Bram Pitoyo, Interlude, Links

If We’re In A Symbiotic Relationship With The Web, It Should Evolve With Us

Last week, I posed the idea that websites should be thought organically, much like how we think of each other as living, breathing people. For example, if we act differently when we’re at work, at home and at night outs with friends, and change our outfits depending the season and time of year, then websites should do the same. By the way, this is technically achievable by using a Javascript, but we’re not going to talk about it at that level yet.

To start off, we’re going conceptual

If the web and web-centered communities becomes our second-life, and we interact with them as well as we interact with their meatspace equivalents, then the web should start behaving more like the way we do.

In other words, as our relationship with the web becomes more fluid and less rigid, the parallel between the way websites work and the way we work becomes more important than ever.

This is comparable to the move from the command line to the GUI. If you remember, back then, we had to adopt different metaphors and interaction models. For example: using a mouse to complement a keyboard, instead of just the latter. Sure, we had to learn a few concepts along the way, like “document window” or “multi tasking,” but it turned out that the GUI model fit our way of interacting with computers better.

A similar move happened when the web came. With the GUI and the said document window model, we’re used to text and images structured in a page-like format. The concept of referencing to another document without actually including that document in the text was, in our framework of interaction with computer, unfamiliar. Today, we call this “linking.” Similarly, the concept of including a snippet of object of a different type from the document format was unthinkable. Today, we call this “embedding.” To put it shortly: we learnt the concept of Hypertext document through the web.

In addition to adopting and learning, this also brought the idea of evolution into play. Sure, our physical bodies may not be evolving in the truest sense of the word. But mentally, we do. Look at us twenty–thirty years ago: comfortable with reading any book. Then look at us today: wishing that the text of the said book be more succinct and behave like a Wikipedia article, giving us related informations and references, accessible anytime we want it, without turning to the endnote. And “turning pages”? We wished we don’t have to, because on the web, we literally open sets upon sets of books in the browser tabs.

Does the browser tab concept make us more productive? Absolutely. Does it mirror the way we read articles in a print publication? No. But we adapt. We evolve.

Note how there is a tension here between what we can do online, but not in real life (like tabbing), and what we can do in real life, but not online (like making near-instantaneous, from-the-moment annotations, unencumbered by mouse clicks and keyboard taps.)

Anywho, my point was: with the coming of the web, we had to learn new models and change our behaviors in interacting with computers. But our lives are for the better thanks to new concepts like linking and embedding.

Let’s go on with the timeline.

I bet this is still fresh on your mind: when the social web arrived, we learn yet another sets of metaphors and interaction models. Banner advertising? Bah. Community management is the new way to get your product/service name out there, and we have to learn how to interact nicely with each other if we want to achieve anything. Again: we forget past behaviors (trolling forums, recruiting customers for “street teams” and “brand ambassadors”) and learn new ones (gathering users and developers around your brand, then service them the best you could.)

Not surprisingly, then, the web culture that we’re at today also require new metaphors. Even the terms have changed linguistically. “Democratizing information”? That’s so early web. The fact that any piece of information should be available everywhere, at all times, is a given. Today, we’re “decentralizing” and “distributing” them by using things like microformats.

And, not only that, the information should also have the ability to be remixed and spliced into what’s relevant for, out of all people, me. Because I don’t have all day to filter through all the information in the world, but I want to, and I want the cream to rise to the top.

See a trend here? We continually learn new interaction models in our relationship with technology and the web. And these interactions, although concerned mainly with computer, were always moving toward becoming more humane. This is a thread that runs consistently through these examples.

But if interactions are becoming more and more humane, why hasn’t the idea of the website evolve accordingly? Sure, models like Wiki and social network have changed this idea somewhat, but a website is, by and large, still thought of as a page. It could be as dynamic and malleable as it has never been before, but it’s still just a page, not an architecture/building. A page is a collection of codes, services, frameworks and design. An architecture/building is all that, with the underlying notion of space—to live, work, play and interact—included in it.

This was the reason why I wondered if we should start thinking about websites as architectures

An architecture can be a collection of foundations, exterior frameworks and interior designs, but it’s always thought of as an integrated whole, rather than the disparate parts. Watch a building being built, and you’ll see that, even though the workers and architect may be building one part of it at a time, they had a vision of how the building will look like and how the space will be used when the structure is finished.

In the same manner, a website can contain pieces of design, lines of code and mashups of services, but it shouldn’t just be thought of as “a collection”. We interactive designers, web developers and information architects need to bring spatial concepts like the psychology of space, and start thinking about how will the website be interacted with after it’s done.

The vocabularies need to change, too. A website should be architected (an all-encompassing, visionary process,) rather than designed (which implies a mainly visual process), coded (a foundational process) or assembled (a structural process.)

For now, here’s what I will do

I will change my vocabularies and consider things like the psychology of space when I describe and think about websites.

So try it, won’t you?

A note on interaction models: everything you need for the future is here

Go back to the “command line to GUI to the Web to the social web to Yahoo!Pipe” story above, and you’ll notice that new interaction models and metaphors were already invented when we used the old ones. They’re just waiting for the critical point in time in which our familiarity with the old models lead us to change and adopt new ones.

For example:

  • GUI was already invented when the command line was popular. In fact, various softwares at that time had things like a menu bar
  • Hypertext document was already applied to leading edge software development projects as we install our copy of WordStar from the floppy disks
  • The “social” features of the web (now called “2.0”) was there when the AOL Instant Messenger gained popularity
  • RSS is a rethinking of XML, which was already in use to display documents in many websites
  • Dapper is an API for any website. API grew in popularity with the rise of web application-as-service and open source

So, if history is correct, the interaction models that we will use and adopt widely tomorrow is already here today. I don’t think I found other shared characteristic of these possible models yet, other than the fact that they’re already invented.

What you can do today

  • Start examining how we interact with the web
  • Look around for some potential technologies that change this interaction
  • Then ask yourself this:

What’s the most natural extension of the way I interact with the web today?

The technology that provides this extension could be what we use in the future!