Way back in November of 2003, when I was a much younger man and the world had yet to fall head over heels in love with Google, I wrote a post called The Database of Intentions. It was an attempt to explain a one-off reference in an earlier post – but not much earlier, as the “DBoI” post, as I call it, was just the sixty-third post of my then-early blogging career. (This is the 5,142nd, by comparison…)
I had, in fact, been ruminating on this concept for over a year, driven by an Holy Sh*t moment in late 2001 when Google introduced its first ever Zeitgeist round up of trending search terms. Scanning the lists of rising and declining terms, I realized that Google – not to mention every other search engine, ISP, and most likely every government – had in their grasp a datastream that, were they to just pay attention, could quite possibly be the most potent signal of human intentions in the history of the world.
Zeitgeist, it struck me, was proof that Google was indeed paying attention. I went on to write The Search, and Google went on to become, well, Google. My study of Google also led me to start Web 2, with Tim O’Reilly, and Federated Media, which I positioned as a media company that leveraged the impact of The Database of Intentions.
But over the past few years, as I’ve labored in the fields of digital media and marketing – mostly through my work at FM – I’ve come to revise my concept of what The Database of Intentions truly is. In my initial description, I limited the concept to web search and web search alone:
The Database of Intentions is simply this: The aggregate results of every search ever entered, every result list ever tendered, and every path taken as a result.
At the time, that certainly seemed like a big enough idea. No such artifact had ever existed, and its implications were massive. In my 2003 post, I continued:
This information represents, in aggregate form, a place holder for the intentions of humankind – a massive database of desires, needs, wants, and likes that can be discovered, supoenaed, archived, tracked, and exploited to all sorts of ends. Such a beast has never before existed in the history of culture, but is almost guaranteed to grow exponentially from this day forward. This artifact can tell us extraordinary things about who we are and what we want as a culture. And it has the potential to be abused in equally extraordinary fashion.
Search was a pristine signal, an eruption of oxygen in the anoxic ocean of the early web, and an entire ecosystem grew in its bloom. The first implication was already manifest: Google had launched AdWords and AdSense, Overture (later to become Yahoo Search Marketing) was thriving, and a burgeoning paid search ecosystem was in the early stages of becoming a multi-billion commercial expression of the Database of Intention’s power.
But as anyone who’s been reading this site already knows, web search as a pure signal has been attenuating of late – overwhelmed by the sheer magnitude of data on the web, for one, and secondly by our own increasingly complicated expectations.
Nature abhors a vacuum, and so does the Internet. In the past year I’ve come to the conclusion that “web search” was just the first of many fields in the Database of Intentions. For those of you who are not database geeks, and to further pad the metaphor, a field in a database is colloquially defined as a specific type of information in that database. Sets of fields are called records, and sets of records make up the database.
My mistake in 2003 was to assume that the entire Database of Intentions was created through our interactions with traditional web search. I no longer believe this to be true. In the past five or so years, we’ve seen “eruptions” of entirely new fields, each of which, I believe, represent equally powerful signals – oxygen flows around which massive ecosystems are already developing. In fact, the interplay of all of these signals (plus future ones) represents no less than the sum of our economic and cultural potential.
By now you’ve probably already guessed what these new signals might be. I’ve made a rudimentary chart, but to narrate:
(NB: i’ve updated the chart here with a field for commerce…)
The first signal, of course, was The Query. A query was a declaration of a very particular intent: What I Want from the web. Sure, it has many permutations – navigation, commerce, informational, etc. etc., but in essence, the goal was to find something you wanted. Hence the name search, after all.
The next signal to emerge is The Social Graph. With this signal we’ve declared not only Who We Are, we’ve also declared Who We Know. Both are powerful intent-driven declarations, and both have deep interplays with search. By manifesting who we are and who we know, we can find and be found by others.
The third signal emerged almost simultaneously with The Social Graph – The Status Update. This is a personal declaration of what we deem important, noteworthy, shareable: What’s on our minds, what’s happening, what’s worthy. Again, a powerful search signal, in particular in real time.
The latest signal is The Check-in – or Where I Am. This is a crowning declaration of intent, in a fashion, because it connects the physical to the virtual, securing the Database of Intentions to the terra firma of the Real World. As with the other three fields, the check-in – which I expect will soon become automatic via our mobile devices – is a vastly powerful signal of intent: “I am here. So what you got for me?”
Taken together (and honestly, there’s really no other way to think about it, to my mind), these signals form a Database of Intentions that is magnitudes of order larger, more complex, and more powerful than my original concept back in 2003. And while the current players in each category are clear, what’s also clear is that the battle is on to control each of these critical signals. Google, if you include its Local services, already plays in all of them, and I expect Microsoft will as well. Facebook may never play in “The Query,” nor will Twitter, but expect both to play in The Check-in, and soon. The newcomers? Well, most of us expect them to be acquired. Then again, that’s what we thought of Google in 2000, and Facebook in 2005. Why should Foursquare in 2010 be any different?
All of this begs a new definition of Search. I’ve often said that Search should not be defined by web search, but rather, by what a search is in the abstract. To my mind, each tweet or status update is a search query of sorts, as is each check-in and even each connection in the social graph. A more catholic definition of search would allow for a reconciliation of all these fields in the Database of Intentions. Regardless, it’s ever more obvious that while “traditional search” is reaching a plateau of sorts, at least in regards to how we understand its potential, when you add the new signals of social, status update, and check-in, we’re still in the very early stages of a distinctly punctuated phase of the Internet’s evolution.
I’m on the lookout for new Signals. I’m quite certain we’re not nearly finished creating them.
NB: As a creator and publisher of media, one very strong conclusion can be drawn from all of this. If you’re not viewing your job to be a curator, clarifier, interpreter, and amplifier of the Database of Intentions, you’re soon going to be out of business. The Database of Intentions is the fuel that drives media platforms, and as I’ve argued elsewhere, every business is now a media business.
NBB: My thanks to the folks at Adobe and Omniture for the forcing mechanism of my keynote earlier this week, where I first organized the thinking above.