Tom Webster, writing and speaking

Back To The Browse

Added on by Tom Webster.

Some years back, I attended a talk by Dean Hachamovich, who heads up the IE team at Microsoft. Dean recounted what he saw at the time as the three phases of the Internet. We began with "Browse," when we all got our first AOL accounts and search wasn't very good. We killed a lot of time this way. Then, search got a whole lot better, and we didn't have to rely on vertically-scrolling monstrosities of portal pages to find what we needed. This new era, the "Search" phase, made things much more efficient, as directed information-gathering replaced much of the inefficient browsing we used to do for information.

I think I saw this talk back in 2005, which is when Dean indicated we were on the cusp of the next, third phase of the Internet - "Subscribe." Though he saw search continuing to be the dominant paradigm in the near term, he believed that continuing development of RSS and other tools would empower consumers to search once, and subscribe to those searches to get information, which would be an even more efficient way to interact with the Internet than Search.

A funny thing happened to that model in the past couple of years, however: social media. About half of all Americans have a profile on one or more social media sites, and while subscribe remains one of the dominant paradigms, it has morphed from subscribing to information streams into subscribing to people.

I thought about these models today when I saw a tweet from Jeff Jarvis about Bit.ly's recent growth, and how more Bit.ly links were decoded in May (4.7 Billion) than Google links to publishers (about 4 Billion). It struck me that when I click on a Google link, it's because I searched for something. I knew exactly what I wanted, and I'm good at search. A lot of us are, now.

What I do when I click on most Bit.ly links, however, is something entirely different. If you think about the URL-shortened links you typically click on, I bet you'll find that you come across these the same way I do - on social media platforms, through some kind of sharing mechanism. In short (pun intended), you found them while browsing.

In truth, what advances in search and subscribe have really done for us is to give us better filters for browsing. We like to browse. In fact, we need to browse. True, the ability to search for and find exactly the information we need is crucial. But what about the information we don't need - or better, don't yet know that we need? My wife the scientist tells me that the only difference between basic science and applied science is that basic science just hasn't been applied - yet. Making serendipitous connections, seemingly at random, is how many breakthroughs really happen. What precedes great discoveries often isn't "Eureka!" but rather, "that's funny..."

In my world, we call this "Undirected Knowledge Discovery." Data Mining. You might call it "browsing."

Long live the browse.