Hands up, who remembers the Internet during the late 1990s?
For those of you who don’t remember the Internet before Google came to prominence, let me explain. There were a great number of ‘portals’, sites whose purpose was to aggregate content and provide access to it in a single place. Yahoo is probably the biggest that still survives, but AOL, MSNBC, iGoogle and so on are plenty of other strong examples.
And during the late 1990s as the Internet began to reach the social consciousness, portals were all the rage – but soon after declined, and one of the causes is innovation.
Portals offered (and those that still exist as horizontal portals, like Yahoo, still offer) content from a wide range of sources, but your view is biased based on what you are presented with.
And for many people, their choice of portal skewed how they saw the web, a factor that was strongly eroded by Google’s rise to dominance as a search engine – its innovations in the search field began to weaken the potential value of portals; instead of relying on portals to provide information, users could find what they wanted, how they wanted.
But it doesn’t end there – in fact, far from it. You see, Google coming to power is only the first step in the innovations that have spread across the web; it empowered users to find information themselves, in the on-demand manner to which we are becoming all too accustomed.
But it still relies on you going to find that information, and what users want is to be told when there are changes instead of having to check – at which point newsletters and later, RSS, came in. RSS was the big innovator here, really – instead of emails going out and often going into the trash bin, users could grab access to a pipe containing the information they really wanted.
What you’ve got then is the ability for users to not only find information they want, when they want, but the ability to request updates on the things they are interested in, when it is available, without the issues associated with email. Even with this small step, it is clear the power is moving from content producers to content consumers; instead of publishers publishing lumps of content once a month, they can publish it piecemeal for users to consume as it happens – even compare newspapers with online news via RSS feed.
That’s two for two on the death of portals, and two of the three big steps we’ve taken in the last decade. The third is social networking.
Imagine – users have already got the power to consume content piecemeal through feeds, articles on their own rather than an entire magazine’s worth, stories as they happen rather than waiting for the newspaper, and even in most cases the ability to focus on types of story they’re interested in.
The real power of innovation, though, was when someone had the idea to allow – even help – users to share that content. So instead of just discovering content based on what it is, you can see what your friends – like minded people, presumably – are also discovering, and unilaterally discover more content you probably like as opposed to things you won’t.
There’s a real innovation there – the ability to share thoughts with like-minded people far faster than ever before in history. The ability to cascade ideas and share things in a viral manner, as each person has different friends – and it is far from unheard of to see links being posted on one or other of the social networks, to see it go around and eventually come back to the person who initially started it.
This change is not without its own perils, though, and next time I’ll explore the consequences, and what may lie ahead for the social generation, in terms of innovation.