Internet: The Next Generation
SO, you've undoubtedly heard of the Internet and you've probably actually connected at least a few times and surfed the World Wide Web. But, are you at all impressed with what you've found out there? If you're like most people, you have yet to understand what all the hype is about. Once the novelty wears off, there isn't much to DO out there and that's not so much the fault of the medium as it is of the industry.
This medium is still in its infancy, and like all children, it's a little too early to figure out what it's going to be when it grows up (remember television's start--or the telephone's?). It's obvious that it will be something interesting, in fact, there's no doubt that it will be important, but just what exactly will it do for us? I believe that what we've seen of it so far isn't even close. In fact, we've been pretty bad at predicting the impact and developments of technology in general. Remember Interactive Television? Remember the great CD-ROM gold rush of 1994? These are fickle industries driven by optimism and futurism more than by experience and understanding.
So, what will happen? Well, that answer won't be decided for several years to come, but, part of it lies in an old place called, the past. Think about life 10 years ago, 20, 50, even 100 years ago. Think back as far as you can remember. Now, what do you remember doing? What are those memories that are strongest, most lively, and most cherished? Were you with someone you loved? Were you doing something? Did you meet someone or make something? Chances are, your memories have nothing to do with technology--and not just high technology and the Internet, but ANY technology. While technology can help enable or mediate experiences--even experiences which were never before possible--most meaningful experiences are the result of people interacting together or personal discoveries that are more important than the technologies themselves.
What people did years ago are just about the same things they're doing now. The activities they found valuable (working, loving, building, learning, spending time with family and friends) are pretty much the same things they do today--and will in the future. The point is: how much of these things can you do on the Internet? After you've satisfied your curiosity by cruising 1000 websites, how many will you come back to? What amount of what you've seen will even matter to you next year? Aside from those of you building websites, I would wager that very little of it matters--yet. Again, this is not the fault of the medium, but of us, those responsible for building much of this temporary, ultimately meaningless "content" and for-the-most-part anything BUT interactive experiences.
If we don't learn about creating great interactions, then we should expect the same backlash that decimated most of the CD-ROM industry over the last two years. The tremendous hype surrounding the Internet and these technologies have already raised expectations to an unrealistic level. Need examples? OK, have you ever been to a travel website that really felt like anything remotely approximating "virtual travel" or with the depth of an inexpensive, 5 year old travel guide? Have you seen a website that's made you feel creative? That's taught you something interesting? That's asked for your opinion? Now, there are a few good examples--just not enough. Bank of America's website for instance, is a model for financial institutions. It's becoming a personalized bank to help manage your finances and not merely learn about new checking account offers or check your balance? But where are the others and will current sites evolve into these new species in time?
These next-generation websites will be the mammals who survive the next Internet era when the dinosaurs fade away. What differentiates them is that they create a place in which you can experience something--in which you can DO something more than simply read text on a screen. Successful websites over the next year will need to create places in which people can identify themselves, share something of themselves, and meet others with similar (or divergent) interests and opinions. They will need to offer their audience tools with which to make things of value, follow their interests, communicate, or discover something new. These next-generation websites will need to adapt themselves to individuals, treating each person differently from others based on their abilities and their interests. They may need to have attitude or offer anonymity, or carefully do both.
When you walk into stores you frequent, the people there may recognize you and tell you about a special on your favorite ice cream, or not bother you with one on patent leather shoes if they know you only wear sneakers. Have you ever seen a shopping website do this? Have you ever seen a shopping site that does anything approximating shopping other than the actual purchase (the final step in a long, complex experience)? I haven't seen many things to buy (or places to buy them) on the Internet that even rival direct mail catalogs, let alone stepping foot into a store, or cruising the mall with a friend. I haven't seen any sites that remember my purchases and recommend things based on them, offer advice or suggestions, or even remember my sizes. Any site that wants my business better understand that shopping is more than buying and that merchandising is more than selling. Otherwise, I'll just stick to the stores and catalogs.
Lasting experiences (and lasting websites), whether for shopping or any other purpose, will be those which are competitive with non-technical experiences. For example, if a shopping website isn't any more interesting, useful, or fulfilling than going to Nordstrom's, watching QVC, flipping the pages of a Body Shop catalog, or hiring a personal shopper, then don't expect it to move much merchandise--or be around for long. You're not competing with other websites, you're competing with every other experience that has anything to do with your products, services, or ideas.
Only those who understand how to evolve and build interesting experiences on the Internet will survive and these will only appear when audiences begin to demand experiences that are truly interactive, that catch their attention, and do something valuable, like the other experiences in their lives.
San Francisco Examiner
21 April 1996
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