Tuesday, January 25, 2005

Primary Purpose of the Web


red galax see Posted by Hello

Primary Purpose of the Web

Have you ever asked yourself, what is the primary purpose of the web?

Perhaps the best reply is: it depends on the person and their interests.

For ecommerce sites and online shoppers, the answer might be "bringing products and customers together to produce sales and satisfy consumer demand" or similar wording.

Research and new product development teams probably consider the web mainly as a way to collaborate and share data, view analysis reports, pose questions, transfer files, upload images, etc.

Those who seek information, ability to connect in some manner with people who are physically distant, or benefits of virtual communities built around common interests or attributes, might say the primary purpose of the web is "communication" but I have grim reservations regarding that word.

Paradoxically enough, the word "communication" doesn't always communicate the meaning that I'm seeking.

Let me cite a recent example...

Pure Communication vs. Practical Interaction

I agree with a statement by Peter Merholz: "Content is interesting only in the way it allows readers to successfully perform some task, while creators [of the content] achieve an organizational goal."

Talking just to talk, writing just to write, blogging just to blog, telephoning just to telephone, emailing just to email, all these activities are wastes of time.

I guess they're psychological symptoms of anxiety, frustration, guilt, and so forth, trying to fill an emptiness inside, or fear of feeling alone in a cold and uncaring world.

Still, keep in mind that content can also be information that is of value in and of itself. For example, when my mother-in-law spoke of "snow fleas" and I went to the snow fleas info at Cornell:


and "Students Probe Peculiar Ice Worms in Alaska's Glaciers" article in National Geographic News:


to learn more about them and their buddies the "ice worms"--both are abundant, obscure, unnoticed, and unstudied until recently.

Now the only task I will complete by having this content is to tell my wife that her mom was right: there is a such thing as "snow fleas" and there are also "ice worms"...then I'll scoop up a handful of snow, eat it, and say "And they taste great!!!"

Seriously though, while information can be a end in itself, I have trouble seeing "communication" being of value merely as an act. It depends on what is being communicated. It's like saying "sharing" or "expression" is a good in and of itself. Again, it depends on exactly what is shared or expressed, in what manner, in what context, and for what purpose.

For example, "self-expression" is horrible--when the self being expressed is the self of a serial killer, insane cannibal, child molestor, etc. I have no desire to read novels or look at art created by such monstrous individuals, no matter how technically great they supposedly are.

Communication is Not Necessarily Good

Here's how I responded to a comment on the article "Happy New Year from Adaptive Path" (Jan. 07, 2005) in the blog of Peter Merholz (of ADAPTIVE PATH):

Primary use of Internet is communication?

I'm afraid that can easily be interpreted in the old outmoded "broadcast", unilateral sense.

I prefer to think of the Internet as computers interacting with each other to enable humans to interact with each other, resulting in information exchange and task completions.

I like Peter's emphasis on accomplishing tasks.

Yet, communication is a word often deteriorating into blabbering, random chatter that merely kills time and lessens loneliness--as in the vanity blogs of digital diaries, which are doomed to perish soon from lack of readership and lack of stamina of the vanity bloggers.

As a Blogologist, this is my focus: blogs being what web sites were supposed to be, highly interactive, frequently updated, easily usable, quick to navigate hubs of information and modes of task accomplishment (e.g., ordering a product, contributing user generated content, etc.)

Communication as a Means to an End

Another way to look at it is that communication for its own sake, or as the highest goal, or the central focus, is missing the point.

The point is to accomplish something beyond communication.

Sure, there are people who call you on the phone "just to talk" but, unless you really love to hear yourself or others speak, no matter what the content is, this "communicating just to communicate" can be a senseless waste of time.

I like to talk about certain things. I like to read about certain things. But mostly, I prefer to learn about those things, or share my knowledge with those who seek it.

So communication is about, not simple conversation, but obtaining new information, or passing information on to someone who needs it.

Interaction Includes Sharing Information AND Completing Tasks

From where I sit, the primary purpose of the Web is to act as a "location" where we can interact with information and people, and also interact with functionalities that enable us to get things done.

This is why I am against "design for the sake of design" without proper, prioritized regard for user needs.

This is why I am against "chatter blogs" where people go on and on about boringly private details of their lives, tastes, and interests.

Titanic = Example of Design vs. Usability

John Maeda in his article "RSS Not Simple" in the archives of his SIMPLICITY blog


speaks of how the Titanic is a good example of designers arrogantly putting their interests above the needs of passengers (users).

The designers of the Titanic thought it was aesthetically in error to provide enough lifeboats for all passengers and crew. It would look ugly, all those horrid, mundane lifeboats hanging around, cluttering the ship.

Let's remember this the next time we design a web site, or create a personal blog site.


mantruc said...

Hi Steven

I followed your trail from peterme's blog...

When you say: "I prefer to think of the Internet as computers interacting with each other to enable humans to interact with each other, resulting in information exchange and task completions." That IS communication what you're talking about.

Broadcasting is just dumping information that can be useful or not to listeners. Communication needs interaction in order to happen. Cognitive Biologists Maturana and Varela defined Communication as "Behavior Coordination" in the 70s. The Internet allows people to reach each other and coordinate in this way: to communicate.

Take a blog for instance, if you post and I read, doing nothing with that, there's just information transfer. But if I leave a comment that allows us to discuss further the ideas and reach some conclusion that can be useful for at least one of us, then communication has happened.

steven edward streight said...

First, you have scored big points with me by telling me upfront how you came to this blog. I try to do that all the time, in emails, blog comments, etc. I always say, "Hello. I linked here from..." or "Hi. I saw your URL at..." or whatever.

Yes, there is valuable communication and meaningless communication. I don't mean to split hairs here or needlessly nitpick semantics, but I am strongly opposed to vanity blogs, chatterboxing, people who use interactive forums and email discussion lists as chat rooms.

You know, those one sentence postings, or when two people on a professional discussion list argue back and forth in a personal opinion or taste manner, and clog it up with useless information, making it hard to use as a resource for pertinent facts.