Happy Birthday, GUI

The World Wide Web as we know it is 10 years old this year. A decade ago a group of University of Illinois students, including Marc Andreessen, released a graphical browser for the Web, so pictures could accompany text. Indeed, the version designed to run on Microsoft Windows, so important to mass uptake, will be 10 next month. Where’s the party?

Pictures made the Web popular. Adoption and diffusion were rapid. They opened what is now a vast terrain for communications from, to, and among businesses and consumers, and today’s digital community is still busy proving and improving how practical and entertaining a GUI can be. The birth of a new marketplace is a major contribution to our consumer republic. We should be hailing heroes.

Perhaps we’re pooped out from irrational exuberance, the burst bubble on Wall Street’s dot-com mania, the economy-wide effects of the telecommunications industry implosion, the ongoing slump in business spending on technology assets, and a spreading and deepening disillusionment with the venality and malfeasance that seem pandemic in the uppermost echelon of American business.

The Web community itself is not helping. If the works assembled for the Cannes Lions awards are exemplary, the current oeuvre is essentially staid. Across the e-marketplace in every category, the glass is half full with best practice and half empty with imitation. It’s an inescapable fate. A two-faced stasis of best practice and imitation is the steady state of conventional thinking in every arena. The Web is no exception. Absent a creative explosion, maybe pictures per se aren’t worth celebrating.

Meanwhile, the prior and more radical invention of hypertext by Tim Berners-Lee — the nuggetizing of human knowledge into machine-readable information and the layering of that information onto a global mesh-like array of interconnected computers — is still a mystery. The “great out there” of cyberspace remains the frontier that needs exploring, and a science of this and other networks is just now emerging.

Of course, society has hands-on knowledge for how to operate its railroad, highway, air traffic, telephone, and electrical power systems (not without occasional glitches), but only recently have mathematicians, economists, sociologists, and others begun to create formal and systematic knowledge of how networks behave, why they behave in the ways they do, and how to manage them. Here’s a quick look at three dimensions that e-marketers should want to know a lot more about.

Collective Intelligence

One dimension of the great out there is collective intelligence. Historically, we’ve overestimated the value of network access to files on computers and underestimated the value of network access to other people. Thanks in part to collaborative filtering and other recommendation systems prevalent on the Web today, we’re all more aware of the Net’s ability to articulate dynamically collective opinions and preferences.

One leading edge in this area is that of the information market, an application in which an auction market is the mechanism for crystallizing its participants’ predictions and preferences. Customer-facing business uses, starting all the way upstream with product research and development, are just now in the experimental stage. Information markets are likely to proliferate because they work, ironically, for one reason: Humans, hooked together in this way to perform certain tasks, generate better answers faster and cheaper than brute machine computation can.

Similarly, humans linked to each other in nonformal ways are also proving fertile ground for cultivating and harvesting collective knowledge. The business discipline known as knowledge management has recently begun to use software to map email traffic among employees. It’s goal is to uncover the unofficial “communities of practice” that exist in every enterprise — to pinpoint which individuals function as experts, which as connectors, and which as gatekeepers and to understand and facilitate the workings of such collaboration webs.

Network Dynamics

Informal social networks are another leading edge on the Web. Social networking sites such as Friendster, LinkedIn, Ryze, and Spoke are tools for turning your friends’ friends into your own or your coworkers’ business acquaintances into your contacts, too. Unlike anonymous peer-to-peer file-swapping, these social networking sites offer trustworthy and credible personal referrals while masking the exact connection path to protect confidentiality and prevent abuse.

They wrap themselves in the widely known, initially provocative, but ultimately simplistic (and hence inadequate) six-degrees-of-separation concept. Actually, they are anchored in what sociologists call small-world phenomena — the preferential attachments that give rise to clusters, short cuts, and other contours of social networks — indeed, all networks.

Just as people are variously connected to each other, Web sites are not equidistant from each other. The Web is not flat. Degrees of linkage from one site to another vary, and some sites are much better linked than others. Those asymmetries are the source of Google’s success. The popular search engine counts each site’s links and presents the best-linked sites first. A surfer following links on his own would also find those same sites sooner than he would find others, precisely because those sites are the best linked. Google simply automates this process. Its effectiveness proves the Web is actually contoured in ways the science of networks is just beginning to understand.

Virtual Communities

A third dimension of the great out there to which marketers should attend is the online community. Everyone knows about user communities that gather in chat rooms and discussion forums to pursue shared interests, from hobbies to health problems. We know a lot more about how to improve the single user experience than the group experience, but we’re learning.

Obvious once someone smart points it out, the software design that enables virtual groups also largely defines those groups’ experiences. For example, a forum that enables a discussion to fork and branch encourages tangents and discourages focus. The design of IRC doesn’t allow chat rooms to be reserved, making a persistent conversation almost impossible. An online group gathered to make a decision needs to articulate the principles that govern its decision making, then translate those principles into rules for the group’s software infrastructure.

More interesting from the network perspective, the ability to find groups of Internet users who share a common interest may soon go beyond these publicly visible collectives. Researchers at the University of Chicago, using a proprietary method of graphing information across data distribution systems such as the Internet, have shown that, given a large enough sample, computer users can be grouped according to their common interests based only on their requests for data.

The marketing application is obvious: A scalable and adaptive method for graphing information requests to locate and deliver data could theoretically be used to target in real time the communities of interest those requests represent.

The GUI is yesterday’s news. The way forward is into cyberspace itself. We’re just beginning to explore and understand collective intelligence, network dynamics, and virtual communities. It will be some time before marketers celebrate any accomplishments on the French Riviera, or anywhere else. But with scientists on the hunt and technologists ready to implement, marketers would be smart to close the distance between our current knowledge and this rapidly advancing frontier.

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