Thursday, February 20, 2014

Web Industry Jargonauts Versus The Real World

The Internet has significantly changed the world. In a lot of ways it has made the world a smaller place by making it easy to communicate and share ideas openly and across vast distances like never before. However, there's a big disconnect between those of us who work the web and those who simply use it like an appliance or as an occasional stand-in for their TV and that disconnect may end up ruining the whole thing for everybody.

Take a minute and talk to the average Internet user about what they do online and most will say they use email, play games, chat on a social network, watch videos, shop, pay bills, or find information. Then ask them if they know how any of that stuff works. They'll say no and the truth is they don't care how it works. It just does and is relatively easy to use, so they use it.

Now strike up a conversation with somebody who works in the web world. For example, a programmer, a data analyst, designer, content creator, search marketing optimizer, or network technician and ask them what they do online. They'll say they do all the same things the average user does, but they also do a lot more. These web professionals do care about how the things they do online work and they are almost constantly immersed in the technology behind the scenes. The conversation will include all kinds of technical details, acronyms, web slang, jargon, etc. To the average user, it all sounds like a foreign language.

This level of interest difference between the makers of the web and the users of the web is becoming a problem. But before getting into the details of that, lets consider some numbers for some perspective. The total estimated U.S. population at the end of 2011 was around 313 million and the estimated number of employed Americans at that time was about 154 million. According to a study by the Interactive Advertising Bureau and the Harvard Business School done in 2012, just 5.1 million U.S. jobs could be traced directly or indirectly to the Internet in 2011.

There's no doubt those numbers are different today, but proportionally they are probably close to, if not still, the same and those proportions are probably mirrored around the world in other countries. The important thing to note is that there's a relatively small number of people in charge of producing what a much larger number of people like to do and consume online. The problem that is arising is that those relatively few are making the tools of the web more often for themselves and less so for the average user. The result is an increasing disinterest by most average users to ever be anything but that and a kind of elitist attitude by the technophiles of the world toward anyone not willing to engage at the same level that they do.

The playbook is always the same and we've seen it repeated several times now. A single visionary or small team of individuals solve a simple problem with a simple solution. Or they create a simple application to make life easier or more enjoyable in some way. Everybody loves it and it gets shared like wildfire and becomes a great success. Then over time, that small group doing simple things turns into a corporate juggernaut and whatever they do gets made less simple and less easy to use. It's updated and adapted to do more complex and complicated things because the tech heads can't just leave well enough alone. Eventually, that simple solution to a simple problem levels off and stagnates or disappears altogether because it's too complicated for the average person to use anymore. Or, even worse, it becomes a whole new problem in itself to a new generation of users who don't really want to deal with it, but because it's now a ubiquitous part of the web, they have no choice.

Joe The Plumber
This pattern is so common now that I find the average user more disinterested than ever. Sure they still use the web for all the same things, but therein lies the problem. They're not doing anything new. I actually know lots of people who check their email maybe once per week and pay their bills online and that's it. Don't we as web pros want the average user to get more deeply involved in some way? Shouldn't we be making the web and all the tools that make it work easier and more useful for everyone? I know you think you are, but here's a newsflash. You're not.

Let's look at search for instance. Yes, the search engines have gotten better at providing relevant results. But really, how much better? It's still not uncommon for someone looking for red shoes to get a search result that includes 8 out of 10 sites on the first page all selling the same pair of red shoes for exactly the same price. How helpful is that?

Or what about when you search for some kind of very specific information (ex. number of blue sedans sold in the U.S. 2012) and all you get is totally irrelevant results. You know that information is available somewhere. Why can't any search engine produce it? When the average user runs into results like these two examples, their disinterest only grows because there's no opportunity for them to contribute and make things better.

Pro web folks will argue that it is easier than ever for casual users to contribute and participate online now because of the rise of social media, youtube, and all the various do-it-yourself point and click blogging, website, and creative option outlets that are available. That is true, however, none of those options are worth anything to anyone if what gets created can't be found or doesn't get some level of recognition for who made it. Who is going to keep producing something if nobody ever sees it and the originator gets no benefit?

The days of the average user creating something online and it getting seen by a significant number of real people based on it's own merits are just about over. Yes, it still happens, but today when it does it is due to more luck than skill or merit. Only the pros have the time and the knowledge to hit all the right ratios of words, know the right signals to trigger, the right egos to stroke, and the right pockets to paper to consistently get their creations recognized. That may be good for some now, but it's not good for all in the long run.

We're at a crossroads now where an even smaller few have most of the influence over what gets found online due to changes in how search works. Big brands with deep pockets and tight-knit groups of savvy marketers, who only help each other out, control what gets found where. Social media is the new wild west, but that's only temporary as it is obvious that the big players are already learning how to manipulate that too.

big money tips the scales
What originally made the Internet great was the level playing field it made. The Mom & Pop shop could compete for space at the top of a search result just by following some simple, basic rules with a no-frills website that provided an appreciated service that people linked to. That's it. It was that simple. They didn't have to concern themselves with any kind of technical, behind the scenes stuff, or complicated formulas that nobody really knows the answer to. Then the pros started manipulating things and abusing that simplicity to try and "make things better". Now here we are 10 years later and search is not really all that much better, but the Mom & Pop shop has virtually no chance of getting to the top of the search results anymore without a lot of expense or hassle. It's so bad now that many of them don't even want try after hearing horror stories from their peers.

That possibility for that level of opportunity is what drove interest and adoption of the internet so quickly in the early years. Now that same level of interest is waning and the result is a vast user base that will never do anything more than just scratch the surface of what is currently possible. If we as web pros don't recognize that and start finding ways to simplify access to tangible benefits by average users who have better things to do than study algorithm theories all day then the web will be vulnerable to complacency and severe fragmentation. It will be all Pros and no average Joes. When that happens, we're all screwed because there's never going to be enough of just us to keep us all employed.