The Order of the Web

August 6, 2009

Restricted AccessOrder is the essential ingredient in a modernist culture, where hierarchical authority is the skeleton around which everything is built. A century ago, Henry Adams wrote that "the way of nature is chaos, but the dream of man is order." However, order is really the dream of the haves, or those who can exploit it to become one of the haves. Order is a control mechanism, and while it serves humankind well in many ways, it best serves the status quo.

The Web disrupts many things, but its biggest cultural influence is that it disrupts hierarchical order. It does so by turning order on its head, for individuals have the power, not institutions.

One of order's weapons is restricted access, a little gem that is so prevalent in our culture that we take it for granted. Telephone answering systems, for example, are less about customer service than they are tools for restricting access. Ever try to speak with a real human being in, for example, the government's immigration department?

As consumers, we confront these restrictions every day, and most of us wouldn't dream of violating them. Why go through the "Employees Only" door, for example? Laws are written to protect the culture's systems of order. Ever heard of a TV show called "Law & Order?" However, occasionally something comes up where such barriers pose serious impediments for those in need, and we have to find ways around them. I've been in the media for a long time, so I know, for example, that the easiest path to the CEO is often to by-pass the company's restrictions and go through the public relations department.

Restricted access is upside-down on the Web, because it's not about institutions restricting access from us; it's about us restricting access from them.

The Web disrupts hierarchical order by creating an order of its own, because the infrastructure itself isn't hierarchical. Links challenge institutional authority by taking people to information's sources, essentially saying, "We don't need learned experts, because the expert's knowledge is at my fingertips." And if knowledge is just a mouse click away, there's no need to trust people whose knowledge grants them "expert" status in the culture. After all, they're generally in it for themselves anyway. This is a great threat to the status quo and the order it uses to maintain control, but what the modernist views as chaos is actually a different form of order, and the real question for culture in the 21st Century is who or what will be the governor of all of this?

Those of us in media look at this disruption as our enemy, and justifiably so. The reality is that the technological innovations of the Web have birthed a certain irrelevance for traditional media companies, whose business model is built around advertising attached to (formerly) scarce content. Businesses don't need us anymore to reach customers or potential customers, and this is the real threat to all media. In this sense, the people formerly known as our advertisers are by-passing our system of order, and we should be concerned.

Ben BolesThe Jerry Damson Automotive Group in North Alabama is my client. Ben Boles is the head of digital operations there, and he maintains six websites, 250 microsites, a blog, four eBay stores, four YouTube channels, a large Facebook presence, a video production company, email marketing software, and he serves his own online ads. In every way, Jerry Damson Automotive functions as a new media company, and a big one at that. Boles understands the Web like few others, and his primary focus these days isn't traditional advertising.

"Every minute of every day is spent thinking about the consequences of our decisions as it relates to Google," he told me recently. This remarkable statement is one that more advertisers will be making as they, too, grow in their understanding of the Web and how advertising can by-pass anybody's system of order.

We begin each chunk (morning, mid-day, afternoon and evening) of the day with Google Analytics. The easy stuff is obvious — where does your web traffic live and what are they consuming? Google tells us this thru Analytics. But our custom tracking is what sets us apart and the live, real-time reporting of what works and what doesn't — when correlated with logs from our ad-server — paints the picture of what's working and what's not. We have tagged thousands of ads with custom tracking on websites all over the world to determine what is working and how sites are operating. In most cases, we can tell what's happening on someone else's website just as fast as they can from our data alone. It's that rich. Google Analytics facilitates this.

Boles is far ahead of most, but others will catch up, for people like him are paving the way for a future generation of new strategies and tactics that enable commerce.

While this is certainly threatening to traditional media companies, the threat blinds us to fact that the same tools that enable Boles to reach across traditional advertising can also be used by us to reach across the hindrances that we face in taking our messages to the masses. Instead of always being buffeted by the disruptions, we should be using them to benefit ourselves.

TwitterTwitter is just one of many examples. The technology that runs Twitter is the most advanced notification system man has ever created, and we're just beginning to understand the many uses for such an application. The objective for media company participants is to gain followers, something that is easy to do when you have a big legacy property driving the train. But the secret of Twitter — and the real reason media people need to be using it — is not the people following any reporter; it's the people following the people who are following the reporter.

Let's take the case of a TV anchor with 5,000 Twitter followers. We can safely assume that those people are fans of this particular anchor, and it's also logical to assume that these people are likewise fans of the TV station for which the anchor works. Therefore, sending tweets to this group is another way of serving the same audience that the anchor already reaches on-the-air. It's a nice use of Twitter, but it produces a shoulder shrug and a "so what," until we look beneath the surface.

Twitter's own data reveals that the average active Twitter user has 100 followers. Therefore, the potential reach of our anchor is 500,000, if every follower retweeted something from the anchor. Moreover — and more importantly — those people are not necessarily fans of either the anchor or the anchor's TV station, so the act of retweeting by-passes the station's reach and adds a whole new weapon in the quest to "sell" that anchor to the broader audience. Twitter frees television personalities from bondage to the crumbs of the promotion department, and yet we fight it, "because it's more work." It disrupts the system of order that traditional media companies all accept as a way of doing business in the "real" world and exploits the powerful concept of friend referrals that is the bread and butter of a hyperconnected universe.

And it doesn't cost a dime.

Ben Boles is building microsites, because it helps him with organic results in Google searches. By creating sites based on the keywords that people already use to find cars in North Alabama, he is reaching beyond the Damson Automotive Group's conventional reach. Since he already runs his own server, the cost of these microsites is only the $6.95 annual fee from GoDaddy for the domain name that matches the keyword search.

This may seem like heady stuff, but it is practiced every hour of every day by people who understand that the Web has its own system of order and that it's built around the searching of an enormous database. As David Weinberger so brilliantly pointed out in his book Everything Is Miscellaneous, Google organizes information for people "on the way out" instead of the traditional system of organizing things before people begin looking. Ever wonder why the bread bowls aren't in the soup section of the deli at the supermarket? Because somebody has decided that they belong in the bread aisle. One person's logic is another's foolishness, and this is Weinberger's point about organizing information on the way out. Let the searcher determine the organization.

This is the Web's system of order, and it's why vast portal websites, with information organized "on the way in" simply cannot compete with search.

RSS symbolAnother disruption to order that traditional media companies refuse to participate with is RSS, really simple syndication. RSS is an XML application that separates content from the form in which it was originally presented. People who subscribe to an RSS "feed," therefore, can bring specific items from the database that is the Web to their own desktops. In other words, I can read a story from a media company without "visiting" that company's website. Most media companies offer RSS feeds to consumers, but very few provide what's known as "full feed," choosing instead to "tease" people in an effort to force them to the company's website in order to read the story. This is not how the technology was created to work.

Blinded by the laws of mass marketing, we seem unable to fully unbundle our "content" and release it into the wild. The belief is that we lose our ability to "monetize" that content, if we let it go, but this narrow view closes the door to revenue possibilities heretofore not practiced. Ads "as items" in the RSS feed of a traditional media company aren't viable, if everything in the feed is a link back to a portal website. This has to change.

And because RSS items each have their own link, they, too, can be passed around the hyperconnected world of the Web. This is another way to participate in the friend-based, referral-driven, real-time social Web. The world of RSS ads has yet to be created, but its creation is inevitable.

The Web has certainly disrupted things for media companies. Our orderly way of doing things — gathering an audience around our stage — has been trampled by a new order. At first, it appears chaotic, counterintuitive and impossible to understand, but it's really quite simple. Here are ten characteristics of the order of the web:

  1. Hyperconnectivity produces an order that is horizontal, not vertical.
  2. The routing of information is through connections, not one-to-many.
  3. It is held together by a common goal, the acquiring of knowledge to better oneself or one's life.
  4. The first rule of business is the accumulation of friends, not "consumers."
  5. Friends like to be asked, not told, and if asked nicely, will respond accordingly.
  6. Attraction works; promotion doesn't.
  7. Unbundled items are easier to pass along to others than those that are bundled.
  8. Its economy is based on links, for links have a real (dollar) value. It just hasn't been calculated yet.
  9. Advertising is a form of content — information — that is subject to the order of the Web.
  10. Its denizens, whether organizations or individuals, all function as publishers or broadcasters.

This is the essence of all that is Media 2.0. We are who we employ, for an accumulation of individual voices is stronger than combining those to produce only one. Where access is restricted for one, it may not be restricted for another, for such decisions aren't hierarchical; they are made one-by-one. This is the new order, and those who wish to prosper are required to play by its rules.