Are we are evolving our contract with society through our increasing interactions with digital platforms, and in particular, through what we’ve come to call the web?
I believe the answer is yes. I’m fascinated with how our society’s new norms and mores are developing – as well as the architectural patterns which emerge as we build what, at first blush, feels like a rather chaotic jumble of companies, platforms, services, devices and behaviors.
Here’s one major architectural pattern I’ve noticed: the emergence of two distinct territories across the web landscape. One I’ll call the “Dependent Web,” the other is its converse: The “Independent Web.”
The Dependent Web is dominated by companies that deliver services, content and advertising based on who that service believes you to be: What you see on these sites “depends” on their proprietary model of your identity, including what you’ve done in the past, what you’re doing right now, what “cohorts” you might fall into based on third- or first-party data and algorithms, and any number of other robust signals.
The Independent Web, for the most part, does not shift its content or services based on who you are. However, in the past few years, a large group of these sites have begun to use Dependent Web algorithms and services to deliver advertising based on who you are.
A Shift In How The Web Works?
And therein lies the itch I’m looking to scratch: With Facebook’s push to export its version of the social graph across the Independent Web; Google’s efforts to personalize display via AdSense and Doubleclick; AOL, Yahoo and Demand building search-driven content farms, and the rise of data-driven ad exchanges and “Demand Side Platforms” to manage revenue for it all, it’s clear that we’re in the early phases of a major shift in the texture and experience of the web.
The dominant platforms of the US web – Facebook, Google, and increasingly Twitter- all have several things in common, but the one that comes first to my mind is their sophisticated ability to track your declarations of intent and interpret them in ways that execute, in the main, two things. First, they add value to your experience of that service. Google watches what you search, where you go, and what advertising you encounter, and at near the speed of light, it provides you an answer.
Facebook does the same, building a page each time you click, based on increasingly sophisticated data and algorithms. And Twitter is hard on its parents’ heels – to my mind, Twitter is the child of Google and Facebook, half search, half social. (Search’s rich uncle is the explosion of “user generated content” – what I like to call Conversational Media. Facebook’s rich uncle is clearly the mobile phone, and texting in particular. But I digress….as usual.)
Secondly, these services match their model of your identity to an extraordinary machinery of marketing dollars, serving up marketing in much the same way as the service itself. In short, the marketing is the message, and the message is the service. We knowingly go to Facebook or Google now much as we go to the mall or the public square – to see and be seen, to have our intent responded to, whether those wishes be commercial or public expression.
When we’re “on” Facebook, Google, or Twitter, we’re plugged into an infrastructure (in the case of the latter two, it may be a distributed infrastructure) that locks onto us, serving us content and commerce in an automated but increasingly sophisticated fashion. Sure, we navigate around, in control of our experience, but the fact is, the choices provided to us as we navigate are increasingly driven by algorithms modeled on the service’s understanding of our identity. We know this, and we’re cool with the deal – these services are extremely valuable to us. Of course, when we drop into a friend’s pictures of their kid’s Barmitzvah, we could care less about the algorithms. But once we’ve finished with those pictures, the fact that we’ve viewed them, the amount of time we spent viewing them, the connection we have to the person whose pictures they are, and any number of other data points are noted by Facebook, and added to the infinite secret sauce that predestines the next ad or newsfeed item the service might present to us.
Now I’m not against the idea of scale, or algorithmic suggestions – in particular those driven by a tight loop of my own actions, and those of my friends (in the case of Google, my “friends” are ghost cohorts, and therein lies Google’s social problem, but that’s grist for another post).
But there is another part of the web, one where I can stroll a bit more at my own pace, and discover new territory, rather than have territory matched to a presumed identity. And that is the land of the Independent Web.
What’s My Independent Identity?
What happens when the Independent Web starts leveraging the services of the Dependent Web? Do we gain, do we lose, or is it a push? We seem to be in the process of finding out. It’s clear that more than ads can be driven by the algorithms and services of the Dependent Web. Soon (in the case of Facebook Open Graph, real soon) Independent sites will be able use Dependent Web infrastructure to determine what content and services they might offer to a visitor.
Imagine if nearly all sites used such services. As they stand today, I can’t imagine such a world would be very compelling. We have to do a lot more work on understanding concepts of identity and intent before we could instrument such services – and at present, nearly all that work is being done by companies with Dependent business models (this is not necessarily a bad thing, but it’s a thing). This skews the research, so to speak, and may well constrain the opportunity.
The opportunity is obvious, but worth stating: By leveraging a nuanced understanding of a visitor’s identity, every site or service on the web could deliver content, services, and/or advertising that is equivalent in relevance and experience as the best search result is to us today. The site would read our identity and click path as our intent (thus creating the “query”), then match its content and service offerings to that intent, creating the “result.” Leveraging our identities, Independent Web sites could more perfectly instrument their sites to our tastes. Sites would feel less like impersonal mazes, and more like conversations.
But is that what we want? It depends on the model. In a Dependent Web model, the data and processes used to deliver results is opaque and out of the consumer’s control. What we see depends on how the site interprets pre-conceived models of identity it receives from a third party.
Consider how most display advertising works today. As we roam the web, we are tracked, tagged, and profiled by third parties. An increasingly sophisticated infrastructure is leveraged to place a high-probability advertising match in front of us. In this model, there is no declared intent (no “query”) – our presence and the identity model the system has made for us stands in for the query. Because there is no infrastructure in place for us to declare who we might want to be in the eyes of a particular site, the response to that query makes a ton of assumptions about who we are. Much more often than not, the results are weak, poor, or wasted.
Can’t we do better?
For purposes of this post, I’m not going to wade into what many consider the threat of “our privacy being breached” as more and more personal data is added to our Dependent Web identity models (the ongoing debate about tracking and disclosure is robust, but not what I’m getting at here). Instead I see a threat to the overall value of our industry – if we continue to graft a Dependent Web model onto the architecture of the Independent Web, we most likely will fail to deliver the value that we all intuit is possible for the web. And that’s not good for anyone.
As consumers, we understand (for the most part) that when we are on Dependent sites, we’re going to get Dependent results. It’s part of a pretty obvious bargain. On Facebook, we’re Facebook users – that’s our identity in context of Facebook. But out on the Independent web, no such bargain has yet been struck. On Boing Boing, the Huffington Post, or Serious Eats, we’re someone else. The question is – who are we?
I Am What I Say I Am, For Now…
The interplay between Dependent and Independent services may set the table for a new kind of identity to emerge – one driven not by a model of interaction tracked by the Dependent Web per se, but rather by what each individual wishes to reveal about who they are, in real time. These revelations may be fleeting and situational – as they so often are in the real world. If I alight on a post about a cool new mountain bike, for example, I might chose to reveal that I’m a fan of the Blur XC, a bike made by the Santa Cruz company. But I don’t necessarily want that information to presumptively pass to the owner of that site until I read the post and consider the consequences of revealing that data.
Let’s presume, for sake of argument, that the biking site has deeply integrated Facebook’s Open Graph (the way that, for example, Yelp or TripAdvisor does). When I show up, that site will know I’m a fan of Santa Cruz (let’s assume I have “fanned” the Blur XC on Facebook) and surface all sorts of articles and services related to that information. Somehow, that doesn’t feel right. It’s not that I don’t want the site to know that I like Blurs, it’s that I want to reveal myself to a new community on my own terms (and every media site is, at its heart, a community). In this example, the Dependent Web does the revealing for me. I’m not sure that’s a good thing for our industry. It runs counter to how people are wired to work in the real world.
Creating such a nuanced instrumentation of identity and how it might be conveyed across the Web seems a long way off, but I’m not so sure it is. It starts with taking control of your own identity in the Independent Web (for more on that, read A. Dash – from 8 years ago…). Who we believe we are in the world is pretty fundamental to being human, and as we bleed our actual identity into our digital one, it’s worth recalling that so far, at least, we don’t have a system that lets us really instrument who we are online in a fashion that scales to the complexity of true human interaction.
Let’s take that last bike scenario and play it out in the “real world.” Instead of alighting on a post on some random web site I’ve stumbled across, let’s say I’m having a coffee at a local bakery, and I overhear a group of guys talking about a bike one of them recently purchased. I don’t know these guys, but I find their conversation (the equivalent of a “post”) engaging, and I lean in. The guys notice me listening, and given they’re talking in a public place, they don’t mind. They check me out, reading me, correctly, as a potential member of their tribe – I look like a biker (tribes can recognize potential members by sight pretty easily). At some point in the conversation – based on whether I feel the group would welcome the interjection, for example – I might decide to reveal that I’ve got a Blur XC. That might get a shrug from the leader of the conversation, or it might lead to a spirited debate about the merits of Santa Cruz bikes versus, say, Marin. That in turn may lead to an invitation to join them on a ride, and a true connection could well be made.
But until I engage, and offer new information, I’m just the dude at the next table who’s interested in what the folks next to me are talking about. In web parlance, I’m a lurker. As I lurk, I might realize the guys at the next table are sort of wankers, and I’m not interested in riding with them. I have the sense that this model of information sharing is, at its core, the way identity in what I’m calling “The Independent Web” should probably work. If, however, the Independent Web uses Facebook and/or Google services to determine what content to show me when first alight on a site, the model will be quite different.
A Third Way – The Revealed Identity?
I sense an opportunity to create a new kind of social identity for us to leverage around the web, one that is far more personal and instrumented than a Facebook profile or a Google cookie. It’s an identity that is independent of the one we’ve cultivated on Dependent platforms, but not necessarily separate from them. We can chose to include our Dependent Web profiles, but we don’t have to. At the moment, the model seems pretty black or white. If I’m logged into Facebook and the site I visit is using Facebook’s services, that site knows more about me than probably most of my friends do.
In other words, perhaps it’s time for a Revealed Identity, as opposed to a Public or Dependent Identity. As human beings wandering this earth, we certainly have both. Why don’t we have the same online?
I think it’s worth defining a portion of the web as a place where one can visit and be part of a conversation without the data created by that conversation being presumptively sucked into a sophisticated response platform – whether that platform is Google, Blue Kai, Doubleclick, Twitter, or any other scaled web service. Now, I’m all for engaging with that platform, to be sure, but I’m also interested in the parts of society where one can wander about free of identity presumption, a place where one can chose to engage knowing that you are in control of how your identity is presented, and when it is revealed.
One thing I’m certain of: Who I am according to Google, or Facebook, or any number of other scaled Dependent Web services, is not necessarily who I want to be as I wander this new digital world. I want more instrumentation, more nauance, and more rights.
The question is, however, how to create that better service? Is it in the commercial interests of the dominant Dependent Web players to do so? Are there startups working on this right now who already have the answers?
I think how we manage these questions will define who we are at a very core level in the coming years. As Lessig has written, code becomes law. It took tens of thousands of years for homo sapiens to develop the elaborate social code which defines how we interact with each other in the real world. I’m fascinated with the question of how we translate that code online.
(I’m not certain where I’m going with this post, but as I said it’s an itch I wanted to scratch. I know I’ve not done the reading I should in the topic, and I’m hoping readers might point me in useful directions – further reading, people to meet, companies to watch – so I might get a bit smarter and refine my thinking. This is all, of course, pointing me toward the “next book” which, as books tend to do, is not exactly writing itself.)