The first time I visited the Internet with a capital I and a lot of curiosity, I connected by 33.6k modem to the phone jack and dialed into a Prodigy hub. I fired up Netscape Navigator and typed in to tucows.com, the only site I knew. Boy was the content sparse! I turned to my dad and said, “Where is all the fun stuff? And why is it so slow?” Empty and hard to navigate, my initial impression of the internet was that was a huge waste of time. Of course, that would all change in short order as the internet bloomed in quality content, discoverability and developed a sense of community.As you’ll remember, during the late 90s the web got bigger and fuller and we developed sites to aggregate all the great content using ODP and Yahoo to provide a map. Over time, the map got so large that it was unmanageable and finding what you were looking for became too difficult. So we got fed up of trying to understand the totality of the web, and decided we only wanted the part that was relevant to us at that particular moment. That demand/need gave rise to the effective search engine which helped us discover new content without having to navigate or understand through the whole map – it simply pointed us to quadrant E4, the Amazon landing page for War and Peace.
Having solved that portion of the discovery problem for explicit search well enough, we decided that when we found cool things (implicit search/browse), and there were cool things cropping up all the time, we wanted to share them with friends and we used email and chat to share them, the latter enabled us to share links and content progressively quicker than the former. But these were point to point transactions/sharing and by and large they weren’t permanent.
Social networks then developed, codifying the links between people, and enabling persistent and public sharing of content. It was this kind of sharing that gave rise to YouTube, among others. And now, because of the advantage of sharing scale (or precision with Facebook Connect) and speed, social networks have now surpassed email in terms of time on site.
In fact, this phenomenon is happening to such a degree that for a subset of sites, and mind you relatively large ones including Evite, Tagged and Twitter, Facebook is now referring more traffic than Google. In other words, the modality for content discovery is hitting a tipping point, when we’re no longer asking an engine to find the quadrant, rather we’re asking the collective intelligence of our networks to pinpoint it, leveraging the work and the filters of others. Because oftentimes when we’re searching, our queries aren’t interpreted correctly, or when we’re bored and not sure what we’re looking for, it’s pretty likely that at least one of our best friends has stumbled upon at least a remotely interesting YouTube video.
These social networks in all likelihood will be able to provide us better search experiences by developing systems that take advantage of the algorithmic analysis developed over the past 10-15 years in search combined with human filters which as a result of social networks can now be quantified, characterized and applied to our queries whether explicit or implicit.