As the Web Fades Away

September 23, 2010

Joseph Janes

Growing up, my athletic prowess was legendary. Strong, graceful, fleet of foot, gifted in multiple sporting endeavors, and a role model to friends and rivals alike. I was also, coincidentally, third in line for the throne of France.

Seriously, I stank. I was a dork and physically untalented, didn’t care and hated it; gym class held terrors myriad and unspeakable. And the most soul-shriveling part? Picking teams, which still sends icy shudders through me.

I had a queasy reminder of those days from Wired’s September cover story “The Web Is Dead,” which informs us that as of 2010 the web only constitutes 23% of U.S. internet traffic, the same proportion as peer-to-peer (file sharing) and much less than video at 51%. Everything else, including e-mail, barely registers.

The piece makes sobering (and important) reading; here’s a few snippets to chew over: this shift denotes increased movement from the open web to the more closed platforms and networks of mobile devices, which also are Google-inaccessible and, handily, easier to generate revenue from. We also learn that the future will be “less about browsing and more about getting,” that fast beats flexible, and that reliability and seamlessness trump freedom and choice. Moreover “we favor the easiest path” (duh), and the “notion of the web as the ultimate marketplace for digital delivery is now in doubt” (gulp).

Scary little sound bites notwithstanding, what this means is that people are voting with their thumbs, and in so doing are choosing sides—gravitating toward special-purpose utensils (apps, gadgets, widgets, etc.) for things they want to do at the expense of general, multipurpose tools like the browser. Thus, less time (traffic, content, accessibility) is spent on the free, open, searchable, general-purpose web.

It follows that successful information services must be mobile-friendly or native, focused, fast, reliable, seamless, and easy. Does this describe anything we currently do or represent? I think “reliable” suits us well, and some things are “easy” or “focused” if rarely both simultaneously, but I struggle to think of a library function that satisfies all of those.

Here’s your assignment for the week: Take a service you’re responsible for (readers’ advisory, information literacy, catalog searching, whatever) and spend 30 minutes imagining how you could get it to move closer toward that list.

Readers’ advisory could be more seamless . . . if recommendations could be automatically generated from lists that patrons store in their accounts. Information literacy could be more focused . . . with a special-purpose app that new students could download at orientation. Catalog searching could be easier and more mobile-friendly if. . . . This is fun; try it! Be creative and don’t be afraid to think big—or small.

Notably, the Wired pieces overlook small matters such as quality, depth, fidelity, and their kin almost entirely. We know these things exist and have their audiences; those niches might well be left to us in this scenario, which would be great, assuming the necessary conduits and eyeballs are available.

God survived Time magazine in 1966; I suspect the web will survive Wired’s obituary—skull-with-“www”-for-teeth and all—as well. There has been considerable quibbling about Wired’s analysis, based as it is on bandwidth rather than number of uses or users. Point taken, but not the point.

I know for sure, though, that we don’t want to be on the sidelines as people make their choices. High school dodgeball games do end, eventually; the teams being formed now might well be for keeps . . . but that’s another story.

Joe Janes is associate professor at the Information School of the University of Washington.


With a Little Help from Our Friends

It's time to develop a new mix of knowledge