The Role of Context In Growth

In 1989, Tim Berners-Lee was working at CERN when he committed an “act of desperation”, linking hypertext to the Transmission Control Protocol and the domain name system. It was an act that is known to us today as the World Wide Web. By integrating these highly fragmented documentation systems, he created a fundamental way for ideas and people to better connect.


And connect we did. The launch of the Web gave rise to a proliferation of pages upon pages that ultimately rendered Yahoo’s directory obsolete and drove up the value that Google’s search algorithms offered. Now, we’ve been steadily stumbling towards a new pivotal moment as exabytes of content are being generated daily. Berners-Lee’s World Wide Web has been a success. A staggering one. 

However, even Berners-Lee now believes a new paradigm must evolve from the existing Web he created: 

“As more interactive ‘read/write’ technologies (e.g. Wikis, blogs and photo/video sharing) and social networking sites have proliferated, the truly profound nature of this change is being felt. To understand and enable a new generation of social machines, we must start by re-envisioning the way large communities of users interact with the growing masses of information available on the Web.”

The success of the Web has led to a simultaneously awe-inspiring and overwhelming sea of information floating within a highly fragmented ecosystem, surfaced only by the correct combination of search terms via Google or a serendipitous share from a friend through Facebook. New channels of discovery remain cluttered, with machines taking stabs at recommendations, with algorithms desperately clustering away to look for patterns in browsing behaviors from the quintillion bytes of data growing every second someone is online.

Phase 1: Complexity Sets The Foundation For Context

Abundance yields complexity. With the dizzying growth of mobile, the amount of data constantly generated has put us in a temporary glut, fueling the red-hot demand for data scientists tasked to make sense of all the bits and bytes. 

“Every program attempts to expand until it can read mail. Those programs which cannot so expand are replaced by ones which can.” Zawinski's Law 

The top platforms and their incumbents have been diligently attacking all phases of information complexity: Aggregation, Search, Curation and Creation. It’s clear that information overload is creating inefficiency. Millions of hours are spent browsing and searching online for the perfect shoes for a holiday party, homeopathic cures for an illness, or even the love of your life. Entire industries (read: advertising) have had to pivot to remain relevant and break through the noise. 

Text, photo, video, voice, location, temperature, speed: any data that can be captured is being captured. This massive volume of information creates new opportunities for businesses to cater experiences to people based on rich data. Instead of having people sort through massive volumes of information. Computers and communities are going to grow in importance as curation makes information more accessible.

Phase 2: Communities And Chat Accelerating Curation of Information

Platforms like reddit, Facebook and Twitter have been pivotal in creating communities that help weed through all this complexity. By harnessing the masses, platforms help define relevance with each upvote, like, or retweet through the viral dynamics of social networks.

These platforms have the power to set off tornados of conversation around trending topics globally, acting as a real-time pulse for the current state of thought of communities worldwide. Social has completely transformed how we experience information, with the algorithmically curated newsfeed becoming a dominant user experience interface of our time. Messaging is next to lead a new wave of transformation (great read on the Economist here and a16z podcast here).

Over 3 billion users are on the top ten messaging apps, including WhatsApp and WeChat. How often are people chatting about booking a vacation to Barcelona or which restaurant to go to next? The sheer volume of textual data generated creates juicy prospects for context-driven commerce opportunities. While many may bemoan each new messaging app that crops up, many aim to fill specific communication needs. Snapchat (obviously) fills the need for impermanent expression whereas Slack provide highly searchable, organized communication. 

Messaging is at essence information curation, with 1:1 chat interactions representing the purest form of personalization. Your best friend can send you a link to an article via Whatsapp with a 99% likelihood that you will love it while machine-driven algorithms operate at significantly lower likelihoods, most of the time still throwing spaghetti on the wall to see what sticks. Curation via interaction is why Slack, Whatsapp, Snapchat and all the other crop of messaging apps are pivotal actors in the movement towards context. 

Phase 3: A Collective Consciousness And The Co-Creation of Meaning

Meaning is created through a shared cultural experience of language, customs, and technologies. However, with the sheer volume of memes and hashtags flying around on the web these days, misinterpretation and misappropriation is inevitable (read: DiGorno Is Really Really Sorry). To combat complexity that may muddle meaning, context is crucial and a Web of fragmented pieces of information stored on separate web pages is becoming inadequate.

Alone, separate pages and platforms do not have enough data to fully “understand” someone. However, if data were aggregated, a far more complete picture of an individual’s knowledge and interests could be created. This leads to a two important byproducts: higher quality of information and higher personalization of information. By breaking down walled gardens and leveraging APIs, more complete datasets can become the solid foundation for contextually driven solutions.

Because information provokes interaction and platforms facilitate interaction, collectively we can intelligently curate information faster. Platforms which successfully enable the curation of information through methods combining man and machine hold the keys to unlocking a future in which friction in our daily lives is removed.

Context gives you exactly what you need, when you need it, whether it's helping you find the perfect unicorn costume for the next party or the most optimal flight for your upcoming vacation. It's about making data human by intelligently interpreting human-generated data.

The next wave of technological progress will be driven by data-driven context. The future of information is moving towards exactly what Tim Berners-Lee called for: new interaction models that are driven by the social machines governing the information that people consume and the manner in which they consume it.

As the complexity of the Web increases, so will the need for context, shaped by the four dominant forces of our time: real-time, participatory, co-creation, and curation.

Victoria YoungComment