you are much more likely to scratch.

Part of the reason for certain sites being better at aggregating is simply the nature of community. I check out Daily Kos because they cover topics that I am interested in. That is also true for thousands of other people, so we all check it out. And then Daily Kos makes more money from its ads, and gets better at what it does. At this point, it's getting pretty darn good. This is the same reason amost everyone I know can recite the lyrics for dozens of Beatles songs: we all like them.

If we all gravitate towards the same content, that's because it says something to lots of us. Carr claims that the centripetal forces of the Web means "The center holds." I would switch one letter in that sentence: I would move the "s" from the end of "holds" to the end of "center," so that it would read "The centers hold." There is no one center of the Web. There are thousands. I'm sure there are dominant, aggregating Web sites for knitting, poodle owners, water skiers, and Dead Kennedy fans. Mr. Carr would do well to update his metaphors.


ITF said...

There's also the security concerns. I wouldn't surf the random web without NoScript.

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