The Web has outgrown the ability of most people to use it effectively. Trying to find useful information via Google requires search savvy that most people don’t have.
Even if you know what you’re looking for, there are problems with spam, advertising, and context (for example, “haiku” gives you results pertaining to poetry, operating system programming, error messages, the encryption system used on DVDs, and knitting).
Personalized home pages like My Yahoo and broad-interest portals like MSN only help so much. The scope of possible interests and the universe of available information are both so vast that it’s extremely difficult to find an intersection between the two that will be relevant to more than a tiny minority of viewers. Thus, the vast number of stories on diets, mortgages, and Britney Spears that these sites’ home pages carry — these are easy base hits: low-brow, pop-culture, mass-media topics. Then there’s the sheer number of links that portals sport. Looking at Yahoo’s home page, it’s easy to be overwhelmed with options.
The fact is, the web as viewed through Google or Yahoo or Digg is just too big, too unfriendly, and too filled with data smog. What most people need is less information, not more.
I’m not proposing that we restrict access to the web through dumbed-down walled gardens, like those that most cell phone providers give to their customers with web-capable phones.
Instead, people need communities of information just like we need communities of people. We need livable webs — information spaces that not only filter data and give us what we’re interested in, but are also small enough and well-designed enough that we are comfortable in them, we can find our way around them, use them, and make connections within them.
In short, these spaces would be livable in the same way that a well-designed house is livable. The Google web is not livable in the same way that the middle of Times Square is not a tenable place to set up camp.
Now, people are already carving out their own livable webs as a matter of survival online. Some ways in which I’ve been creating livable webs are through my own blog, with Bloglines, with My Yahoo, with email lists, and in online groups.
But we can do better. We need:
- prefab, quality-controlled information spaces dedicated to specific interests, like what Boxxet provides, but on a wider range of topics and more customizability
- utopian info-communities like Wikipedia, but with better governance and fact-checking
- contextual search engines like Clusty, but with more fine-grained ability to make our own connections and track new information
- communities of content like MyBlogLog but with more robust collaborative tools
If we can build more livable webs for ourselves — “small webs” instead of the all-encompassing World Wide Web, human-scaled webs instead of the galactic scale Web — we can inhabit these online spaces comfortably, and use them for work and play. They will be jumping-off points for wider research into the unlimited expanses of the big-W Web.
Instead of suffocating data smog, with multiple channels of input (email! RSS feeds! IM! SMS!) we will be able to calmly survey the universe of information that matters to us and of people whom we care about, interacting with them as we want to, and going outside our individual webs when we need more.
What do you think — is this too much to ask? And how can we build such things? Because I am definitely feeling a bit overwhelmed by the size and number of the data channels available to me, and I don’t believe the answer is simply to unplug. I think that better, more livable information architecture is both necessary and possible. Let me know your thoughts.