if you're bored, you're not paying attention

The livable web manifesto.

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.

Even Digg, Reddit, and Del.icio.us can’t help much — the bigger they get, the more they contribute to the information overload they’re designed to filter.

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.


  1. You Mon Tsang

    This is an important goal for technologists.

    Growing up, I had the local papers, broadcast TV and the magazines at the newspaper stand. The world was small.

    When the world is exploded into so many little pieces, there has be to a way to put them back into comfortable and comforting “webs.” I believe people crave small-scale interactions and human-scale bundles.

    Dylan, you dropped this thought on me a few weeks ago and it’s be very distracting. I will be thinking about this one more in the coming weeks.

  2. whoopee

    there is a “livable web”, its your ability to get up and walk away. millions and millions of people treat the web as a utility with no problems because they either have other things to do or they do not expect media technology to fulfill them. its the dataholics who complain of datasmog. really, what is it you are expecting from the web? don’t you realize that all the chatter about social computing is just hot air?

  3. Dylan

    Whoopee, if the web were nothing more than a vehicle for entertainment and occasionally useful information (as TV has become), I’d say your approach is just the right one. However, I think there’s an untapped potential that is going unfulfilled because it is (or can be) too hard to assemble and manage useful information. Suppose, for example, you needed to manage a hurricane relief effort — would you use the web? Or in a less inflammatory way: Suppose you were a reporter or blogger tracking corporate accounting fraud. Are the web’s existing tools sufficient to keep you on top of this topic?

  4. David Jensen

    You write that we need less information not more, which is a bit of an oversimplification. What people and business crave — mostly silently — is information that is relevant to their needs, both spoken and unspoken. That could mean more genuinely useful information (which can be entertainment) that filters into them from the Internet. You are exactly on target on the limitations of the existing search engines and their data smog. But how do you build a mechanism that can deliver the product you envision?

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