The End of the Website

Jan 14, 2014

We often mistake the accidental for the essential.  We assume that, because something is a certain way that it had to be that way.  It seems natural and commonplace – a part of the settled order of things.

Take, for example, the webpage, the website and the web search.

A data visualization of Wikipedia as part of t...

A data visualization of Wikipedia as part of the World Wide Web, demonstrating hyperlinks (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The spatial metaphors of a website being a “destination” that I “navigate” to is an artifact of the way the World Wide Web happened to be built and evolve.  The organizing principle for the web was and is the webpage — a continuous, visible, scrollable block of text and images, created for human consumption and linked to other pages.  Interlinked pages in the same domain constitute a website and it is within the bounds of this website that copyright, trademark, privacy, commerce and security happen.  We are often warned when leaving a website for the open internet.

So too with web search.  It exists only because websites would otherwise be invisible to all but those with a URL.  Search is comprised of two concepts: the act of entering keywords and generating results, and the act of using the linked list to navigate to websites.  “Searching” — which used to imply that we lacked something or had perhaps lost something — is now an activity that billions of people do every day.

It is indeed remarkable how quickly 2 and 1/2 billion people acclimated to this search-and-navigate model of acquiring and communicating information, as if it were a given — a natural state of affairs built into the fabric of how the internet is supposed to work.  Using the internet means finding a link to navigate to a website, and navigating there.  This understanding pervades our thinking about the net, and we have known no other way since 1994.

But this unreflective, everyday understanding of the internet is not only an accident of technological history — it is about to change, and change radically.  What will force this change is:

  1. the mobile internet
  2. the internet of things and
  3. the search engines themselves

The mobile internet means that searching is over — at least, searching that commanded our visual field and intellectual focus.  The proper word for the new activity that we engage in with our phone might be querying, or simply “asking questions”.  In a mobile environment, we are not typically researching – we are solving problems and effectuating solutions whilst involved in a “real world” situation — shopping, conversing, working.  A search engine that returns its mobile user 3.2 million pages is doing him or her a disservice.

The mobile context is even less tolerant of a user interface that demands detailed inspection.  A website is not serviceable for the mobile user — what she wants is the video, the directions, the recipe, the part number, the appointment or the answer.  A website is anathema.

L’evoluzione di Internet of things

L’evoluzione di Internet of things (Photo credit: Casaleggio Associati)

The internet of things is only nominally about “smart devices” — thermostats, autos, clothing and other objects with sensors, processors and a communications link.  Rather, the internet of things means the disappearance of the user interface, and with it, anachronisms like websites.  Even the concept of “linking” changes in profound ways — links will often be tacit and embedded unobtrusively in my interaction with the thing.  Technology will have ‘dissolved into everyday life‘ and become part of ordinary instrumentation and affordances.

Finally, Google and Bing (and other search engines like Wolfram Alpha) are increasingly bypassing the website in favor of ‘delivering the goods‘ — providing the answer, the image or the definition that the user is interested in, often fabricated out of the linked data comprising the websites that are hyperlinked in the other 9 results.  This often takes the form of voice interaction – yet further afield from the notion of a webpage.  The denouement of is a web that is synthesized from the data themselves, on the fly and in direct response to the question asked.  The search engine interface already often goes proxy for the website, providing enough information to bypass plodding through some marketer’s notion of information architecture.

What will nit together the mobile internet, the internet of things and the mediated internet are ontologies and linked data.  It will literally allow us to make sense of the things in our world.  This is the importance of the work going on today at Thematix.

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